Tigers start with high expectations

Friday, October 17, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:45 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

With the first tip-off of the regular season six weeks away, the Missouri basketball team will host Mizzou Madness, the Tigers’ celebration of the first day college teams can practice, Saturday morning.

Mizzou Madness, the team’s first late-night scrimmage since the 2000-01 season, begins at 12:01 a.m. Saturday at Hearnes Center. The doors open at 10 p.m. for two hours of autograph sessions. After the players are introduced at midnight, the team will hold a short practice and run through a few drills, then scrimmage for two 20-minute periods. The Tigers will put on a dunk exhibition after the first period. Admission is free.

The dunk exhibition is likely to be the highlight of the night. Senior guard Rickey Paulding, one of the premier high-flyers in college basketball and an All-American candidate, said how he will perform in the exhibition hasn’t crossed his mind.

“I haven’t thought about that,” he said. “I’ll definitely have some competition this year.”

Building off the momentum of the football team’s victory against Nebraska on Saturday is important for the team, Paulding said.

“I know we’re really excited about starting practice and getting the season going,” Paulding said. “I think the fans are really excited, too, with how well football is going right now, and I think this is a good way to start (the season) off.”

For the third year in a row, the Tigers enter practice as one of the top-ranked teams in the country. Despite a breakout year from center Arthur Johnson, the Tigers were inconsistent last season, losing to Marquette 101-92 in overtime in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Missouri was No. 24 in the final Associated Press poll last season, but the majority of preseason rankings this year list the Tigers as top contenders for the Big 12 Conference title and one of the top five teams nationally.

The team has undergone a tumultuous summer, and an ongoing NCAA investigation into allegations of academic improprieties and gift-giving to departed guard Ricky Clemons is likely to continue through December. Paulding said the team is ready to move on and focus on a strong start to the coming season.

“How the program is, I think it’s pretty much out of our control,” he said. “We did what we had to do so now we can devote all our energy to starting the season. Everybody’s ready to start. All of our attention is on beginning practice.”

Coach Quin Snyder and the rest of the basketball staff chose not to hold midnight activities the past two seasons. Paulding began his Missouri career at the last Madness in October 2000, and looking back this week, he called it “a good way to start my college experience.”

Five players will begin the same way Saturday: transfers Jason Conley and Randy Pulley and freshmen Thomas Gardner, Linas Kleiza, and Spencer Laurie. Conley, who transferred to Missouri from Virginia Military Institute in January, was the first freshman to lead the NCAA in scoring, with 29.3 points per game for the Keydets in 2001-02. He is likely to have the greatest impact of the five, but must wait until the end of the fall semester to play.

Kleiza, a 6-foot-8 forward from Lithuania, has the size and strength to immediately contribute this season. After leading his native country to a second-place finish at the World Junior Championships in July, Kleiza will battle the returning Travon Bryant and Kevin Young for playing time at power forward.

Pulley, a junior college transfer from Saint Louis University via Barton County College, is a candidate to take over point guard duties from Clemons, who was kicked off the team in July. Replacing Clemons is the team’s biggest question mark; Pulley and sophomore Jimmy McKinney, who backed up Clemons at the point last season, might split the role at the beginning of the season.

Gardner, a slick-shooting guard from Portland, Ore., will be a key contributor off the bench. Laurie, Mr. Show-Me Basketball 2003 from Kickapoo High in Springfield, is slotted as backup point guard.

Clemons and junior Jeffrey Ferguson are the only contributors gone from last year. Ferguson remains in his native Toronto, with visa issues preventing his return to Columbia. He will re-enroll for the winter semester and the team is in the process of redshirting him, maintaining Ferguson’s last two years of eligibility.

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