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Little-known Missouri forward prepares for new role

Friday, November 6, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
MU junior forward Justin Safford jokes around with assistant basketball coach T.J. Cleveland before practice Oct. 29, 2009, at Mizzou Arena.

COLUMBIA — Prowling the baseline of Mizzou Arena during a recent Missouri men’s basketball practice, junior forward Justin Safford seemed different.

He was no longer playing the role of spectator and follower he had grown accustomed to during  his freshman and sophomore years. Instead, Missouri coach Mike Anderson said Safford has become more vocal and serious than in the past.

“Freshman and sophomore year, he was one of those guys who would run around and imitate guys, imitate me. He was kind of goofy really, to tell you the truth,” Anderson said. “He has kind of matured up. Now he has taken on a more serious tone because he knows the young guys are watching."

During a weave drill, sophomore Steve Moore missed the rebound on a layup, and Safford was there to make sure he was focused on practice.

“Come on Steve, catch the ball,” Safford shouted.

Anderson has said several players will be stepping into new roles this season. None will be making a bigger transition than Safford. The lefty from Bloomington, Ill., has gone from an unknown freshman to a misfit sophomore and is now being asked to become a leader for a young Tigers team. The new persona was visible during the team's first practice.

Freshmen forwards John Underwood and Tyler Stone appeared lost and unsure. The initial shock of practice made them look like they had been punched in the gut. Coaches yelled at them to keep up and get their hands off their knees. At one point during the weave drill, Underwood was between two lines, unsure of where to go. Safford went to the freshman and led him over to his line on the left side and told him, between his own gasps for air, to keep going his hardest no matter how difficult.

Safford came in as somewhat of an unknown entity and the lone recruit in 2007. That season, the suspension of five teammates for a fight at a nightclub overshadowed his arrival. The Tigers finished 16-16, and he played eight minutes off the bench, struggling to fit in on the team.

He has been so unknown, Safford said most people are even confused about his name. He said he has been called many incorrect names, including Stafford, Sanford and Matthew Stafford, a name that surfaced last season during the Tigers' NCAA Tournament run when someone combined his and then-senior Matt Lawrence's names.

During his sophomore campaign, Safford said he had "middle child syndrome." He was constantly overlooked by the media and fans in favor of the “younger kids,” the seven newcomers; and the “older kids,” upperclassmen such as DeMarre Carroll, Leo Lyons and Lawrence, the Tigers' leading scorers last season. On the court, he was buried on the depth chart behind Lyons, Carroll and junior Keith Ramsey.

Safford often appeared unsure on the court. He took only 92 shots and averaged a little more than three points a game while trying to play mistake-free basketball.

“It was kind of hard playing behind DeMarre and Leo because they were our seniors,” Safford said. "I was thinking, 'If I make a mistake, I’m going to come out.'"

However, those experiences have also prepared him to step into his new role on a team that includes nine players with a year or less of experience. He has witnessed the Tigers' high points, including last season's school-record 31 wins during a run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. Senior teammate J.T. Tiller said those experiences make Safford an invaluable leader at the forward position.

“I think having Justin playing the post is very important for this team," Tiller said. "Because he was there when we went 16-16, he appreciates every win individually, and knows what it takes to do, and what we have to do on the floor.”

Safford’s first years on the team gave him a chance to learn and grow. Safford’s locker was next to Lyons', giving him a mentor and a friend that could help him fit in.

“Leo helped me through a lot. He was always talking to me,” Safford said. “His locker has always been right next to mine since I’ve been with him. They (Lyons and Carroll) were really good leaders, and I think that helped me learn some things from them.”

Safford has already used some of things he’s learned in practice. Instead of being passive in the huddle during scrimmages, Safford said he is now one of the players calming the team down and making sure the team is ready for the next play. During practice he often smacks his teammates on the butts and tells them to stay focused rather than remaining silent while Anderson scolds the team.

“I hear him talk more than he’s ever talked this year, trying to get those guys and father those guys along,” Anderson said. “That’s important when you got guys like John Underwood and Tyler Stone, and I think that’s important, even for Mike Dixon, to have somebody to lift them up.”

Despite not being one of the three captains, Safford has carved his own niche as a leader on the team. Safford is without a doubt the team prankster and comedian, according to Tiller.

Safford started the tradition of pouring a freezing Gatorade cooler on players during their showers after practice. Safford said it began with Moore, and he has gotten almost every player and has been a victim to the joke as well. Safford said the prank has become so notorious that Underwood refuses to take showers in the locker room for fear of having ice and water dumped on him during a hot shower.

“He brings that humor down there, so when we are in a real serious moment and we need an ice breaker, he’s the one to do that,” Tiller said.

Tiller said Safford can also do an impression of just about anybody. Tiller said between chuckles that Safford often comes into the apartment and will change his voice to sound like a girl to confuse his roommates while they are in their rooms.

Anderson said he is still unsure of how Safford will adjust to his new role because the Tigers haven’t played a game yet.

During two-on-two drills Safford, who is 6 feet, 8 inches tall and 230 pounds, was still too passive and opted to take the jump shot rather than drive against a smaller teammate, prompting Anderson to yell at him. However, Anderson said he is confident that Safford has the talent and ability to step up. He has already proven in his limited minutes that he is capable of taking over a game. During last season's Elite Eight contest against Connecticut, Safford provided a much needed spark off the bench, scoring nine points and three rebounds in only 15 minutes to keep the Tigers in the game.

“Now that his role changes, it gets to be interesting to see how he will respond,” Anderson said. “I think Justin will step up and meet that challenge. That’s where, obviously, when you talk about where some of the scoring and block shots will come from.”

Safford said he is confident he can step into his new role. He said he doesn’t feel any added pressure. In fact, he appears eager to take that next step forward. Who knows, maybe people will actually call him by his real name.

“(The new role) is good. It’s just a sense of growing up and taking on that role (Carroll and Lyons) had on the floor,” Safford said. “Nothing much has changed, you know the minutes have changed … I’ve been through the wars. He (Anderson) needs me to step up, and I know what he expects.”


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