Tigers undefeated but still uneasy

Missouri’s No. 3 ranking belies the team’s sluggish start to the season.
Tuesday, December 9, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:29 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Missouri’s 3-0 start is not much of a surprise.

These Tigers, the Associated Press Poll says, are the No. 3 team in the country. Almost every preseason prognosticator picked Missouri to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

The Tigers are 3-0, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The wins have been more difficult than many expected, including wins that were in doubt until the final buzzer at Oakland to open the season and at Indiana on Saturday.

Missouri next takes its record to Seattle to face No. 17 Gonzaga on Saturday at 1 p.m. There remains much room for improvement, coach Quin Snyder said.

“I still think we have a lot of things to get better at,” Snyder said. “We went on a 15-0 run (to close the Indiana game), but you can also say we were down 15 in the second half.”

The Tigers have entered a brutal stretch of their nonconference schedule. After Gonzaga, Missouri will face Illinois, Memphis and Iowa in the five games that follow.

The tough schedule is in part because of the Tigers being found ineligible for the Guardians Classic, a preseason tournament Missouri expected to participate in, as well as a desire to prepare the team for Big 12 Conference and postseason play.

The come-from-behind 63-58 victory at Indiana was the kind of game Snyder wants his team to be ready for.

“That’s why we played this schedule, to be involved in these types of games,” he said. “To go on the road early, that’s what you have to do to be a good team.

The schedule has disrupted the Tigers’ practice times. A nine-hour trip to and from the Oakland game cost Snyder two days of practice, and another road game at Indiana limited practice time as well.

“We scheduled the way we had to schedule, given what we had to work with,” Snyder said. “We’re playing over Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I think with the few days we had off (for Thanksgiving break), we’re not back in the flow completely yet the way we were a couple weeks ago.”

Less practice time means fewer opportunities to run the offense, which has directly influenced Missouri’s sloppy ballhandling. They turned it over 53 times in their first three games, but there are signs of improvement: the turnover total has decreased each game, from 20 to 19 to 14.

“I’d like to cut it another third and have it be seven,” Snyder said. “That’s something that the guys have really responded to.”

Throughout the preseason, Snyder said he saw a desire to improve in his players. Five of Missouri’s nine players in the rotation are either freshmen or sophomores, meaning much of the team has room to progress.

“Every game that we come through, win or lose, we can learn from,” Snyder said. “I think these guys want to learn, and that excites me.”

Winning games tends to help teams improve, too. Despite a few sloppy wins to start the season, each win has given Missouri something to build on.

“Indiana doesn’t get beat when they’re at home,” point guard Jimmy McKinney said. “For us to (go in there) and take one back home, it builds a lot of confidence. It lets us know that we can play with anybody.”

That confidence should only build as the Tigers get more practice time. Six days between games will give Missouri some time to do just that.

“We just need to get back in the gym, get some shots and do some individual work to get our guys crisp again,” Snyder said. “We’ll have a chance to do that this week.”

TIGERS MOVE UP: Missouri moved to No. 3 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

The ranking is Missouri’s highest since the 2001-02 season, when it was No. 2. The Tigers earned six of the 72 first-place votes.

Florida claimed the top spot for the first week, after former-No. 1 Kansas lost to Stanford on Saturday. The Jayhawks dropped to No. 5, one spot ahead of Texas. Gonzaga remains at No. 17.

KLEIZA HONORED: Freshman forward Linas Kleiza earned Big 12 Conference Rookie of the Week honors.

Kleiza’s best game of his brief Missouri career came against Indiana on Saturday, when he scored 15 points and added 13 rebounds.

He leads the conference in rebounding with 11.3 per game. Okalahoma guard Jason Detrick earned Player of the Week honors.

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