Missouri freshmen give men's basketball needed boost

Thursday, February 20, 2014 | 9:13 p.m. CST; updated 6:45 a.m. CST, Friday, February 21, 2014

COLUMBIA — Freshman forward Torren Jones is becoming more and more visible.

He could be seen Wednesday night as Missouri coach Frank Haith’s first substitution, and then when he was on the floor, clapping his hands as he waited on defense for the ball to be brought up. 

Jones has been waving his hands a lot lately, whether it's to pump up the crowd from the bench, to celebrate a block or — as was the case three times Wednesday — to grab the ball from an opponent's hands. 

His enthusiastic, aggressive play in Missouri’s last two victories has trickled down the line, resulting in quality production from the entirety of the Tigers’ freshman class. 

The principal challenge for Haith this season has been to find ways to get production from players not named Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown or Earnest Ross to complement the high-scoring ways of his three stars.

That has finally started to develop on both the offensive and defensive ends, and most recently in Missouri’s 67-64 win against Vanderbilt on Wednesday. 

Freshman guard Wes Clark scored nine points, his highest output in conference play, on a perfect night shooting from the floor. Johnathan Williams III disrupted numerous shots down low and blocked three — including a swat of Vanderbilt's Kyle Fuller in the game’s final 15 seconds. And the 6-foot-8, 234-pound Jones, of all people, grabbed three steals: one a deflection, one an interception and another right out of someone’s hand.

“That’s great production out of those guys,” Haith said Wednesday. “The three freshmen all gave us something. They’re getting more and more comfortable — Wes, Torren and J3 (Williams III).” 

That’s a far cry from the production Haith got from his freshman the last time his team played Alabama, which the Tigers (19-7, 7-6 Southeastern Conference) face at 7 p.m. Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. 

That was a little more than a month ago, on Jan. 20. Williams III scored nine points and grabbed 14 rebounds that game, one of his best efforts of the year. But the Crimson Tide held both Clark and Jones scoreless, with Jones playing just four minutes. Missouri got just four points from its bench in the 68-47 win. 

Jones has earned more playing time as of late, playing 14 minutes against Tennessee and 18 versus Vanderbilt, making contributions in both games. 

Improvement is evident in Clark’s play as well, particularly his shooting. He is 7-for-13 from 3-point range over his last five games — an excellent 53 percent — compared to just 11-for-34 (32 percent) before.

“I just play with confidence,” Clark said. “Our leaders — Jabari, Jordan, E.J. (Ross) — keep me ready to go. They keep me focused, kept me going, kept encouraging me. I just took the challenge."

Williams III and Jones were also integral in the Missouri frontcourt's most comprehensive performance of the season Saturday against Tennessee. And Clark’s sharp shooting helped offset a rare off night from Brown against the Commodores. 

The contributions will have to keep coming as the Tigers head into the season’s home stretch, where one loss can mean the end of their NCAA Tournament hopes. 

“I was just trying to make the most of it,” Clark said.

Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.

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