The next 48 hours might be the longest of Jason Conley’s life.
Since Jan. 16, Conley has counted the days until his first game in a Missouri uniform after transferring from Virginia Military Institute midway through last season.
Conley can finally stop counting. On Sunday, the No. 10 Tigers host UNC-Greensboro at 2 p.m. at Hearnes Center. Conley will play against the Spartans, but that does not help pass the time any more quickly.
“It seems like the wait now is harder because I’m so close to the time that it was last year,” Conley said. “But it’s here now, and I’m very excited.”
At least he was not waiting alone. Randy Pulley, a point guard at 6 feet 2, also will make his Tigers debut Sunday.
Conley said being on the court for the first time will be much easier with Pulley by his side.
“It’d be one thing if I came out all by myself, but he’s actually coming out with me so we can feed off each other,” Conley said.
When the rest of the team was on the road, Conley and Pulley were in the gym.
On Monday, the Tigers followed their first loss of the season, an 87-80 overtime loss to Gonzaga, with one of the toughest practices of the season. When coach Quin Snyder showed up to Hearnes an hour before practice, Conley and Pulley were on the court.
“Clearly there’s a bounce in their step in practice,” Snyder said.
The wait for each of these players has been different: Conley’s was full of anticipation; Pulley’s was full of uncertainty.
Before transferring in January, Conley, a 6-5 swingman, led the nation in scoring as a freshman with 29.3 points per game during the Keydets’ 2001-2002 season. His shooting isn’t the only skill he will add for the Tigers. He also led the Southern Conference with 82 steals his freshman year and averaged eight rebounds.
Conley said scoring isn’t his primary role in the Tigers’ lineup. It’s defense.
“Everybody thinks I’m going to come in and score a whole bunch of points, but they might be fooled,” he said. “If we’re playing against somebody that can score well, I want to be able to come in an shut them down, give (Paulding) a break and everything. As far as the offense goes, if it comes, it comes.”
Perimeter defense is exactly what Snyder said his team lacks. Lucky for the Tigers, Conley has had some of the best defense practice he could ask for, going up against preseason All-American Rickey Paulding.
“He likes to take on challenges,” sophomore Jimmy McKinney said. “He takes them on every day, guarding Rickey Paulding. That’s a big challenge for him.”
Pulley, on the other hand, did not think he would have to wait until the Tigers’ fifth game to play.
On Nov. 9, the day before Missouri’s first exhibition game against Inter Hoop, Pulley learned he wouldn’t play until Missouri cleared several of his transfer credits from Barton (Kan.) County Community College.
“It was a big tease,” Pulley said. “I was disappointed, but you got to live with it.”
Missouri cleared Pulley for action Dec. 3, but Snyder wanted him to focus on finishing out the semester before worrying about basketball.
With finals finished, Pulley can make an immediate impact in the Tigers’ backcourt.
Ryan Wolf, former Barton County coach, endorsed Pulley as a “pass-first, pass-second” point guard and an adept ballhandler. He averaged 12.8 points and 5.5 assists last season.
In the Tigers’ loss to Gonzaga, McKinney’s early fouls held him to 10 first-half minutes. His points came from 6-of-8 free-throw shooting. Freshman Spencer Laurie controlled the ball for 18 minutes but didn’t even attempt a shot.
“Suddenly, our perimeter is two freshmen, Josh (Kroenke) and Rickey (Paulding),” Snyder said.
With Pulley and Conley available, Snyder said his team won’t face the same kind of burden.
The Tigers are not worried about sharing minutes with two more players. The added depth will give his team a chance to show its best game strategy.
“For some of our guys that are playing heavy minutes, it’s hard to do that and play the style that we want to play,” Snyder said. “Coaches don’t decide who plays, players decide who plays.”
Conley and Pulley aren’t the only ones counting down until Sunday’s tip-off.
“I think we’re more excited than they are,” McKinney said. “They’re going to help us out a lot.”
Conley said the team’s support helped him survive the past 12 months, especially advice from his roommate, senior forward Travon Bryant. In his freshman season, Bryant wasn’t eligible to play until the Tigers’ Dec. 21, 2000, meeting with Illinois.
“He’s been there more than anybody,” Conley said. “He just gave me advice: ‘Don’t be nervous. Don’t feel like you have to go in and do a whole bunch. Take it one play at a time. That’s the secret.’”
Despite the expectations for Conley and Pulley, Conley said this isn’t a contest. Both will make an impact, but the team’s success is the priority.
“What we bring, it’s not an individual thing,’’ Conley said. “We all know that he’s a good point guard, and we all know that I can come in and help. Right now, me and Pulley are thinking about what we have to do to win.”