COLUMBIA — Missouri coach Mike Anderson has had one simple challenge for Justin Safford: Show you can rebound against the physical Big 12 teams.
At the end of the Missouri (15-4, 3-1) men’s basketball game against Nebraska (12-7, 0-4) Saturday night at Mizzou Arena, the junior forward had a resounding answer.
With every shot, Safford was like a homing missile locked onto the rim. No box out, no push in the back, not even Nebraska’s 6-foot-11 center, Brian Diaz, could stand in his way. When forward Laurence Bowers missed a layup in the second half, Safford rose above two defenders and tipped the ball in. Safford seemed to have the intensity of a charging bull. Even when no one was around, he would snatch the ball with such authority that it looked like the ball might deflate in his hands.
“He was rebounding like a man tonight,” Anderson said. “And we are going to need that a lot Monday night (at Kansas).”
Even as the clock was winding down and Missouri led by 17 points, Safford didn’t crack a smile. He had the look of accomplished satisfaction on his face. He finished with a career-high 11 rebounds and added nine points in Missouri’s 70-53 win over Nebraska.
“You can tell when Justin has a little extra motivation,” Bowers said. “Because he comes out and tries to get every freaking rebound, and that’s what he did.”
Safford’s rebounding was one of the reasons Missouri was able to stay ahead of Nebraska. He limited the Cornhuskers to just five second-chance points, and his four offensive rebounds helped Missouri get extra chances when it was shooting poorly. It even motivated the team.
“Just him battling down there really gave us the mindset that we needed to go in there and help him out,” Missouri guard J.T. Tiller said.
The game was his best rebounding effort all season. He is averaging 3.7 rebounds a game, and in the first three Big 12 games of the season, he had a total of 10. He seemed to lack the intensity that was needed to rebound against taller opponents. Bowers said Safford is a rebounding machine in practice but couldn’t put it together in the game.
“It is probably confidence," he said. "Coach harps on Justin a lot. He’s a strong-minded guy, but when it’s constant, your confidence does get kind of low.”
Part of the reason Safford had struggled this season were the bone spurs in his left ankle. It limited his mobility on the court and made him tentative when jumping for a rebound.
“I couldn’t move how I wanted to at the beginning of the year,” Safford said. “So that kind of set me back, trying to play through it, but now I’m really getting back to feeling healthy.”
However, that hasn’t dampened Anderson’s expectations. During practice, he would constantly call the forward “soft,” something that Safford would cringe at every time he heard it because he knew that he had the ability to get every rebound if he wanted it enough. Safford possesses the quickness of a guard, the strength of a forward and the ability to out-jump anyone in the gym. Safford said the constant string of criticisms kept him focused on rebounding.
“Coach always tries to throw cheap shots here and there to try and get you motivated,” Safford said. “But I think if he didn’t do that, he wouldn’t be doing his job.”
Now that Safford has finally had a response to his coach’s criticism, he will face his toughest test Monday. The Tigers will play No. 3 Kansas at Lawrence where Safford will have to rebound against preseason All-American Cole Aldrich. The 6-foot-11 center has been a terror in the post for opposing teams, averaging nearly 10 rebounds a game. Tiller said a game like Saturday’s was a necessary step for Safford before Monday’s matchup.