The wait is almost over.
After 42 days of practice, two scrimmages and two exhibitions, the Missouri men’s basketball team hasn’t played a game that matters. That changes Saturday when the No. 5 Tigers face Oakland University at 5 p.m. in Rochester, Mich.
The start is the latest for Missouri since the 1992-93 season when the Tigers opened Dec. 1. This year’s wait has been a long but positive one.
“It makes us more hungry as a team,” freshman guard Thomas Gardner said. “We haven’t been out there to play in so long. We’ve been beating up on each other in practice.”
The Golden Grizzlies (2-3), the consensus favorite to win the Mid-Continent Conference, have lost their past three. Oakland returns all its starters from a team that went 17-11. The Grizzlies have lost big to Michigan and No. 19 Cincinnati on the road, but Saturday’s game is their home opener. Oakland is 22-3 at the O’Rena the past two years.
Oakland forward Rawle Marshall was the conference Defensive Player of the Year last season and has become an offensive force this year. He leads the team with 20.6 points per game.
The Tigers struggled from the field in the exhibition season, especially in the first half, shooting 38 percent. Coach Quin Snyder is confident the early shooting slump will not continue to be an issue.
“I don’t worry so much about us missing shots,” he said. “I was frankly kind of pleased that we didn’t hit shots and we had to face that adversity. The way we responded to that was to dig in even harder on the defensive end and try to get stuff off our defense.”
Missouri will have to dig in to stop Oakland point guard Mike Helms, the NCAA’s top returning scorer. Helms averaged 26.9 points in 2002-03, on his way to becoming the Mid-Continent Player of the Year. He is averaging 20 points this season.
Helms remains the focus of the Oakland offense: He made 19 shots per game in his junior season and is up to 21 per game this year. Center Arthur Johnson led the Tigers with 13.6 shots per game last season. Jimmy McKinney will likely defend Helms.
McKinney was strong on both ends of the court in the preseason despite limited practice time at point guard. His ability to drive the ball against Helms will be key.
“He’s fearless out there, the way he’s attacking the basket.” Snyder said. “He needs to keep doing that.”
After seeing his team commit 42 turnovers in its two exhibition games, Snyder knows his Tigers must take better care of the basketball.
“When you commit to running, you’re playing at a different tempo,” he said. “We don’t always make the right reads and we’re not as efficient as we’ll need to be. (Oakland is) a really good team and they’ll test us in that regard.”
After taking last weekend off for Thanksgiving and a short week of practice, the Tigers are ready to get the season rolling.
Even with a 10-day layoff since it played, Gardner said he expects the team to benefit in spite of it.
“We keep working hard on the court in practice,” he said. “If we keep working hard and keep together, we’ll be better on the court.”