It’s been a long season for the Missouri basketball team. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they are only halfway.
Final Four predictions in the preseason don’t mean anything when the Tigers are 7-7, 2-2 in the Big 12 Conference.
The Tigers have shown glimpses of promise, but whether they can fix the glaring weaknesses will determine how smoothly the season ends.
Point guard: D+
This is Missouri’s weakest position. Sophomore Jimmy McKinney ran the offense for the first four games with mixed results, committing 11 turnovers with 13 assists and often appearing lost on the floor. Freshman Spencer Laurie averaged 13 minutes in those four games and has been a steady, if unspectacular, reserve.
Randy Pulley’s debut Dec. 21 gave the Tigers their first true point guard in several seasons. After taking control of the offense, Pulley has distributed the ball well, including five assists and no turnovers in a 76-56 win against Iowa on Jan. 4. Pulley’s struggles at the free-throw line (38 percent) and unwillingness to take the outside shot make him an offensive liability, especially late in the game.
Shooting guard: C
Senior Josh Kroenke started the first eight games, providing a steady influence and the ability to hit the outside shot. He moved to the bench after Missouri’s shocking 71-67 loss to Belmont on Dec. 30 and gets most of his playing time when senior Rickey Paulding is on the bench.
McKinney began sharing this spot with freshman Thomas Gardner after Pulley’s debut and has looked more comfortable in his natural position. McKinney is Missouri’s best free-throw shooter, and his five assists at Oklahoma on Saturday keyed the offense in the overtime win.
Small forward: C+
Paulding has been inconsistent despite leading the Tigers with 16.2 points per game.
His shot has disappeared at times, including an 0-of-9 effort in the Tigers’ best performance of the season against Iowa.
Paulding is best when he drives to the basket and draws contact, for he is one of the Tigers’ better free-throw shooters. When Paulding is content to force 3-pointers, Missouri struggles offensively.
Power forward: B
With senior Travon Bryant and freshman Linas Kleiza splitting time, this has been the Tigers’ best position.
Early in the season, Bryant kept the Tigers in games with his efficient scoring. Bryant scored a career-high 19 against Illinois on Dec. 23. Bryant’s 60 percent shooting ranks third in the Big 12.
For all of his strong play, though, Bryant has disappeared at times. Against Belmont, Bryant attempted one shot and grabbed one rebound.
Coming off the bench, Kleiza has brought relentless play and energy. He leads the team with 8.8 rebounds per game and is third on the team in scoring at 11.4 points per game.
After averaging career highs in scoring and rebounding in 2002-03, senior Arthur Johnson has yet to find the form that earned him a spot on the All-Big 12 Second Team.
Johnson’s early season frustrations have come from being the focus of opponent’s defenses and constantly receiving double teams.
When Johnson gets a chance to shoot, he has made a solid 53 percent, but if the team wants to make a run, Johnson must have a bigger impact inside.
Sophomore Kevin Young has contributed little, especially after suffering a pulled right hamstring against Illinois.
Although thought to be a strength when the season began, the bench hasn’t lived up to expectations.
Aside from the play of Kleiza, twice named Big 12 Rookie of the Week, inconsistency describes the performance of the bench. As a result, three starters, Johnson, McKinney and Paulding, average at least 29 minutes.
Junior guard Jason Conley was brilliant in his debut Dec. 21, scoring 19, but defensive problems as well as illness caused his playing time to dwindle. Gardner, who scored 17 at Iowa State on Jan. 7, has taken a larger role recently, and Kroenke has hit 39 percent of his 3-pointers.
If the sweat dripping from Quin Snyder’s brow after every game is any indication, the Tigers’ coach is under more fire than usual.
With an NCAA investigation pending and his squad sitting at .500, Snyder knows all eyes are on him. He took the blame for the Tigers’ struggles, but Snyder has done little with a talent-laden roster.
In the Tigers’ loss to the Cyclones, Snyder stifled the team’s momentum, pulling all five players who erased a 12-point deficit. The fresh five struggled and fell short.
After overtime games against Oklahoma and Texas, Snyder’s squad is finally playing well. Unfortunately for Snyder, the Big 12 won’t get easier from here.
TEAM OFFENSE: C
When the preseason praises started piling up, the Tigers’ talent pool was so packed with scoring threats most predicted a Final Four future. Balancing nine players with 10 or more minutes every game hurt the Tigers.
The Tigers have played tentatively, flailing desperate 3-pointers when they find themselves losing. In their 12-point comeback against Oklahoma, the Tigers finally stuck with their best offensive strategy: getting it to their power players inside.
Opponents’ defenses aren’t the only thing creating havoc for the Tigers’ offense. They do plenty of that to themselves. The Tigers average 3.3 turnovers more than their opponents, the worst margin in the league.
TEAM DEFENSE: D
Snyder said from the start that defense would be the Tigers’ identity, but it’s late January, and they are trying to find out what they are made of.
After starting 3-0, the Tigers’ defensive letdowns triggered six losses in their next nine games. They let a lead slip to a lackluster Belmont team and almost watched Texas A&M come back at Hearnes Center.
Although they made crucial defensive stops in their Tuesday loss to No. 16 Texas, the Tigers haven’t gelled. Their communication crashes too often, and 6-foot-8 forwards such as Kleiza end up trying to defend speedy guards like Texas’ Royal Ivey.
Hope for a run in the postseason hinges on whether the Tigers can communicate defensively.
OVERALL MIDTERM GRADE: