COLUMBIA — Forgive Justin Safford if he didn’t immediately fit in.
Safford, a freshman forward on Missouri’s basketball team, has gone through his share of change in the past couple years. Since 2003, he’s grown five inches, attended three schools and spent one year living on a farm in rural North Carolina.
“College itself, first coming in, I was a nervous wreck,” Safford said. “I think the first two weeks, I didn’t eat anything.”
That’s not the case anymore. And some of that newfound confidence can be credited to a video game.
Safford is the drummer in little-known Columbia “band” the 116 G’s. Teammate Nick Berardini plays the guitar and Matt Lawrence, another Missouri player, handles the vocals.
“I’m the best,” Safford boasts. “Let that be known, write that down.”
The band formed one slow day in January. Sitting in Berardini and Lawrence’s apartment, the trio discovered that Lawrence’s new Playstation 3 could play high-definition Blu-ray DVDs.
They rushed to Best Buy and started grabbing as many Blu-ray DVDs as they could hold. Roaming the store, they even saw coach Mike Anderson.
“I don’t know what he was doing,” Lawrence said, adding that Anderson probably felt the same way about them.
Then it was time to compare DVD selections.
“We all meet in the middle of Best Buy,” Lawrence said. “And there was (the video game) Rock Band. We just threw our movies to the side and we all just pitched in.”
For $180, the teammates took home a microphone, a small digital drum set and a plastic guitar with colored buttons in the place of strings. The 116 G’s were formed.
For hours in January — and there were plenty during the five-week break between semesters — the 116 Gs would dress up in vintage rock tees and virtually rock out in apartment 116.
“During break,” Safford said, “we played it maybe twice a day, every single day.”
The Safford boldly talking about his video game musical skills last week is a far cry from the player first introduced to the press at Missouri’s media day last October.
Back then, he was just a bright-eyed freshman trying to figure out how to transition into a low-post player on a Division I team.
Of course, he hadn’t been a low-post player for long. Moments before Safford spoke to the press for the first time, Anderson announced that Safford’s 6-foot-8, 225-pound frame meant the long-time wing player would be thrown right into the mix of Missouri’s shallow frontcourt.
It was a position switch that was three years in the making.
As a sophomore at Bloomington Central Catholic High School in Illinois, Safford was a 6-foot-4 wing. He grew three inches before his junior season and another inch before his senior year, and suddenly he wasn’t a wing anymore.
Instead of going to junior college and losing a year of eligibility, Safford elected to spend a year at Charis Prep in Goldsboro, N.C. Playing power forward for the first time, Safford averaged 17.8 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.1 blocked shots at Charis.
At prep school, Safford stayed with a host family in Wilson, N.C. The catch? He lived on a farm.
“It was like a half an hour away from any town,” Safford said. “It was strictly country.”
A stark contrast from home.
“Bloomington is a city,” Safford said, pausing, then adding, “with about 60,000 people.”
The transition to Columbia wasn’t any easier.
Safford was back in a city, but he was living in a residence hall with Missouri guard Keon Lawrence. Even Lawrence admits that his late-night music blasting tendencies don’t make him the easiest roommate to live with. It wasn’t love at first sight.
“At first I thought he was a geek,” Lawrence said. “He was quiet, he liked a lot of comedy stuff. I like the comedy stuff too, but he likes a whole bunch of comedy stuff. Kind of at first, I was like, this guy is kind of goofy.”
Like he’d done so many times before though, Safford adapted to his new situation.
First it was with his teammates.
“I thought he was a geek at first, but then I was like, he’s a cool person, good person,” Lawrence said. “So we kind of met up, used to come to the gym together. Good friend, good teammate.”
On the court though, Safford didn’t jump into the mix right away like Anderson expected. The change from wing into power forward took some getting used to.
Safford played in 13 of Missouri’s first 20 games and only eclipsed 10 minutes twice. Going into Big 12 Conference play, he was averaging one point per game. He worked hard, but Safford just never looked comfortable on the court.
The same hard-working qualities that won over his teammates last summer won over the fans midway through the season.
When Safford sat out the first three conference games, concerned fans began filling the message boards worried about his playing time, assuming the only reason this talented but raw freshman was sitting out would be due to injury.
Then, when five players were suspended relating to a late-night fight outside Athena Night Club in Columbia, the Safford everybody had been waiting for arrived in a big way.
Safford has played double-digit minutes in six of the seven games since the Jan. 27 fight made his team shorthanded. During 19 minutes in a loss to Texas A&M on Feb. 9, Safford scored a career-high 10 points and grabbed four rebounds.
“He’s playing within,” Keon Lawrence said. “He’s not trying to do nothing that he can’t do. And coach loves it. He helps out on defense and coach loves it.”
His demeanor on the court is noticeably different as well. Whereas Safford used to look nervous on the court, often opting to pass soon after getting the ball, he now plays much more free.
“As a freshman you kind of try to find your way and I think he is starting to be a little more clear,” Anderson said. “I think even our guys are responding to that. They respect his game. He presents a problem out there.”
When he gets the chance, Safford even reverts to old form and shoots a 3-pointer or two. He’s made five in the seven games following the nightclub fight after making just one in the first 13 games.
“I’ve always worked on my shot,” Safford said. “Even as I got taller, I’ve consistently worked on my jumpers.”
For the first time in a while, it looks like things are going on a steady course for Safford. He’s adjusted to college life, won over his teammates, coaches and fans and now sees regular minutes in Missouri’s rotation. He even considers Keon Lawrence to be one of his best friends.
The only thing Safford has to change now is his drumming style, where his size-16 feet do not bode well with his video game bass drum pedal.
“Good thing we got the warranty,” Matt Lawrence said. “Because this guys’ got size 16 feet and he broke it the first day.”