Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — After a season in which it set a school record for losses, fell to Western Athletic Conference opponent Missouri-Kansas City to open the year and won fewer games than the matching football squad across Champions Drive, the Missouri basketball team has, presumably, nowhere to go this season but up.
That climb begins tonight against the Wofford Terriers (8 p.m., SEC Network-Plus) at Mizzou Arena.
Five players are gone from the Missouri team that went 9-23 overall last season (3-15 Southeastern Conference) — including three of its four leading scorers.
Johnathan Williams III, whose 11.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 0.6 blocks per game were all team highs, transferred to Gonzaga after his sophomore year. Montaque Gill-Caesar, who scored 9.1 points per game as a freshman at Missouri, transferred to San Diego State. Keith Shamburger, who scored 8.8 points per game and dished out a team-high 3.9 rebounds per game, graduated.
Also gone is Keanau Post, the team’s tallest and heaviest player last year, Deuce Bello, who transferred to East Tennessee State after logging the fewest minutes of any scholarship player, and 6-foot-10 walk-on Hayden Barnard.
Of course, on the other side of that coin is a fresh batch of new faces in black and gold this season.
The team added four scholarship freshmen in the offseason, 5-foot-11 guard Terrence Phillips, 6-foot-3 guard K.J. Walton, 6-foot-7 forward Kevin Puryear and 6-foot-4 guard Cullen VanLeer. Also new to the team are John A. Logan College (Ill.) transfers Martavian Payne, a 6-foot-2 junior guard, and Russell Woods, a 6-foot-8 junior forward.
Add the newbies, subtract the departures and carry the second-year coach Kim Anderson, and the Tigers will look to rebound with a team short on experience and height.
“This freshman class has come in, and they’ve been very well coached,” Anderson said. “Not saying the other guys weren’t, but they’ve been very well coached in their high-school situations and they kind of understand maybe a little more about what we expect.
“It is hard when you get a new coach come in like (they did). I walk in here last year in May, and you’ve got these guys, and another coach recruited them and another coach talked to them during recruiting, so then I come in and I’m talking different. Different ideas. And so I think that, hopefully this group’s more comfortable.”
They looked it last Friday against Missouri Western. The Tigers went off for 92 points, which doesn’t hurt for a team that struggled to score last year, even if it was in exhibition play.
“It gives you confidence for Wofford and for games moving forward,” Walton said. “So to see it go (through the hoop) that much was definitely good.”
The Tigers could use something good after last year’s poor showing.
“It was depressing at times,” said Ryan Rosburg, the team’s lone senior. “Every aspect of your life, it seemed like (in) the back of your mind was how the season went and how it finished, and it was motivating also, too, just to get back out and do things better.”
The new players have helped with that, Rosburg said.
“I think that it brought a lot of life to the program, knowing that when we had new guys it was a new year, it was a new start, and we couldn’t really dwell on the past,” Rosburg said. “Because we’ve got six new guys, and just a brand new perspective, so it was definitely refreshing.”
Though they weren’t here for Anderson’s first season, the new additions are fully aware of how tough it was on the returning players.
“We always say we’re moving on to bigger and better things this season, but of course we’re still angry about last season,” said Puryear, whose Blue Springs South team won a state title in March at the Mizzou Arena. “We still have a chip on our shoulder about last season. I think the biggest thing for us freshmen is we want to help the guys from last year that had to endure that. We don’t want them to do endure that again.”
Returning at guard for Missouri is 6-foot junior Wes Clark, 6-foot sophomore, 6-foot-5 sophomore Namon Wright, and at forward 6-foot-7 sophomore D’Angelo Allen and 6-foot-8 Jakeenan Gant. With a lack of size on the roster, the Tigers will try to play an up-tempo brand of basketball, as they did against Missouri Western.
“Our point guards, especially, are just so quick with the ball,” Rosburg said. “They really put it on defenses, so I think that that could be an identity for us this year. And since we don’t have extreme height like some other teams, we’ve got a lot of quick, athletic guys and can use that to our advantage.”
In addition to playing an exhibition against the Griffons, the Tigers played a scrimmage last month against Creighton.
“It was probably the best thing that could happen to us,” Walton said of the scrimmage. “Because … it woke us up, and it told us, (we’ve) got to bring it no matter who it is, Wofford, no matter what, you’ve got to bring it.”
Phillips added: “We took a lot from that scrimmage. We took some good and we took some bad, and that bad, we just (got) much better, especially the practices after Creighton.”
The Tigers needed whatever preparation they could get, considering the tough start to their season. Wofford was a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season, and nearly knocked off Arkansas, missing two potentially game-tying 3s in the closing minute.
Anderson said that with such a young team, he wouldn’t have minded opening the year against a team “maybe not quite as good as Wofford.” The Tigers lost their first game under Anderson last year to UMKC.
“We have a ton of respect for Wofford,” Puryear said. “They’re a great team. Won 20-plus game and traditionally a pretty good program, so that would definitely be a statement win for us.”
Things don’t get any easier after tonight. Missouri opens with three games in five days, playing Maryland-Eastern Shore at home Sunday and traveling Tuesday to play at Xavier.
“That kind of stress, I’m not really used to that,” Puryear said. “Because (in) high school there’s nothing like that ever, so I’m kind of embracing it, just enjoying the ride.”
Rosburg has had such stretches in his time at Missouri.
“I would say just the time that you’ve got to put into it” is the most difficult part, Rosburg said. “Just because we play Friday night and you’ve got to prepare all Saturday and then you play Sunday and you’ve got to prepare all Monday.
“It’s just back-to-back-to-back stuff, and you learn all this stuff about one team and right away you’ve got to switch it to another team.”