COLUMBIA — Don’t expect Missouri coach Frank Haith to switch up his starting lineup any time soon.
Despite a conference record dangerously submerged two games under the .500 mark, Haith said the combination he's used for all 23 games this season gives his team its best chance to win.
Arkansas Razorbacks (15-8, 4-6 SEC) at Missouri Tigers (16-7, 4-6 SEC)
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Mizzou Arena
TV: ESPN2 (Rece Davis and Bobby Knight)
Radio: Tiger Radio Network (Mike Kelly and Gary Link)
Arkansas notable alumni: Two-time Super Bowl champion Jimmy Johnson
Even with three consecutive losses, Haith expressed concern this week at the notion of making changes to his starting five.
One change would be substituting freshman starting forward Johnathan Williams III (0 points, 4 turnovers in last Saturday’s 91-88 loss to Ole Miss) with reserve guard Wes Clark (6 points, 3 assists against the Rebels). That would effectively give the Tigers a four-guard lineup, much like the one they had during Haith’s first season. Missouri played several stretches this season with Clark in the game and a forward on the bench. That rotation moves Earnest Ross to a less-traditional No. 4 slot, and Jordan Clarkson from point guard to shooting guard.
Haith calls that his best offensive lineup, but is hesitant to start with it this late in the season against Southeastern Conference opponents, many whom feature big, strong forwards. Arkansas, who Missouri hosts Thursday at 6 p.m., starts 6-foot-10 Bobby Portis and 6-foot-7 Coty Clarke, two players that could out-muscle a smaller Missouri lineup from the jump.
“You don’t want to give teams a steady diet of that,” Haith said of the smaller lineup. “I think we can do it in spurts. Teams in this league are long and athletic. You have to be really smart to do that so people don’t take advantage of you."
Clark and Williams are at the center of this debate. Would you rather have a freshman on the block playing poorly? Or one at the top of the key playing well?
Either way, both will be cornerstones of the program moving forward. More than halfway through their first seasons of college ball, they've been in the spotlight long enough to speculate about what they can bring to Haith's program.
And since it's likely next year's team will be without at least two of the current big three — possibly all three could be gone — Clark, Williams and freshman reserve Torren Jones will undoubtedly be asked to play larger roles in the future.
With that in mind, here is an analysis of each of their first seasons in black and gold so far.
Forward - Johnathan Williams III
At first glance: Williams debuted with a solidly balanced six-point, seven-rebound effort against Southeastern Louisiana and showed impressive progression during nonconference play. He scored a career-high 14 points against Northwestern and ripped down 17 rebounds against Gardner-Webb, showing the ability to clean up and finish well at the rim, as well as block shots.
Most recently: Williams has scored in double-figures just once during conference play, and has disappeared at times on the offensive end. He has been a non-factor in Missouri’s three straight losses, which began with a loss to Kentucky on Feb. 1 in which he scored just one point against the Wildcats' celebrated and talented big men.
In between: Williams has found himself in early foul trouble more often as conference play has progressed, which Haith said has affected his young forward psychologically. Haith said Williams has started to think too much, and that this over-thinking is messing with his game. When clear-headed, Williams has proved he can be a rebounding force – he collected 15 boards against UCLA and 14 and 12 against Alabama and Arkansas, respectively. But lapses in judgment and focus on the offensive end have led to uncontested misses, blocked shots and turnovers, especially during conference play. Williams also needs to improve his free-throw percentage, which currently sits at 53.5 percent.
Haith’s take: “When you’re a young player, you need to just go out there and play. You can’t try to figure it all out. In "J3’s" case, that’s important for him — his style of play. We need him for his activity, his energy. When you become tentative, it really effects your play immensely because he’s not blocking shots, he’s not rotating over to make plays defensively and he’s not going for offensive rebounds."
Guard - Wes Clark
At first glance: Clark burst into the scene with a 13-point performance against Louisiana State on opening night, where he also grabbed seven rebounds, despite being the shortest player on the floor. Clark has received consistent minutes as Haith’s primary perimeter reserve since opening night, but began turning the ball over often toward the end of conference play, a trend that peaked with his five turnovers against Western Michigan on Dec. 15.
Most recently: Haith doesn’t look for Clark to score, but to facilitate. Clark hasn’t scored in double figures since opening night, but over the past four games he has played some of his most consistent, reliable basketball. Clark made some big shots in the Kentucky game and hasn’t committed more than two turnovers in any conference game.
In between: Clark has shown increased confidence and ability from behind the arc, hitting multiple 3-pointers with the game or shot clock winding down, most recently against Florida and Ole Miss. Clark possesses the Tigers' most effective mid-range jump shot and is the only Missouri player who attempts jumpers from inside the 3-point line with any regularity. He could improve his 65 percent free-throw percentage.
Haith’s take: “The game has kind of slowed down for him; that’s how you can tell a kid has gotten it. The game is not sped up as much, and he’s making better decisions. He’s more confident."
Forward - Torren Jones
At first glance: Jones scored three points in 12 minutes against Southeastern Louisiana, but didn’t get more than 10 minutes of playing time again until conference play.
Most recently: He grabbed 11 rebounds against Auburn in early January, including an offensive rebound in the dwindling seconds that sealed the win for Missouri. Haith has fallen in-and-out of love with playing Jones, giving him 14 minutes of time against Florida and nine against Ole Miss, but just one against Kentucky. Jones scored four points in both the games against the Gators and Rebels, but more importantly, he gave the Tigers a mostly mistake-free 6-foot-8 presence on the block.
In between: Jones hasn’t been asked to do much in terms of scoring, but his minutes have been valuable when Haith has called on him. His 11 rebounds against Auburn came in just 13 minutes, proving Jones has the ability to produce when given the chance. Haith still considers his skills raw, but Jones has shown the ability to finish when he gets the ball, which is mostly when a double-teamed guard finds him wide open on the block, like Brown did at Ole Miss.
Haith’s take:“He has to continue to develop and continue to grow. His physical abilities are really good. I think he can still be an effective player even though I don’t think his skill set is where it will be yet."