When Missouri set up for Saturday’s tip-off against Iowa, 13,611 fans did a doubletake.
Rickey Paulding, Travon Bryant and Jimmy McKinney started for the ninth straight game. Sophomore Kevin Young and freshman Thomas Gardner were the Tigers drawing befuddled stares.
Missouri’s starting lineup against Iowa on Saturday wasn’t a fluke. Three straight losses convinced Missouri basketball coach Quin Snyder that something had to change before his team played the Hawkeyes.
Paulding, Bryant and McKinney started the first eight games with seniors Arthur Johnson and Josh Kroenke.
In the Tigers’ 76-56 win against Iowa on Saturday, a new starting lineup rejuvinated No. 23 Missouri for its first win in more than two weeks.
While Gardner started the first game of his career, Johnson watched tip-off from the bench for the first time since the Tigers’ 91-68 loss to Texas Tech on Feb. 20, 2002.
“It was a good experience for me to see the game from a different view,” Gardner said. “Usually I come in off the bench when the tempo’s already set for the game. I came in and tried to set the tempo. That’s a challenge for me.”
The Tigers’ starters built a 5-0 lead by the 16:40 mark when Snyder pulled Bryant and Young for Johnson and freshman Linas Kleiza. Johnson drew a quick foul and gave up the Hawkeyes’ first basket to Jared Reiner. Bryant quickly replaced him after a little more than a minute.
With the score tied at nine and 12: 37 left in the first half, Kroenke entered the game.
He knocked down two 3-pointers and McKinney hit another to build a 22-11 Missouri lead. Kroenke, who played a little more than 23 minutes per game before Saturday, only played 13 minutes.
Gardner had three points in 14 minutes, and Young scored only two in 10 minutes, but Snyder said their contributions were more important than what the scoreboard showed.
“The starting lineup is irrelevant, except for the fact that I felt like Thomas and Kevin were two guys, in the last couple weeks of practice, that we’re giving us tons of emotion,” he said.
"I wanted to start the game with that kind of emotion. It shouldn’t matter who starts.”
Gardner also offered two assists and a steal. Young’s playing time gave the Tigers another big man to rotate with Johnson who picked up three fouls in two first-half minutes. Young also had one of the Tigers’ nine blocks.
Bryant has been the most consistent Tigers player. He swatted four of those blocks. He also had nine rebounds and two steals.
Paulding said the entire team backed Bryant’s steady energy with its own effort on Saturday.
“The difference tonight was everybody showed up,” he said. “Tray’s been really fighting hard every day in practice and in each game to try to bring that fire and I think tonight was a really conscious effort on everybody’s part to be with him and not have him out there looking like a madman.”
Young said the team’s unity was more critical to the Tigers’ success than which player played the most minutes or scored the most points.
“Everybody had the same purpose today,” he said. “Everybody just wanted to go out there and get a win. Everybody wanted to play harder.”
Their unselfishness was undisputable in Saturday’s win.
Every player on the Tigers’ roster played and scored. Three were in double figures. Kleiza led the Tigers with 18 points. Bryant finished with 14, and McKinney scored 10. All but two Tigers charted double-digit minutes.
Freshman Spencer Laurie and walk-on junior Brian Dailey entered the game with a minute left. Both made their minute count.
Laurie controlled the ball, counting one assist and a free throw. Dailey drilled a 3-point shot from the corner with 9 seconds left, putting an exclamation point on the Tigers’ win.
With four seniors in the Tigers’ usual starting lineup and a highly-touted recruiting class filling the bench, preseason predictions said Missouri’s depth would reap success. The Tigers’ bench, though, only scored 22.3 points per game in its first eight games. Kleiza accounted for 11.1 points per game.
Saturday, Missouri’s bench outscored Iowa’s bench 37 to seven.
Snyder said his team showed the “collective identity” he’s been demanding of them all season.
“It’s got to come from everybody,” Snyder said. “It’s got to come from everybody on our team.”
Snyder is finally seeing the results he has wanted since day one this season: The Tigers’ offense is moving smoothly and their defense is communicating. He said this is only the beginning, though, and the lineup will keep changing.
“I’m going to start a different lineup every game,” Snyder said. “I don’t know who’s going to start on Wednesday. We’ll see who comes to work tomorrow morning at 8 a.m.”