Today is the day Missouri basketball fans marked on their calendars months ago.
The debut of guard Jason Conley, NCAA record holder and scoring savant, has arrived. Add to that the unveiling of point guard Randy Pulley, who premiers after sitting out the first three weeks of the season.
When the No. 10 Tigers face UNC-Greensboro at 2 p.m. today at Hearnes Center, the question marks surrounding Conley and Pulley will begin to fade. Their introduction creates another problem, though: How does the coaching staff handle playing time for the deepest Missouri team in years?
Coach Quin Snyder said he isn’t concerned.
“I think I’ve been consistent with our team from day one (in saying) that the guys that defend and rebound are going to play,” Snyder said.
Conley and Pulley will have to earn their minutes. Neither will start against the Spartans, but Snyder is hesitant to speculate after that. They will begin as key reserves, meant to provide a spark off the bench and to keep the starters fresh.
Snyder pointed to the strong play of senior Travon Bryant and freshman Linas Kleiza, who have thrived while splitting time at power forward. Sharing the load may be beneficial for the rest of the team.
“Maybe we don’t have two guys that are averaging 37 minutes a game,” Snyder said. “Frankly, I look forward to that. I look at Linas and Travon and see they have the ability to keep (each other) focused on certain things.”
Those things are defense and rebounding. While the majority of the roster can contribute offensively, Snyder wants to see a consistent effort on the defensive end. He won’t be doling out the minutes evenly just to keep everybody happy.
“I don’t know too many coaches that play people because they want them to like them,” he said. “They’re playing because they’ve earned playing time in practice and in games. We’ve got some guys that have earned some things over the course of their careers, and we’ve got some more guys that are hungry and want to earn some things.”
Pulley appears to be the pass-oriented point guard Missouri has lacked for several years. Sidelined since the exhibition season because of certification issues surrounding junior college credits, Pulley has seen his teammates commit 82 turnovers through the first four games. The coaching staff has encouraged Pulley to keep it simple.
“We haven’t gotten a lot of easy baskets the last couple games,” Pulley said. “That’s what I can do, (just) make sure the ball gets up the court quickly.”
The pass-first, pass-second reputation doesn’t bother Pulley. He said he knows the role he must fill to help his team win.
“I can score, but we have so many scorers, I don’t have to score 20 points,” he said. “I just have to get the ball to everybody in the right place.”
Conley’s reputation as a scorer stems from his short career at VMI, where he became the first freshman in NCAA history to lead the country in scoring, averaging 29.3 points in 2001-02. To expect Conley, after transferring to Missouri in January, to keep up that pace might be too much to ask, Snyder said.
“I don’t think there’s been anybody who has averaged over 25 points in our league in the last ten years,” Snyder said. “So, I would say no to that.”
Since the creation of the Big 12 Conference, Texas Tech’s Cory Carr’s 23.3 points per game in 1997-98 is the top mark. Wilt Chamberlain holds the Big 8 record, scoring 30.1 points for Kansas in 1957-58.
Another record-setting season from Conley is unlikely.
“Anybody on this team can score, but Jason obviously came in with that high title,” Bryant said. “But that’s not his main focus right now. He has to go out there and defend and rebound like everybody else.”
With the extra talent on the floor, Snyder said he would continue to emphasize patience in shot selection.
“We’ve got to be really selfless about who scores and be focused on making the right decisions to generate high percentage shots, for whoever is taking them,” Snyder said.
Today’s game will be the first time Missouri has played UNC-Greensboro. Senior guard Jay Joseph leads the Spartans at 18.3 points per game. Junior forward Ronnie Burrell is another threat, scoring 11.5 per game.
After those two, the Spartans makeup is less clear. Coach Fran McCaffery has used six different lineups this season and has started 10 players.
UNC-Greensboro is 2-18 on the road since the beginning of last season. They opened this season with a 71-64 loss at Indiana on Nov. 21. Missouri defeated the Hoosiers 63-58 on the road on Dec. 2.
Pulley said any pregame jitters will be gone by the time he checks into the game.
“It’s my first game representing the state of Missouri,” he said. “I can’t even tell you how anxious I am to play. I’ll be ready.”
After waiting more than 11 months, Conley said he feels the anticipation, too.
“He’s excited, I’m excited,” Conley said. “We’re gonna do what it takes.”