Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
The silver lining to Missouri’s dud of a 9-23 record last season in Kim Anderson’s first year as a Division I coach is it left this year’s team plenty of accomplishments to meet for the first time under Anderson.
The Tigers just finished a 7-6 non-conference campaign in which they left a big box unchecked: Win against a Power-5 opponent.
Today, the Tigers begin Southeastern Conference play with another big stepping stone there for the taking: win an SEC road game for the first time under Anderson — or, for that matter, win a game away from Mizzou Arena for the first time this season.
Missouri tips off its conference slate at 5:30 p.m. today at Georgia (7-4, 0-1 SEC).
“I think we’re all excited,” freshman Kevin Puryear said. “I would say we’ve played in tough environments against tough teams already this year, so I would say we’re prepared going into SEC play and playing against better teams.”
The Tigers played two true road games in non-conference play: at Xavier, where the Tigers hung tight in a loss to the now-ranked Musketeers, and at Arizona, where the No. 13 Wildcats blew out the Tigers by 36.
Missouri also played neutral site games in Kansas City, where it lost to Kansas State and Northwestern, and St. Louis, where it lost to Illinois in the annual Braggin’ Rights game. K-State wiped the floor with the Tigers, but Missouri forged strong second-half comebacks in the latter two losses.
“Hopefully, having the games we’ve had in the venues we’ve had will serve us well Wednesday,” Anderson said. “We’ve played enough games now that, I’m sure there’ll be some nerves, being the first SEC game, but hopefully that’ll subside quickly. Because we have played in front of big crowds, and I’m sure Georgia will have a big crowd on Wednesday.”
The Tigers, who are 7-1 at home this season, didn’t win a true road game last season, either. Their lone win away from home came against Division-II Chaminade in the Maui Invitational. Missouri’s last true road win came Jan. 28, 2014, at Arkansas, when Frank Haith was still coaching the Tigers.
As a freshman, point guard Terrence Phillips hasn’t played an SEC game, but he expects the competition level to increase.
“It’s going to be a hundred times different,” he said. “Yesterday, I think our normal film session for a team is 20 minutes. Yesterday we spent maybe an hour on this team. But that’s just going into conference. These are bigger games, these are the bigger states here, so I expect intensity to be a lot higher.”
The good news for Missouri is the Tigers are coming off their two most complete wins of the season, 78-25 against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and 81-50 against Savannah State.
“We got tired of beating teams that we should’ve beat by seven or eight,” Phillips said. “Those last games, we really put it on teams, really got out to good starts and we really finished games strong. So you know, finishing non-conference play strong, 7-1 at home, going on the road hopefully we can go into this one with a lot of confidence right now.”
The Tigers face a Georgia team coming off a 77-63 loss at Florida to open SEC play. The Bulldogs share a common opponent with Missouri in Kansas State, which the Bulldogs lost to by two instead of Missouri’s 24.
Georgia is paced by forward Yante Maten, who is averaging 16.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, both team highs.
“I think he’s so strong, which’ll be a problem for us, because we have a little bit of a problem with stronger guys,” Anderson said. “But he’s also got a little jump shot and … plays well within himself. He doesn’t try to do something he can’t do. He posts hard, plays hard. I think he’s a good player. I think he’s really improved over a year.”
Anderson said he didn’t remember Maten from last year’s matchup, a 68-44 Georgia win, though he “know(s) him now.” With the departures of Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic, who averaged 12.3 and 11 points per game last year, Maten is one of a handful of Bulldogs having to play bigger roles this year.
“Man, I think they’re just so well-rounded,” senior Ryan Rosburg said. “I think they have so many guys who can score and so many guys that I don’t really remember last year but have really stepped up this year. Just at every position, they’ve got pretty good players.”
That’s not to say there’s not room for the Bulldogs to improve.
“We don’t think that we’re probably as consistent in any area that we want to be,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said on a coaches teleconference. “… We just probably haven’t been able to be as consistent in a rotation that we want and that’s led to some inconsistencies — whether that be offensively or defensively or on the glass — that we feel like we can improve on. We are a team that has to get better.”