COLUMBIA — Justin Safford is stuck in the middle.
He is not one of Missouri’s seven newcomers, but he never makes it into the conversation when coach Mike Anderson is talking about his team’s leaders. After all, the Tigers have four seniors, and the only junior with experience, J.T. Tiller, is the unquestioned defensive leader.
Big 12 Men's Basketball Tournament
Missouri vs. Texas Tech
WHEN: 8:30 p.m.
WHERE: Oklahoma City
Other than little-used walk-on Jarrett Sutton, Safford is the team’s only sophomore. So when Anderson talks about how his freshmen should follow the leaders in Oklahoma City this weekend, Safford seems almost forgotten.
The Bloomington, Ill., native seemed forgotten on the bench at times in Big 12 Conference play. After he scored 13 points in Missouri’s 106-62 win over Colorado, the 6-foot-8 forward went from slightly fewer than 12 minutes per game to just above five in the next 12 games.
“Everybody gets frustrated when you’re not playing a lot,” senior forward Leo Lyons said. “But he understands, and when you’re winning, you really can’t complain. Nobody complains when you’re winning, so you just do whatever you can do when you get the chance to.”
Missouri went 10-2 during that stretch, and DeMarre Carroll and Lyons saw their minutes increase, while junior college transfer Keith Ramsey solidified himself as the Tigers’ first forward off the bench. Safford scored just 10 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in limited minutes.
“We’ve got a lot of good forwards,” Carroll said. “Keith and Justin and Laurence (Bowers) — coach set a challenge on them to just push me and Leo to try to be the best we can be, so the competition’s been pretty good.”
Even Bowers, a freshman, started to see more playing time than Safford after Missouri’s win against Kansas, though the sophomore was still typically the first one off the bench. But Safford accepted his role and didn’t try to do too much offensively, focusing mostly on defense and bringing energy to the team.
“It’s just something I do as a role player on this team,” Safford said. “I know that’s what I need to do, so it’s what I bring.”
But in the past two and a half weeks, Anderson said he has seen more aggressiveness from the left-hander, and Safford is beginning to find his shot, especially from the outside.
That finally started showing up in games, and against Oklahoma, Safford made his first two 3-pointers and added three rebounds and three steals in seven minutes.
Last Saturday at Texas A&M, it was the Aggies’ defense that seemed to forget about Safford. The former guard made all four of his 3-point attempts and led an unsuccessful Missouri comeback with 13 of his career-high 16 points in the second half.
Lyons limped off the court in the first half and left the game for good with 18 minutes to play, which opened the door for Safford. He didn’t leave the court for the rest of the game.
“He has that type of ability,” Lyons said of his teammate. “He just lacks the aggression, and something just clicked in his head, and he got real aggressive, and you can see the things he can do.”
Anderson said Lyons will be ready to play Thursday, but he expects Safford’s minutes to go up in the postseason. The Tigers are hoping last Saturday was a sign of things to come.
Even if he doesn’t replicate the performance this season, Safford will certainly be called upon next year. Missouri is losing its top three scorers to graduation, including the starting forwards, Lyons and Carroll.
Safford admits his role will change next year from what it has been in his first two seasons, but he elected not to speculate on what that new role might be until he’s finished with this season. His senior teammate wasn’t so cautious.
“He’s learning,” Lyons said. “He’s going to be great next year. I think he’ll step into a different role, and he’s maturing. I think he’ll be one of the most mature guys on this team, so you’ll see a big change out of him.”