Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri Tigers face a basketball program today in Kentucky that has found success contending for titles with freshman-heavy rosters under John Calipari.
Missouri’s freshmen, however, are more of the rule proved by Kentucky’s exception. The four Tiger frosh have hit the all-but-unavoidable freshman wall at various times during Southeastern Conference play this season. With just three upperclassmen in the rotation, coach Kim Anderson hopes they get over it soon.
“You’ve got all this stuff going on,” he said. “You’ve got your school, and you’ve had this long vacation and (it’s) basketball, basketball, basketball, and then you get in and you’re basically playing your toughest games of the year every night now. I mean, every game is a tough game.”
Forward Kevin Puryear currently leads the team with 11.5 points per game, and he and fellow freshman Terrence Phillips are among the top four in average minutes played.
Phillips is averaging about one assist fewer in conference play and three of his seven games with four or more turnovers have come this month.
“I feel like, in some way, I’ve kind of hit it,” he said. “But at the same time it’s being mentally tough, and that’s really what 90 percent of basketball is, just being mentally prepared, mentally tough for every day, every practice, every game.”
Puryear, meanwhile, scored a season-low two points Jan. 16 at South Carolina, and his field-goal percentage has dropped almost five points in SEC play.
“I feel like I hit a scoring wall, but I think I’m starting to come out of it,” he said. “A lot of what I’ve learned is you can never let your highs be too high and your lows be too low. So I just try to stay right in the middle and always just keep working and just know that eventually I’ll come out of it.
“… High school was a lot easier. I mean, I could walk into a game and know that I’m going to get 20 points minimum. But college, it’s way different. You’re playing against grown men day in and day out.”
Still, Puryear’s and Phillips’ respective lows weren’t all that low. Puryear’s first career double-double came in Missouri’s SEC home opener against Auburn, and he’s scored 10 or more points in four of six conference games. Phillips has scored in double digits in two of his last four games, including 16 points at South Carolina, which matched a career scoring high.
“I hope their wall was thin,” Anderson said of Puryear and Phillips.
The climb has been steeper for freshmen K.J. Walton and Cullen VanLeer, who have each averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game in SEC play.
VanLeer, a threat from long range, has hit just 3-of-17 3-point attempts against SEC opponents. He has yet to make a 2-point shot in a conference game.
“When he was in high school, he’s at Pacific, he’s getting ready to play School X and they’re 2-15 in January, and he’s probably not too worried about matchup zones or whatever,” Anderson said. “He’s just worried about getting the ball and hooping. It’s different here. Every game is so physical and there’s a lot of preparation.”
Walton saw his minutes drop to single digits against South Carolina and Georgia, but he was a valuable contributor in his 10 minutes off the bench against Texas A&M — a number Anderson said, in retrospect, should’ve been higher.
“He came in, he had a stop, he had a layup … he had an assist and he had another bucket,” Phillips said. “I thought he played great for us.”
Walton said he tried to play more aggressively Saturday and that he sees himself emerging from his slump.
“You just have bad game after bad game and then you get down on yourself, so it’s really more mental,” he said. “I know physically I’m good and I’m in great shape and I’m prepared and everything, but it was just a mental thing that I’m getting over.”
Missouri has had more than its share of scoring droughts in recent losses, and Walton credited that to immaturity — though he’s seeing signs of improvement.
“We’ve definitely grown 100 times since the beginning,” he said. “So I think it’s just going to get better as time goes.”
Anderson thinks so, too. He said there’s no question this year’s team, despite its 8-11 record, is in a better place than it was this time a year ago, when the Tigers finished the season 9-23.
“I’m not sure I have concrete evidence,” he told reporters Monday. “I’m sure some of you guys will go back and look and say, ‘Well, we’re shooting worse or better or whatever or we’re not scoring as many points.’ I don’t really spend a lot of time looking at that, but I think just from a coaching feel and working with them, I think they’re doing better.”
Note: Missouri has one fewer scholarship available than it has players set to be eligible next season. The number became 14 when Jordan Barnett transferred from Texas. Anderson isn’t worried about the situation getting resolved. “It’ll work out,” he said. “Trust me.”