The Big 20

Missouri expects nothing less than a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Here’s the (preseason)
answers to some of the biggest questions
surrounding the Tigers.
Wednesday, November 26, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:31 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

1. What is the Tigers’ greatest strength?

Experience. Seniors Rickey Paulding, Arthur Johnson and Travon Bryant have played in eight NCAA Tournament games, which ties them for the school mark with Clarence Gilbert. Paulding has scored more points in tournament games (145) than any other Tiger, and he scored 36 in last year’s second-round loss to Marquette. Johnson averaged 26 points and 14 rebounds in last year’s tournament; if he can perform at that level all season, the Tigers will go a long way.

2. What is the Tigers’ most glaring weakness?

Point guard. Junior transfer Randy Pulley appeared to be locked in here, but eligibility issues might derail his season before it begins. Sophomore Jimmy McKinney has proved he can run the offense, but he is best used as a shooting guard. Freshman Spencer Laurie will be a suitable backup, but the Tigers are likely to struggle when McKinney heads to the bench. This could be the Tigers’ undoing.

3. Will the NCAA’s investigation be a distraction for the Tigers?

Probably not. The nucleus of the team is four seniors who are only concerned with winning in their final season at Missouri. The players have made it clear that the investigation is out of their control and that it will not affect their play. Their tune could change if sanctions come down in December.

4. Will Johnson become Missouri’s top rebounder?

He has the blocks record (197) and has a good shot at this one. Johnson needs 194 rebounds to pass Doug Smith’s record of 1,053 from 1988-91. AJ had 316 rebounds in 33 games last season, an average of 9.6 per game. At that pace, Johnson would pass Smith against UNLV on Feb. 15.

5. Is this Paulding’s team?

In his first three seasons, Paulding has left leadership duties to more experienced and outspoken teammates. In his senior year, this must become his team. He lives for the big games and big moments, showing that he can step up with strong performances in the NCAA Tournament last season. In key situations, Paulding must take control and carry the load.

6. Who is the best-dressed Tiger?

Jason Conley has been showing off his finest suits since he transferred from VMI in January, but this honor goes to McKinney. His all-blue suits are a spectacle to behold, and his red, white and blue sneakers are as patriotic as they are stylish.

7. Who has the most to prove?

Senior Travon Bryant has been consistently inconsistent his college career. Despite arriving in Columbia with All-American credentials, he has struggled to prove that he earned the distinction, averaging 6.5 points per game in his career. Many of his best efforts have come off the bench, and that might be where he ends up if freshman Linas Kleiza adapts quickly to the college game.

8. Which Tiger newcomer will make the biggest splash?

Thomas Gardner and Kleiza are definitely impact freshmen, and Pulley, if his eligibility issues are settled, might play the most of the bunch. Conley has more than a year of NCAA experience and became the first freshman in to lead the country in scoring, with 29.3 points per game at VMI in 2001-02. Conley might be the most talented player on the roster; it’s up to the coaching staff to ensure he gets enough playing time.

9. Who can contribute the most off the bench?

This should be the spot for Gardner. He might not be ready for major minutes, but his athleticism and good hands will make him vital off the Missouri bench. Opponents who relax defensively when Paulding or Conley take a breather may be unpleasantly surprised by a Gardner dunk or 3-pointer.

10. Will Jeffrey Ferguson play for the Tigers again?

From all indications, Ferguson will return to campus for the second semester in January. Whether there is a spot for him on the team is another matter. Ferguson was a seldom-used reserve last year, and the addition of Kleiza and development of sophomore Kevin Young drops him farther down the depth chart. If Ferguson returns, he will not be an important piece of the program.

11. Will this be the year Paulding scores basketball’s first 3-point dunk?

Rules, schmules. If he takes off from behind the line and makes it to the rim, he will have earned the extra point. The only drawback is that Paulding might draw a charging call if he tries it.

12. Which nonconference team might surprise the Tigers?

Oakland. The Grizzlies are the best team in the Mid-Continent Conference, and senior guard Mike Helms averaged 26.9 points per game last season, the highest returning scorer in the NCAA. Oakland will have played five games before the Tigers open the season against the Grizzlies in Auburn Hills, Mich. Put it all together and you might have a shocking start to the Tigers’ season.

13. Which nonconference game is the one you can’t miss?

The Iowa game is becoming a heated rivalry, and Braggin’ Rights against Illinois is always huge, but when the national champions come to town, that’s the top game. Syracuse visits Columbia on Jan. 12. Mark your calendar.

14. Will senior Josh Kroenke ever leave the Missouri program?

Eventually he will have to. This is his fifth year with the Tigers, after recurring concussions forced him to take a medical redshirt in 2000-01. Kroenke has played on all of Snyder’s teams, and he could see many more. Kroenke seems the perfect fit to go the route of Brian Grawer and join the team as a graduate assistant, positioning himself for a coaching job down the line.

15. What is the Tigers’ main objective in Big 12 Conference play?

Winning on the road, and more specifically, improving against South Division opponents. Snyder’s Tigers have won three of 12 road games against south schools, the victories coming against Texas A&M in 1999 and Baylor and Texas Tech in 2000. This season, the Tigers have games at Oklahoma (Jan. 17), Baylor (Feb. 21) and Texas Tech (March 3). The last two are winnable, but these games are priorities on the schedule.

16. Can Snyder snap his Texas losing streak?

The Longhorns have won all five matchups against Snyder’s Tigers, including a convincing 76-55 win in Austin last season. Missouri hosts the Longhorns on Jan. 20, a game that will set the tone for conference play. Texas lost point guard T.J. Ford to the NBA, but center James Thomas and guard Brandon Mouton anchor another solid Texas squad.

17. Will the Tigers close Hearnes Center with a win?

If it happens, it will come against Kansas, so it won’t be easy. The atmosphere of the game, off the charts because of the rivalry, will be mind-boggling for this game. Look for the Tigers to put Hearnes to bed with an overtime win.

18. Who will win the Big 12?

Kansas has been the favorite the past few years and must be again. As a whole, the North division is down, allowing the Jayhawks (or Tigers) an easier route to the championship. Don’t overlook Oklahoma and Texas, which are younger this season but as talented as ever.

19. Will the Tigers make the NCAA Tournament?

Yes, provided the NCAA doesn’t hand down penalties that keep the Tigers from the postseason. Missouri has too much talent to underachieve that much this season. Snyder’s Tigers should be happy with nothing less than a No. 2 seed come March.

20. Will this be the year the Tigers make the Final Four?

Here’s one stat you won’t find in the media guide: The Tigers have made the most NCAA Tournament appearances (21) without reaching the last weekend. The Tigers have made the Elite Eight three times. That’s a tough trend to overcome, but this is the team that can do it. The Tigers will reach the Final Four. Check back with us in April to find out whether they go farther.

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