Since the season’s start, the Missouri basketball team has desperately searched for an identity. If nothing else, an explanation for its misery.
On Monday, it found it: Up and down emotion, sluggish to loose balls, no defensive communication, frenzied on offense.
It wasn’t at all the demeanor Missouri coach Quin Snyder wanted from his squad, ranked as high as No. 3 earlier this season, as it lost 82-68 to Syracuse. He said these qualities aren’t innate; they’re only mental setbacks.
“Concentration will clean up a lot of these things,” Snyder said. “I don’t believe that our habits are that poor. We talk about playing screen and roll a certain way, and we’ve got two guys on a different page. That’s where we get exposed.”
Even though the Tigers have struggled in different areas each game, their faulty defense concerns Snyder the most.
“I’ve seen these same guys guard,” Snyder said. “I saw these same guys guard in the Big 12 Tournament last year. It’s just a question of where our concentration is.”
Ricky Clemons is the only player missing from last year’s Missouri team that fought through to the Big 12 Tournament championship game and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Snyder added a recruiting class hailed as one of the best in the country. So far, incorporating those newcomers to a group of seasoned Tigers has been more of an obstacle for Snyder than most expected.
While trying to find their best lineup, the Tigers’ roles and responsibilities are also uncertain.
Jason Conley joined the team stuck with the reputation of high-scoring sharp shooter, but his lacking defense keeps him on the bench. Snyder said it’s the same for any player with substandard defense.
Similarly, substitutions between Randy Pulley and Jimmy McKinney at point guard muddles the Tigers’ offense.
“We’ve tried to play lineups that are better defensive lineups,” Snyder said. “It’s obviously something our guys work on; we work on it every day in practice, individually, in breakdown segments, collectively.”
It’s not showing up at game time. On average, the Tigers’ opponents are shooting better than 42 percent.
Fixing the Tigers defense means realizing their roles are full time. They can’t take possessions off.
“We’ve got guys that are competing at various times, but collectively we have breakdowns,” Snyder said. “Good teams will expose them whether it is forgetting to block a guy out, and that’s where we are right now.”
Despite flickers of quintessential Paulding slashing and ferocious post play from Arthur Johnson, the Tigers’ holes are too costly.
“It still starts and finishes on the defensive end and on the glass,” Snyder said. “In those two areas we were poor, inconsistent, which adds up to not getting the job done.”
The Tigers won their first three games, but something wasn’t right. They were winning unconvincing games saturated with turnovers and missed opportunities. A Dec. 30 loss to Belmont at Hearnes Center magnified the warning signs.
Although the Tigers have won two of their past three home games, the Belmont-induced boos started up again late in Monday night’s loss to Syracuse. When Missouri fans recognized the Tigers’ desperation plays facing a double-digit deficit, they left with three minutes left.
McKinney said he doesn’t listen but his team deserved them.
“I ignore it,” McKinney said. “It doesn’t bother us, but we should have got booed. We got beat in our own backyard.”
The Tigers fell to 6-6, a predicament no Missouri team has seen since 1979.
The taunts can single out players, but ultimately, Snyder said the team has to respond.
“You could point to each one of our guys and say, ‘This is a break down here and this is a breakdown here,’” he said. “We’ve got to sure those things up because it’s a team game. We’ve got to be better collectively. It’s team defense.
“They don’t put up there ‘we scored on AJ or we scored on Jason.’ It says Missouri and Syracuse, and that’s where it is.”