MEMPHIS, Tenn. — After a 106-98 win against UNC-Greensboro at Hearnes Center on Dec. 21, the Tigers appeared to have so many scorers that the only problem would be getting everyone enough playing time.
The Tigers improved to 4-1 that afternoon, and the team looked to be on the upswing for guards Randy Pulley and Jason Conley combined for 24 points in their Missouri debuts.
Losses to Illinois and Memphis have followed, and Pulley and Conley have combined for four points, all coming against Memphis on Saturday, in the losses. A deep bench, thought to be a strength, quickly became a shortcoming.
First, coach Quin Snyder said, the level of competition must be considered.
“No disrespect to Greensboro, but Memphis and Illinois are better teams,” he said.
When the bench scores five points in 57 minutes as it did against Memphis, there might be other problems. Pulley and Conley continue to adapt to Missouri’s style, and a right hamstring injury has slowed forward Kevin Young. The play of Linas Kleiza, arguably Missouri’s best player in its first five games, has slipped noticeably. He scored seven points in Missouri’s two losses this week after averaging 11.2 in the first five games.
After the surprise of seeing Kleiza, a freshman, dominate his first few collegiate games, Snyder said a lull in his production would come eventually.
“I think Linas is still trying to find himself in our team,” Snyder said. “He’s just got to keep throwing himself into the team, and he’ll get his opportunities.”
Conley’s scoring slump has been unexpected. After Conley led the NCAA in scoring as a freshman at VMI, the coaching staff was confident he could produce against tougher competition with the Tigers. Despite envisioning himself as a defensive contributor, Conley scored 19 in his Missouri debut. He was held scoreless against Illinois and had two points Saturday.
Conley also mentioned the relative strength of Illinois and Memphis, but added another problem.
“The last couple of games have been on the road, too,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out the right combinations.”
Adding Conley to the lineup has created opportunities for other players; his six assists in the two losses leads the Tigers. He has made 1-of-9 shots in the past two games, a layup in the second half against Memphis.
“Jason had some good looks but didn’t make it,” Snyder said. “I’m not overly concerned about that.”
Conley has primarily taken the ball to the basket to find shots, appearing hesitant and passing up several open looks from the outside. Conley said he thought driving to the inside would be the best chance for Missouri, which shot 34 percent, to score against Memphis.
“I noticed that those rims were giving us some problems, (with) balls going in and out,” he said.
Conley said he had confidence in his ability to score from the outside.
A decline in bench production means more time for the starters, which has led to center Arthur Johnson fouling out in the losses to Illinois and Memphis. Johnson said the team, as talented as any team in the country, needs time to jell.
“We have to keep fighting,” he said. “We have three months left of ball. It takes time for us to be the best team, the type of team we want to be at the end of the season.”
With Big 12 Conference play fewer than two weeks away, that process will be coming to a head soon. Snyder has mentioned the lack of games early in the schedule as a problem, but he said the bench’s inexperience is holding it back.
“We’re still getting our feet wet,” he said. “These guys are new to this level of competition. That’s the reality of it … sometimes it hurts.”