The phrase “national championship” buzzed around the Missouri men’s basketball team locker room Tuesday night after the Tigers’ 74-60 win against the Asheville Altitude of the National Basketball Developmental League.
With their second exhibition win, the Tigers have their sights set on regular-season success. If the Tigers have any chance of making their first Final Four in 21 NCAA Tournament appearances, they must stay healthy.
Three of the Tigers’ starters suffered shake-ups Tuesday.
Josh Kroenke, a senior shooting guard, hyperextended his left knee in the first half. Then Rickey Paulding limped off the court with 10:45 left in the second half, favoring his left ankle. Paulding, the Tigers’ preseason All-American, didn’t return, but coach Quin Snyder said neither injury is serious.
Paulding has a slight sprain and is expected to play in the Tigers’ opener Nov. 29 against Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich.
A few minutes after Paulding left, point guard Jimmy McKinney hit the floor hard after Lavor Postell fouled him.
Still in the game
The crash didn’t faze McKinney, who sank two free throws after a Missouri timeout and played the remaining 3:39. Even though he made only one of his three 3-point shot attempts, McKinney’s perfection at the foul line earned him 12 points. He led the Tigers offense with 15 points and four assists.
The Tigers’ depth can handle injuries, but Missouri can’t afford to lose McKinney at the helm. While Randy Pulley’s eligibility remains uncertain, McKinney is the Tigers’ top point guard.“Jimmy played really well for us,” Paulding said. “For him to go down, that was really tough. Randy’s handling his thing right now, and Spencer (Laurie) is still learning everything. Jimmy’s really important for us.”
Laurie, a freshman, played, eliminating any possibilities of a redshirt season, but his scoreless nine minutes proved he has a lot to learn. Snyder said Laurie’s lateral quickness will be an asset to the Tigers’ defense. Laurie’s effort garnered a defensive rebound and a steal against former Arkansas standout Kareem Reid.
“Any time you play your first college game and you play it against pros, there are going to be things you have to play through,” Snyder said.
Underclassmen step up
Underclass big men Kevin Young and Linas Kleiza will generate breathing room for frontcourt starters Arthur Johnson and Travon Bryant. Young had two blocks, and Kleiza had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Snyder said the challenge his team faces is not relying on what it has done in the past. The team’s success, Snyder said, depends on whether the Tigers can extend their skills beyond their comfort zones.
“A lot of times guys get hung up on whether they’re making their shot,” Snyder said. “We don’t need to play that way because we’ve got a lot of guys who can make shots.”
After his team committed 22 turnovers against Asheville, Snyder said the Tigers’ ballhandling decisions aren’t meeting the running speed of their play, a glitch they will need to remedy in the nine days before playing the Grizzlies in the opener.
“Sometimes you’re going that fast and that hard, when you’re sped up like that, you’re making decisions on the run more,” Snyder said. “You don’t always make the right reads. We’re not as efficient as we’ll need to be.”
Snyder's outlook still positive
Snyder doesn’t know when, or even if, Pulley’s status will change before the first game. He is certain he can put confidence in whomever he has on the court.
“I’ve got a lot of players I really like, that really like to play,” Snyder said. “Whoever we have available, we’ll take each game. The guys who are on the floor will give it all they have.”