When Missouri coach Quin Snyder mapped out this season for his crew, he packed the essentials.
His four seniors added experience, and he bagged shooting power in a preseason All-American in Rickey Paulding and his protégé, Thom-as Gardner.
He found inside presence from two seasoned big men, one of whom is the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots, and one rookie forward, one of the best freshman power forwards in the country.
Snyder also thought he found the perfect navigator, complete with backup.
“Anybody can be a leader,” Snyder said. “The thing about leading is, you’ve got to lead in the right direction.”
Staying the course has puzzled the Tigers (11-10, 5-5 Big 12 Conference) in an up-and-down season. Change has been the only invariable of the point guard position for the Tigers.
Tigers to take on Cyclones
The Tigers face Iowa State (14-7, 5-5) at 7 tonight at Hearnes Center. Unfortunately for Snyder, Cyclones coach Wayne Morgan found the solution to that problem for his team in rookie point guard Curtis Stinson.
Stinson is laying claim for Big 12 Freshman of the Year, and he started with a pivotal role in the Cyclones’ come-from-behind 70-65 win against Missouri to open league play Jan. 7.
“He’s a man,” Snyder said. “You don’t see guys do that, especially in this league, that often as freshmen, and he’s done that to a lot of people. I think he’s even better when the game’s on the line.”
After Stinson, it doesn’t get easier. The Tigers face another seasoned ballhandler in Oklahoma State’s John Lucas on Feb. 24.
After facing both teams, including upsetting Iowa State, Baylor coach Scott Drew noted how vital a confident point guard is to their success.
“If you don’t have a point guard, it’s really hard to win games at a Division I level,” he said. “I’m sure you hear Missouri talk at times about their lack of point guard, and I’m sure the situation with (Lucas), he provides so much for their team and allows everyone else to feel more comfortable in their roles and makes the game a lot easier.”
Stokes leave for San Diego State
Ask Missouri shooting guards Jason Conley and Jimmy McKinney and freshman Spencer Laurie how important this position is to the Tigers’ lineup. They are splitting time at point.
Of course, Wesley Stokes, Ricky Clemons and Randy Pulley, former Missouri point guards who left in the past three seasons, could talk about the position, but they won’t give Missouri any pointers.
A highly recruited point guard, Stokes backed up starting senior Brian Grawer as a freshman and earned a spot on the Big 12 All-Freshman team.
With Stokes running the floor his sophomore season, the Tigers started 9-0. They lost four of their next six, senior gunner Clarence Gilbert took Stokes’ spot, and Stokes’ shooting confidence faded. Other teams noticed, and defenses dropped off him to double-team other Missouri stars such as Kareem Rush and center Arthur Johnson.
The Tigers recruited Clemons for the spot. Wanting more playing time, Stokes transferred to San Diego State.
Stokes’ 12.7 points average is third for the Aztecs (12-11). He also averages six assists per game.
“He’s an instant floor general,” teammate Aerick Sanders said. “When stuff breaks down, he can create his own shot and create for others. He has a great knowledge of the game, and it is like playing with another coach out there. He is a great floor leader, and I am happy he is here.”
Court positions shifted in Clemons' absense
Clemons averaged 14.2 points and 3.8 assists in the 32 games he played last season. It’s the game he missed, a 76-56 loss at Oklahoma State on Jan. 18, that ultimately proved his flaw.
On Jan. 17, Clemons was arrested and charged with second-degree domestic assault after his ex-girlfriend, Jessica Bunge, accused him of choking her the night before. Clemons was dismissed from the team in July.
The Tigers added Randy Pulley, a Barton (Kan.) Community College transfer like Clemons, but he was dismissed Feb. 7 after a two-game suspension for missing practice.
Pulley averaged 1.6 points and 2.3 assists in 11 games, but much like Stokes, he was reluctant to shoot.
Pulley’s minutes decreased significantly in the weeks before his dismissal, for he played two minutes against Nebraska on Jan. 24 and did not play at Colorado.
Moved from his natural shooting position as a freshman to back up Clemons, McKinney continues adjusting to the No. 1 slot.
McKinney was a two-guard shooting star for Vashon High in St. Louis when Snyder recruited him, but Snyder said he knew McKinney could handle the ball.
“We’re developing and implementing our game plan. How we do that will be based on how guys practice,” assistant coach Marcus Perez said. “Jimmy McKinney has shown that he can carry that position for us.”
Although he averages three assists and a 9.2 points per game, McKinney’s growing pains show in clutch-time hesitation and accumulating turnovers.
Conley, another shooting guard, first picked up minutes in the Tigers’ 78-62 loss to Nebraska on Feb. 2, and Perez said moving Conley was a tactical move.
At 6-feet-5, Conley’s height gives him a clear advantage against most point guards, especially against the zone defense that has pestered Missouri.
“It wasn’t desperation. Jason’s shown the ability in practice to do some of that,” Perez said. “Having every guy on our bench be capable of being able to play every position for us is crucial.”
Conley gave his best showing at the spot in Sunday’s 94-60 win against UNLV. He had a career-high seven assists and five steals. He added 17 points and eight rebounds.
Despite Conley’s title as the first freshman to lead the nation in scoring when he was at Virginia Military Institute, Snyder said Conley’s repertoire is expanding and he would feel confident at point against Stinson and Lucas.
“It’s not Jason’s natural position, but he’s got to play it a certain way where he gets the ball in his hands and just gets us in our stuff if that’s the position he’s in, and use the strengths that he has,” Snyder said.
“In open court he’s really comfortable; half-court, it’s a little different. He just hasn’t played it that much.”
Laurie considered taking a redshirt his rookie year, but eligibility questions surrounding Pulley, who missed the first four games, swayed his decision.
Laurie is clocking a little more than eight minutes per game, but his defense impressed Snyder the most. Laurie is happy to watch the lineup evolve sitting on the bench if his skills aren’t crucial to the minute.
“Whatever we need at the time,” Laurie said. “If he’s playing well like Jason was, he should definitely be running it. We might just, kind of whoever has it run with it. He worked with it real well tonight so we’ll head that direction and see what happens.”
Injuries hurt team strength
Point guard isn’t the only unstable position this year.
With essentially an eight-player rotation after injuries sidelined freshman power forward Linas Kleiza and senior shooting guard Josh Kroenke, depth might hurt the Tigers most defensively.
Running a tight full-court press, foul trouble and injuries highlight how precious that depth was to Snyder’s staff. Adding Conley and Pulley, and later losing Pulley, greatly altered that equation, but Snyder said his squad is back on track.
“It slowed our kids down,” Snyder said. “They all had expectations about what was going to happen, and I think it took some time for them to realize, ‘Throw that stuff out, and let’s just see where we are.’
“Guys have had opportunities to play and, in some cases, opportunities to fail and to come back out and keep coming.”