Missouri junior Jason Conley, the first freshman to lead the nation in scoring, showed his all-around game Saturday.
He didn’t even start.
“Jason Conley’s play off the bench was terrific,” Snyder said.
Early in the second half of the Tigers’ 94-60 win against UNLV, Conley swiped the ball from UNLV’s Odartey Blankson and hurled the ball 18 feet across court to a running Thomas Gardner.
Conley’s pass, thrown left-handed as he fell out of bounds, hit Gardner in his hands. Gardner sealed the play with a crowd-rocking dunk that put the Tigers ahead 66-36.
“I love that so much,” Conley said. “I saw him in the corner of my eye and he went right to the rim.”
Conley transferred from Virginia Military Institute in January 2003. In 10 games, Conley led the Keydets in scoring with 22.2 points per games. He spent Saturday’s game against the Rebels buffing his resume, adding seven assists, eight rebounds and five steals to his 17 points.
“Jason’s unselfish, too,” Snyder said. “He can score with the ball, but he enjoys passing it, too.”
Not many people knew that Conley, who averaged a nation-leading 29.3 points his rookie season with the Keydets, was quite this multitalented.
Snyder knew there was more to the star transfer that a sweet shot, but it took the right place and the right team for Conley to figure it out.
“I knew I did, but I think it’s not just me, as far as my overall game, my teammates help me,” Conley said. “It’s them, too, I guess being here brought it out of me. When I was at VMI, I was under the impression that I had to (score to win). I’m here now, and if this is my role, I’ll be glad to take it on.”
He needed the right time, too.
After scoring 19 points in 21 minutes in his Missouri debut against UNC-Greensboro, Conley’s minutes and offense faded. He totaled 15 points in the next 13 games before back-to-back 12-point showings against Nebraska and Colorado.
Conley’s playing time dwindled while he suffered from strep throat for three weeks in early January. He did not count a minute against Oklahoma.
Snyder said Conley’s slump was as much because of his illness as it was because of struggles on defense. After the Tigers’ win against the Sooners, Snyder said he pulled Conley aside and said his time was coming.
“I just told him, ‘You’ll play; you’ve just got to earn it,’” Snyder said. “He looked weak, and I think he’s got his strength back.”
With one of Snyder’s most touted recruits spending sitting on the bench as his team struggled, the critics questioned Snyder’s strategy. The person without any doubts was Conley.
“I would hear people all the time saying, ‘The coaches aren’t doing this right; coaches aren’t doing that right,’ but he knew exactly what he was doing,” Conley said. “I have total confidence in him and his staff.”
Conley scored all but two of his points from behind the 3-point line. After missing his first shot, an NBA-range 3-point attempt, Conley drove through the lane for his first basket. From then on, he did all of his offensive damage from long range, making 5-of-9 3-pointers. Two of those shots came on fast-break runs from his own steals.
“He’s really worked on defending,” Snyder said. “It’s become more and more important to him to guard. If he gives a few up, he’s aware of that. That allows him to stay on the floor longer and that allows him to make some plays.”
Conley’s play has been instrumental in bringing the Tigers’ offense up to speed.
After the Tigers’ sluggish start and problems with turnovers in transition, Snyder said Conley did more than ignite the offense.
“He was a blowtorch,” Snyder said. “He really is good in transition. He really is good with the open floor.
During an up-and-down season for the Tigers, Snyder said it’s clear Conley’s confidence is rubbing off on his teammates.
“Jason’s a basketball player,” Snyder said. “We’ve been short on feel at times this year, and he’s got a nice feel for the game. That does help other guys. It just makes the game easier.”
Tigers’ guard Jimmy McKinney spent an uncommon amount of time on the bench while Conley split time at shooting guard and point guard spots, but McKinney said he was glad to watch Conley shine.
“That’s the player he is,” McKinney said. “He was just running the show.”