Missouri coach Quin Snyder hinted at it at Colorado and mentioned it again Saturday.
After alternating wins and losses for 10 games, the Tigers dropped their second game in a row Saturday, a 78-62 thrashing by Nebraska. The reasons for the loss were all too familiar: The Tigers have returned to the problems that caused them to go 0-3 to close December.
After the Buffaloes’ 83-70 win on Jan. 28, Snyder seemed hesitant to say the Tigers were moving backward. They had just won at Oklahoma, fought Texas to an overtime loss, and dominated Nebraska. He did not expect Colorado to outhustle Missouri; it could have just been a misstep in the turnaround of the Tigers’ season.
“I’d like not to think this is a setback to how we were playing in December,” Snyder said then. “I feel like we’re getting better. I just think we didn’t play well.”
Snyder was more definite in his assessment after Saturday’s loss.
“Today’s game looked like how we played a couple games in December,” Snyder said.
The Tigers (9-10, 4-5 Big 12 Conference) are losing for the same reasons they lost two months ago. Whether the problems began as deficiencies that would have doomed the team from its start or developed from a lack of consistent intensity is debatable. It is clear, though, the Tigers must overcome their problems immediately to reach the postseason.
The turnover bug is back. The Tigers averaged 16.3 turnovers in losses to Illinois, Memphis and Belmont in late December, but began to take better care of the ball last month. They averaged 11.75 turnovers in their past four games before visiting Nebraska. They gave the ball away 17 times Saturday.
“They were quicker to loose balls,” Snyder said. “After the first two, we bent at the waist and they were on them.”
Making the situation more troublesome is the dismissal of point guard Randy Pulley. The team removed him Friday after he skipped two practices last month. Pulley’s 2.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio was the best on the team.
Pulley’s departure forces guard Jimmy McKinney to lead the offense. McKinney, a natural shooting guard, played point guard occasionally last season and almost exclusively early this year. McKinney said he is confident he can be effective as a point guard.
“I feel better about it,” McKinney said. “I’d feel even better if we were winning ballgames.”
Center Arthur Johnson can take over games when he is the focus of the Missouri offense. He will find it difficult to score stuck on the bench with foul trouble.
In Missouri’s 71-70 loss to Illinois on Dec. 23, Johnson committed his second foul late in the first half and was in and out of the lineup during the second half.
Johnson had similar problems at Memphis four days later, fouling out with 2:40 left and Missouri down 54-53. Without an inside presence, Missouri was forced into outside looks and lost 61-59.
Johnson committed his second foul with 6:49 left in the first half against Belmont on Dec. 30, forcing him to the bench for the remainder of the half, in which the Tigers let a 10-point lead turn into a 34-33 halftime edge.
Johnson sat the last 8:10 of the first half against Nebraska on Saturday with two fouls. His 10 points and two rebounds did not provide enough of an inside presence to overcome the Cornhuskers.
“I don’t think we’re getting a lot of easy looks,” Snyder said. “We’re not breaking people down where we can get 15 or 20 (inside) looks a game. When we have been, we’re not making them.”
Missouri has started games poorly all season, but the tendency was particularly evident against Illinois and Memphis. The Fighting Illini used runs of 16-2 and 13-2 to take a 40-19 lead after the first 16 minutes.
Memphis used a 20-5 rally to take a 29-14 lead after 12 minutes. Missouri cut the deficit to nine at halftime but did not have enough in the second half to win.
Nebraska opened up a 25-8 lead 13 minutes into Saturday’s game, and Missouri could not cut its deficit to fewer than nine points the rest of the way.
Whether because of a lack of preparation or intensity, the Tigers cannot afford to spot their opponents an early lead.
“I’m getting pretty tired of saying it, but coach keeps telling us that we have to hit them first and not get hit first,” guard Jason Conley said.
After Saturday’s loss, each player said he was confident the Tigers could turn the season around. After the loss at Colorado, senior guard Josh Kroenke suggested that, if the Tigers were not careful, the season could pass them by.
Kroenke’s view Saturday was more optimistic.
“If anybody can pull this thing out, it’s those guys in the locker room right now,” he said.
“No one is giving up on this season right now.”