Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
The Missouri men’s basketball team has won three consecutive games for the first time under second-year coach Kim Anderson.
None of those wins came against Arizona.
Though the 5-3 Tigers appear to have made strides from last season, a 9-23 dud in Anderson’s first lap, Missouri is still looking for its first non-conference win against a team from a major conference since Frank Haith’s departure.
The Tigers get a string of chances to do so this month, with perhaps the most difficult matchup coming tonight against the No. 13 Wildcats in Tucson, Ariz.
“Obviously, a great opportunity for us to go play one of the top programs in the country,” Anderson said. “It’ll be a tough game for us down there, but we’re looking forward to it.”
The Tigers are coming off wins against Arkansas State, Northern Illinois and Omaha, having defeated Wofford and Maryland-Eastern Shore earlier this season. But it’s Missouri’s losses that might prepare them most for today’s game.
The Tigers lost consecutive games to Xavier, Kansas State and Northwestern last month, Missouri’s only games against teams that aren’t mid-majors. Missouri hung tough against Xavier, which currently is ranked a spot above Arizona in the AP Top 25. Kansas State, which received a vote in the most recent USA Today Coaches Poll, blew out the Tigers, and Missouri didn’t recover the next night in time to come back against Northwestern.
“As far as league play and our non-conference schedule, we’ve already had games like (today’s),” freshman Kevin Puryear said. “Xavier being a great team, Northwestern being a Big Ten team, K-State being a great Big 12 team. I think we’ve been prepared for opponents like (Arizona) because we’ve already played tough teams, so I would say this is just another addition to (a) strong schedule.”
Puryear’s only game this year in which he scored fewer than 10 points came against Kansas State. That experience against a more physical defense could pay dividends today.
“I’d say we definitely have to come out swinging, we can’t play lax, we can’t let them hit us first,” Puryear said. “We have to be the aggressors, and we’ve shown spurts of that, and we just need to come up with the plan and execute the plan.”
The Tigers have started games strong during their winning streak. Missouri took early leads of 13-0 and 12-0 against Arkansas State and Northern Illinois, respectively, and snagged a 30-18 first-half lead after an up-and-down first few minutes against Omaha. The problems have come later in games, when things have gotten more interesting down the stretch than the Tigers would have liked.
“You can’t afford to have that lapse,” Anderson said. “I do think what these games have shown us is we have to play harder all the time. You can’t take a break. You can’t back off for a while and relax. We’ve done that some, and you can’t do that against Arizona. You might be able to get away with that with some teams, but you can’t do that against Arizona.”
Missouri and Arizona faced one another last year in the Maui Invitational. Missouri was within seven points at half of Arizona, then ranked No. 3. But the Wildcats pulled away for a 72-53 win in which Missouri shot just 36 percent from the field.
Much has changed since then, though. The Wildcats’ three leading scorers declared for the NBA Draft, and their fourth-leading scorer graduated. Missouri lost three of its top four scorers — two to transfer and one to graduation.
Instead of Stanley Johnson (now a Detroit Piston), Brandon Ashley (in the NBA’s Development League) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (now a Brooklyn Net), the Wildcats are now paced by Ryan Anderson’s 15.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, Gabe York’s 13.9 points and Allonzo Trier’s 13 points.
So it’s safe to say Anderson won’t exactly be taking tape of last year’s game as scripture.
“I’ll probably watch some clips from it just to probably see,” he said, “but they’ve got a new guys, and we’ve got a lot of new guys, so I probably won’t spend a whole lot of time watching it.
Still, with all the changes in the past 12 months, one thing is certain.
“We’re going to have to play our A-game,” Anderson said. “You’re not going to roll into Arizona and play your C-game and expect to win. We’re going to have to play our best game.”