Despite losing only three walk-ons from last year’s team, the Tigers have six new faces. Each of the newcomers, including an international star and a collegiate record-setter, arrived in Columbia in a different way. Their influences this season will vary, but these six Tigers are the future of the program.
After Aaron Miles and Michael Lee chose to attend Kansas, many figured Thomas Gardner would follow. Both Jefferson High graduates from Portland, Ore., had successful college careers, going deep into the NCAA Tournament with the Jayhawks. Gardner went in a different direction, choosing Missouri.
Gardner said he has no regrets.
“I love it here,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. It’s everything I thought it would be.”
Gardner visited Connecticut in the spring of 2002, then toured Columbia that September. Despite a trip to Lawrence scheduled later that month, Gardner saw no need for it. He felt at home at Missouri and had made his decision.
Gardner starred at Jefferson, earning All-State honors in his senior year. One Portland magazine described Gardner’s slams as “explosive dunks that look like he’s been launched from a trampoline.”
Trampolines are against Big 12 Conference regulations, but Gardner will find other ways to contribute.
“Everybody was the man on his high school team,” he said. “I think if people understand their roles and stay together, we’ll keep our focus on winning as a team and do whatever it takes.”
If you have seen Linas Kleiza, you probably have seen him using his cell phone.
Is he calling home to Lithuania, catching up with friends and family? Not exactly.
“I have a couple friends here (I can call),” Kleiza said. “But I get to call home a couple times a week.”
Maybe Kleiza’s phone bill isn’t as large as his 6-foot-8 frame. It’s not the size of his expectations, either. Kleiza arrived in Columbia as the highest-rated recruit of coach Quin Snyder’s tenure and is expected to make an immediate impact.
Kleiza is multidimensional, willing to battle for a rebound in the low post or step outside for a 3-pointer. After leading his native country to second place at the World Junior Championships in July, Kleiza is ready to take on the Big 12. A candidate for conference Freshman of the Year, Kleiza will quickly prove why he was such a sought-after recruit.
That recognition would be all for naught if Kleiza were unhappy with his new surroundings. Fortunately, he’s not.
“It’s a great community; I like the students and I’m having fun,” he said. “I definitely miss my friends and family, but I’m having a blast so far.”
Jason Conley’s career at VMI was as spectacular as it was short. His freshman season was unrivaled; his 29.3 points per game made him the first freshman to lead the country in scoring.
Life off the court was more demanding, but Conley survived.
That’s what made Conley, when he chose to transfer, so appealing to top programs around the country. Conley caught a Missouri game on television one evening and liked what he saw. When the Missouri staff came calling, Conley was sold.
Conley’s offensive output at VMI was a shock to basketball experts because he was not heavily recruited. It didn’t surprise Conley: After sitting out a year as a partial qualifier, he was ready to make an impact.
“I had a flame built up inside me because of redshirting my first year,” Conley told ESPN.com. “When I went out there, I just let it all out.”
Conley still uses the flame analogy: “That flame has built up inside of me. I’ve been wanting to play with these guys so much over the last year.”
He will play for the first time Dec. 21 against UNC-Greensboro.
Spencer Laurie is unselfish on the court.
As a point guard, he has to be, looking for the best shot. As the primary backup to Jimmy McKinney, the Tigers will rely on Laurie’s patience when McKinney takes a breather.
Laurie’s greatest contribution might have come from an off-court decision. Despite offers from Southwest Missouri State, Minnesota and North Carolina State, Laurie chose Missouri, and he chose to walk on. Missouri just made sense for Laurie.
“Whatever I can do to contribute, that’s what I’ll do,” he said.
It appeared that his contribution would come as a practice body this year, taking a redshirt to adapt physically to Big 12 play. When Randy Pulley’s eligibility came into question, the coaching staff put Laurie in the rotation. Snyder said he had considered playing Laurie all along but first wanted to consult with Laurie’s family, including his father, Barry Laurie, who played at Missouri from 1979-83. Regardless, Snyder has high hopes for Laurie, even though he won’t spend as much time in the program as he first thought.
“I’m excited about Spencer as a player,” he said.
Randy Pulley seemed to be the perfect fit.
A pass-first point guard who can run an offense and is strong defensively seemed to fill a gaping hole in the Missouri roster.
Then he was suddenly unavailable for Missouri’s preseason opener on Nov. 10. Missouri’s certifying officer was unable to verify three to six of Pulley’s transfer credits, forcing him to the sidelines.
Classroom issues have been a problem for Pulley. He began his college career at Saint Louis, averaging five points in 19.7 minutes as a freshman in 2001-02, but poor grades forced him out of SLU. Pulley transferred to Barton (Kan.) Community College for the 2002-03 season, where he became a top recruit. Missouri landed Pulley in April, hoping to have solidified their point guard situation.
“I’m still getting used to everybody,” Pulley said after the Black and Gold Scrimmage in October. “The more we play together, the better we’ll be.”
Unfortunately, Pulley can’t mesh with his teammates when he isn’t allowed on the court with them.
Walk-ons tend to be local players, students who chose Missouri after unspectacular high school careers.
So how did a guard from Sammamish, Wash., end up with the Tigers?
Despite offers from Washington State and Cal-Davis, Brian Dailey chose to come to Missouri without a scholarship. With Snyder hailing from Mercer Island, Wash., 15 miles from Sammamish, Missouri was a natural fit.
Dailey played two years at Bellevue (Wash.) Community College, averaging 12.1 points and 4.6 assists in his sophomore season. Dailey is primarily a practice body for the Tigers, serving as their 12th man.
If the chants of “Brian Dailey” in the final moments of the Tigers’ two exhibition contests are any indication, Missouri fans have made Dailey, despite his not being from Missouri, their native son.