COLUMBIA — When you ask forward Justin Safford about his biggest problem in high school, his response seems better suited for a cheerleader than a basketball player.
For Safford, now a forward for the Missouri men’s basketball team, shoes were a big dilemma. Not because Safford couldn’t find that perfect pair to match his letterman jacket, but because he couldn’t find a pair that lasted. From his freshman to senior year at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington, Ill., Safford’s feet grew from a size 12 to a size 17.
Missouri (20-7, 8-4 Big 12) vs. Colorado (12-14, 3-8 Big 12)
WHEN: 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
TV: Fox Sports Midwest
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR/102.3 FM
SERIES: MU leads 97-52. Last meeting, 84-66 MU win Feb. 6 at Colorado.
CONTAIN THE REST: Colorado’s Cory Higgins and Alec Burks score almost half the Buffaloes’ points. They both had strong games against MU on Feb. 6, but the Tigers contained everyone else and won easily.
COACH: Jeff Bzdelik, 3rd season
LAST SEASON: 9-22 (1-15 Big 12)
THE SKINNY: The Buffaloes are out of contention for postseason play, but coach Jeff Bzdelik lashed out against a reporter Monday when asked how he would motivate his team with not much left to play for. Bzdelik is old-school and expects his team to play all-out against MU.
DRAW FOULS: The Buffaloes are far from the Big 12’s elite, but they lead the conference in free-throw shooting. Not surprisingly, they’ve made more free throws than their opponents in each of their three conference wins. Missouri is aggressive defensively and could have trouble keeping Colorado off the free-throw line.
ALEC BURKS: The 6-foot-6 guard scored 27 points against Missouri in the teams’ first meeting Feb. 6. Burks is the Buffaloes’ second-leading scorer averaging almost 17 points and has scored in double-figures in all but one game.
TICKETS: Ranging from $14-$34. Available at MUTigers.com and 1-800-CAT-PAWS.
“Shoes were probably the toughest thing because they are so expensive, but with growth the sizes just kept going up,” Safford said.
In addition to his growing feet, Safford went from being a 6-foot guard with a smooth left-handed jump shot, to a 6-8 lanky forward. He began going through clothes like a teenage girl picking an outfit, and stuck out like a skyscraper among his peers in the hallway.
"It was just the nonstop growing. People kept saying, 'How tall are you?’” Safford said. “I’m saying the same height, but I’d go to the doctor and I’m a different height.”
Safford spent the majority of his high school and prep school years adjusting to his newfound height while still working on guard skills like ballhandling and shooting. In doing so, he became the perfect fit for Missouri coach Mike Anderson’s fast break system.
“Justin is a very skilled big,” Tigers assistant coach Melvin Watkins said. “And it (the growth spurt) allows him to play out on the floor and hopefully create mismatches for our opponents.”
His hybrid game style is perfect for Anderson’s system, in which he can often play the role of a point guard after a rebound, pushing the ball up the court. The ability to think and act like a guard has helped Safford score 8.6 points a game and shoot 43 percent from beyond the 3-point line, the second best on the team. Missouri guard J.T. Tiller said defensively Safford takes away pressure from the guards during traps because he can defend anybody.
“It’s very good to have that,” Tiller said. “Now we have some people that when we switch out on a big man or guard, we can just feel comfortable knowing he can cover both.”
On offense, Safford makes passes into the post seem effortless. Against Iowa State, Safford did his best impression of a point guard, setting up his teammates for easy shots and a team-high four assists. It is common to mistake Safford for a guard at times. He has become known for his smooth left-handed 3-point shot, and is able to drive to the rim and score against anybody, creating a mismatch for defenders.
“I still worked on the same things, ball handling and shooting, but now what helps is the versatility factor,” Safford said. “It is tough for some bigger guys to guard a guy like me.”
The growth spurt has also caused a few problems, though. With little experience playing as a forward in high school and prep school, he has struggled to play with his back to the basket at times. Watkins said Safford needs to improve his footwork and work on his hook shot.
“A lot of players get accustomed to facing up,” Watkins said. “So when you put their back to the basket, it appears to be a whole new basketball game.”
While Safford continues to grow into a more complete forward, rather than a guard trapped in a 6-foot 8-inch frame, he can take solace in knowing his feet probably won't grow anymore.
“I hope not,” Safford said with a tentative laugh when asked if he was still growing. “I’m good with 6-8.”