Since the start of the season, Missouri coach Quin Snyder has said his team’s identity is its defense. The Tigers seem to be having an identity crisis, though, and it almost caught up with them Sunday as they outdid UNC-Greensboro 106-98.
Snyder said his team can’t afford an offensive race with every team. If the Tigers want to keep winning, Snyder said his team’s method has to change.
“For us to be the type of team we all want to be, it’s got to start on that end,” he said. “When we play the defense, all the sudden good things start to happen in transition.”
Guarding the perimeter plagued the Tigers on Sunday as the Spartans shot a little better than 56 percent for the game and hit 11 3-point shots.
Snyder said his team’s trouble rotating to cover outside shots isn’t a lack of effort. It’s lack of communication.
“The absolute defensively is talk,” Snyder said. “You can all be working as hard as you want, but if you’re not talking to each other, you’re working independently.”
Missouri kept Gonzaga from scoring on any of its second-half 3-point attempts on Dec. 13 but still lost 87-80.
Now the Tigers’ biggest challenge is consistency.
Starting point guard Jimmy McKinney said he knows his team can be a defensive power. He sees it every day in practice.
“We do it well in practice every day, but when the lights come on, we don’t do it,” McKinney said. “It’s at the point that we want to do it so well, but it’s really disappointing that we don’t do it.”
Spartans coach Fran McCaffery said this is the most his team has scored since a 104-point effort in a loss to East Tennessee State in 2001. The Tigers allowed the most points in a win since beating Iowa State 112-109 in 2001.
Despite defensive breakdowns in the backcourt, the Tigers’ big men played relentlessly. Center Arthur Johnson and Travon Bryant combined for the Tigers’ five blocks.
Freshman Linas Kleiza led the Tigers with nine rebounds as Missouri outrebounded UNC-Greensboro 35-18. Johnson and Jason Conley added six each, and Kevin Young pulled down five.
“They’re going to be a power in every game because of the way they rebound the basketball,” McCaffery said.
The Spartans scored 55 points in the second half, but their leading scorer Jay Joseph only added four of his 22 points after halftime. Two of those points came from free throws.
Randy Pulley said he isn’t worried about getting into shootouts as long as his team can outdo its opponent.
“As long as we get a W, we’ll take 100 points,” Pulley said. “We really want keep them to 50, so if we get 100 and they get 50, we’ll take that.”
Snyder said the Tigers defense will settle with more game experience. His team is adjusting to two new players, Conley and Pulley, in the lineup and Kleiza’s presence in the frontcourt.
If the Tigers still don’t know who they are after five games, Snyder said defense should be their default.
“All those chemistry issues I think come into play,” Snyder said. “That’s why I’ve been so focused on the defense. I think that’s where there isn’t an excuse. It has to be there. I don’t care who’s out there.”
FORWARD FURY: It was more a question of when Kleiza would earn his first technical foul, rather than if he would be called for one this season. For a few seconds in the second half, his trademark emotion got the best of him.
Kleiza fumbled the ball with 15:14 left to play, and the Spartans’ Ricky Hickman took advantage of Klieza’s turnover and hit a jumper to bring the Spartans within 61-54.
Kleiza drew a personal foul on the shot, pounding the ball onto the court for the technical.
“I wish I could take it back but I can’t,” Kleiza said.
Snyder said it was the perfect time in the season for Kleiza to learn that lesson.
“I don’t know that he meant to do that, but that’s irrelevant,” Snyder said. “The bigger picture for our team is going from a mistake to the next play. When we make a mistake, it takes us two possessions to recover.”
Snyder faces the challenge of balancing Kleiza’s on-court passion and unbridled emotion.
“He’ll learn to handle those things, where that energy gets channeled,” Snyder said. “I’d like it to get channeled right away to the next play.”
COLUMBIA’S OWN CELEBRITY: Columbia native Carl Edwards was among the 11,552 fans at Sunday’s game. Edwards was named the 2003 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series’ Rookie of the Year.