COLUMBIA — It certainly didn’t seem like the biggest play of the game. It wasn’t the deep and dramatic 3-pointer that secured the lead for good. It didn’t draw the loudest ovation from the crowd. And it certainly didn’t look flashy, or smooth, or anything pretty at all.
With 15 seconds left, J.T. Tiller missed a free throw that would have given the Missouri men’s basketball team a three-point lead against No. 11 Kansas State. The ball dropped into the middle of the lane before a Wildcats’ player could grab it, and that’s when Laurence Bowers jumped at his chance.
Missouri’s skinny 6-foot-8 forward dived into the middle of what looked like a rugby scrum with at least three bodies wrestling for the ball on the floor. Bowers came up with it and was fouled. He then sunk both free throws, keeping the Wildcats from a chance to tie, if not win, the game, which Missouri claimed 74-68.
“I just maneuvered and got in the right spot to get the ball, and it just so happened I got fouled,” Bowers said. “I knew we needed a big play, and I just tried to get the rebound.”
In the play that helped solidify the loss for Kansas State, Bowers beat the Wildcats at their own game: offensive rebounding.
“That’s what they do,” Missouri coach Mike Anderson said before the game. “They throw it up there and they go get it.”
But Missouri (13-3, 1-0 Big 12) did it better on Saturday in front of 13,824 at Mizzou Arena. The Tigers, who have been outrebounded in half their games this season, outmuscled the bigger Wildcats. While the margin wasn’t enormous – Missouri had 14 offensive rebounds to Kansas State’s 12, and 35 total rebounds to the Wildcats’ 30 – it at least showed Missouri can compete in a bruising, physical game like Saturday’s, which saw a total of 56 fouls.
“I wouldn’t say it’s embarrassing, but it’s always something that makes you feel bad,” Bowers said about Missouri’s previous rebounding struggles. “You know, constantly hearing, ‘This team is a guard-oriented team. If you take away their guards, then you’re good. The frontcourt is weak, undersized.’ I take it personally, to heart. I just wanted to come out and prove to those who don’t believe in the frontcourt or have doubt in the frontcourt.”
Plenty did, and those doubts aren’t completely erased, partly because Kansas State’s big men were not at their best. The Wildcats (13-2, 0-1 Big 12), who came into the game among the nation’s best in offensive rebounding and rebounding margin, were forced to resort to their bench because starting center Luis Colon and starting forward Curtis Kelly got into foul trouble, playing just 21 minutes combined.
“We never had guys go into the post, never,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. “We’re trying to run our offense and we just stood around and watched.”
Still, Missouri entered the game with a negative rebounding margin, hard to believe considering it has played a handful of weaker, smaller teams.
“It showed we can be physical as well, and we can get out of there and rebound,” guard Zaire Taylor said. “You guys give a guy like Laurence a lot of credit for getting six offensive rebounds. People don’t do that every day.”
Why the sudden improvement? Anderson attributed it to the start of the Big 12 season, which brought a raucous crowd and plenty of excitement.
“Rebounding is all about effort and want-to,” he said. “Our guys wanted to. I think there’s a sense of urgency when you get to conference play, and hopefully this is something that we can continue to do.”
And if you ask Bowers, Missouri better keep bringing the energy to rebound.
“We’ve got to. That’s the only way we can compete in the Big 12,” he said. “We’re an undersized frontcourt, and a lot of teams have a lot more bigger guys, so if we don’t have the desire and want to rebound, we’re going to get blown out.”
Although forwards Bowers and Keith Ramsey led the Tigers' renewed rebounding efforts, Missouri’s guards pitched in, too. They are expected to help out on the boards more than most teams' guards, considering the Tigers’ relatively small forwards and frantic style of play. On Saturday, Tiller and Taylor were Missouri’s third and fourth-leading rebounders. They made it a point to give Bowers and the other forwards a hand, most evident when Tiller, after a missed shot, swarmed to the basket – where three Wildcats were waiting for the ball – and deflected the ball off one of them and out of bounds.
The Tigers’ rebounding edge made up for their uncharacteristically high 20 turnovers and low nine assists. It also helped Missouri beat Kansas State in second-chance points.
Even Anderson, who rarely makes a blatant statement about his team, had doubted Missouri’s ability to rebound.
“I questioned the guys in terms of defending and rebounding at the rim," he said, "and I thought they answered some of that.”
Martin Unplugged: Kansas State coach Frank Martin is about as unabashed as a coach can be, speaking his mind without fail. On Saturday, Martin didn't hesitate to share his thoughts about regional bias in college basketball.
“Here’s the great thing about Missouri, and this is the difference between one time zone over to the east and the time zone we live in,” Martin said. “And I’ve said this before. Nobody wants to listen to me because obviously I’m the hothead that doesn’t make any sense, but that’s OK.
“Everybody picks Villanova to be right in there for the Big East title. Everyone picks Villanova to be a possible Final Four team. You tell me what the difference is between Villanova and Missouri. Villanova lost their whole frontcourt, returned all their guards. What did Missouri do? They returned all their guards and they lost their frontcourt guys. Their backup guys who played a lot last year are now their starting frontcourt guys, and Missouri went to the Elite Eight (last year). Why are they all of a sudden not a good enough team?
“For them to have been voted, a team that just went to the Elite Eight and returned all their perimeter guys … that’s a slap in the face. That’s a slap in the face. Mike and his guys have worked too hard to get this program going for people to disrespect them that way.”
Missouri coach Mike Anderson would never say anything like that, but Martin did it for him.