COLUMBIA — For most of the season, DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons have been leading the way inside for Missouri's men's basketball team.
With the two seniors are averaging a combined 33.8 points and 14.5 rebounds per game, it could be easy to forget about the forwards coming off the bench.
But in Saturday's 78-44 thrashing of Stetson at Mizzou Arena, in the final tuneup before Tuesday's showdown with Illinois, the backup big men got the chance to prove their worth for the Tigers.
"It's amazing when you know you can trust other guys to come off the bench, like Laurence Bowers and Keith Ramsey and even Justin (Safford) coming off the bench and contribute," said Carroll, who finished with a game-high 14 points.
Carroll and Lyons, who scored a season-low five points, both got off to slow start for the second consecutive game. With both of them on the bench, Safford played a key role in breaking a 9-9 tie and helping Missouri open up a lead it never relinquished.
The sophomore tied his career-high with 10 points and added five rebounds and a block in 13 minutes of playing time. It was hardly the first time that a bench player has provided the necessary spark for the Tigers this season.
"I've always said that a major component of our basketball team is going to be our bench," Missouri Coach Mike Anderson said. "Certain nights, certain guys are going to give us, hopefully, the extra rebounding, maybe scoring, at least blocking shots."
Even Anderson doesn't know whether or not he'll be able to continue playing ten or eleven players once Missouri starts facing tough competition, but it's a problem he doesn't mind having. As the Tigers have raced out to a 9-1 record, the coach has been able to play a variety of lineups and protect players from problems such as foul trouble.
"I think we've got more players," Anderson said. "I think we've got more competitive guys that are used to winning and I think we've got guys that listen more and try to do what we ask them to do. We've got more guys that understand their roles."
The Tigers hadn't played since a Dec. 13 win against Murray State, and they needed most of the first half to work off some rust. The crowd of 7,409, included a sparsely-filled student section, had a lot more to cheer about in the second half, when the Tigers shot 70% from the field.
"We just came out a little sluggish, just couldn't get a rhythm," Anderson said. "So we had to have a game, because we have a game that's taking place on the 23rd.
That game is the Busch Bragging Rights game against rival Illinois, perhaps the most important one on the Tigers' nonconference schedule. The 10-1 Illini will be the best team Missouri has seen since the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in November.
The Tigers, who are sitting just outside of the AP Top 25 in the latest polls, will be looking to snap an eight-game losing streak in the annual rivalry game. But Anderson and his players didn't want to put too much emphasis on winning Tuesday night in St. Louis.
"It's just another game," Carroll said. "We're going to enjoy this game until midnight, and then we're going to get ready for Illinois."