WACO, Texas – When the Missouri men’s basketball team plays its best, the ball often goes through one of its powerful interior players every offensive possession.
When fouls begin to pile up, though, it can take the Tigers away from their game plan, but that doesn’t always mean trouble.
“We put ourselves in some tough situations in the first half with fouls,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. “I thought that our small lineup really did a good job holding down the fort in the first half. Then we had to go to it in the second half.”
When Johnson picked up his third foul with 7:31 left in the first half, he joined Bryant, who had picked up his second with 8:14 to go, on the bench. At that point, the Tigers trailed 18-13.
Snyder went to a small lineup of four guards and a center. Snyder played junior Jason Conley, sophomore Jimmy McKinney, senior Rickey Paulding and freshman Thomas Gardner along with sophomore center Kevin Young as the only big man, and it immediately worked for the Tigers (13-10, 7-5 Big 12).
The Tigers went on a 17-6 run during the next 5:32; when the burst ended they had a 30-24 advantage, their biggest lead of the game.
“I think some times those things can rally your team,” Snyder said. “We’ve had some experience where we’ve had to rally together around adversity. The word we’ve been talking about a lot is ‘perseverance.’”
The smaller lineup did more than persevere against the Bears (7-18, 2-10). The Tigers used a quickness advantage to force six Baylor turnovers. Conley had 10 points during the run, including two 3-pointers.
Senior forward Josh Kroenke said although the small lineup might not be the Tigers’ preferred lineup, it presents the team with an added dimension.
“Whenever we see one of those big guys come up with their second foul in the first half, we know there’s a chance we’re going to go small,” Kroenke said. “We’ve got five, six guys that can play the perimeter pretty well.
“We get out there, and we can push it. We can really run, and it’s fun to get out there with three other guys that are passing and cutting and stuff like that.”
With freshman forward Linas Kleiza out for the rest of the season, the Tigers have struggled lately with foul trouble on the front line. Before Kleiza suffered a dislocated right shoulder at Colorado on Jan. 28, the Tigers rotated their four big men.
Bryant especially has missed Kleiza’s aggressive presence and 23.1 minutes per game. In six of the seven games since Kleiza’s injury, Bryant has had at least four fouls and fouled out twice. In the 16 games Kleiza played, Bryant had at least four fouls only four times and fouled out twice.
As a result, Snyder has either asked for more minutes from the other two big men or played a small lineup.
Young played a career-high 22 minutes against UNLV on Feb. 15, and Johnson played 38 minutes against Iowa State on Wednesday.
In addition to the Baylor game, the Tigers also used the small lineup effectively in the second halves against Nebraska on Feb. 7 and Iowa State on Wednesday.
Despite the success of the stints without two big men, sophomore guard Jimmy McKinney said an interior presence is necessary for consistent offensive success.
“We need the big guys,” McKinney said. “They really help us out a lot on the perimeter because they really get us a lot of open shots because guys collapse on them. We knew we really had to buckle down when they’re not in the game.”