No one could have predicted this.
A 16-14 record? A trip to the National Invitation Tournament, the lesser of the two postseason tournaments? A quick, disappointing exit from that?
The 2003-04 Missouri Tigers were one of the most experienced teams in the country and were supposed to be among the most talented. Many expected them to cruise through a weak Big 12 Conference and battle for the NCAA Tournament crown.
One week ago, the Tigers’ season ended with a 65-64 first-round loss to Michigan in the NIT. In the preseason, the Tigers looked to have all of the ingredients necessary for a successful season.
Perhaps the stew that was Missouri needed a little more seasoning.
Point Guard: D+
It was Missouri’s weakest position, but when the coaching staff dismissed junior Randy Pulley on Feb. 6, it became more of a problem.
Pulley’s absence pushed junior Jason Conley into the mix at the point with sophomore Jimmy McKinney. Neither is comfortable there; Conley had not played the position since grade school and often struggled with turnovers and offensive fouls while moving the ball down the court.
He was serviceable during Missouri’s late-season six-game winning streak.
McKinney was most effective as a spot-up 3-point shooter, but had five games with four or more turnovers.
The coaching staff pulled freshman Spencer Laurie’s redshirt in the preseason; he averaged 6.8 minutes, made two baskets and sat through nine games.
Shooting Guard: C+
McKinney was most effective here, but foul trouble often forced him to the bench. Conley often played the extra minutes when McKinney went out and struggled through a slow start. Conley scored 19 points against UNC-Greensboro in his Missouri debut Dec. 21, and then it took him 14 games to reach a combined 19 again.
He began to regain his confidence with a 12-point outing against Nebraska on Jan. 24 and scored in double digits in nine of the last 11 games. Although his 7.6 scoring average was disappointing, Conley, with efforts of 24 points at Baylor and 20 at Kansas State, showed he can score almost at will when his 3-point shot is on.
Freshman Thomas Gardner found himself in a similar situation, but was largely ineffective when his 3-point shot was off. His aggressive on-ball defense was likely the best among Missouri’s guards, but he was not consistent enough to be a game-breaker.
Senior Josh Kroenke was solid as a role player and distributed the ball well when he was on the floor.
Senior swingman Rickey Paulding entered the season as a Wooden Award candidate and appeared to be the Tigers’ best player. For much of the season, statistically, he was.
Paulding struggled in the postseason (scoring nine, nine and 10 points in the Tigers’ three games) to drop his season average to 15.1 points and allow senior center Arthur Johnson to surpass him as the team’s leading scorer.
Paulding’s athleticism is unmatched, but his tendency to disappear for long stretches often made him unproductive. Paulding is at his best when he drives to the basket, but he often looked hesitant, even unwilling, to do so.
When his 3-point shot was on, he could dominate games from the outside, scoring 31 points against Oklahoma State and 23 at Oklahoma. When it was not, Paulding could single-handedly shoot the Tigers out of a game.
Paulding and Johnson considered declaring for the NBA Draft after their junior seasons; Johnson clearly improved late in the season, but it might have been best for the player and the team if Paulding had gone pro a season early.
Power Forward: C
After freshman Linas Kleiza suffered a dislocated right shoulder, the position lacked depth, and as a result, production suffered.
Senior Travon Bryant consistently struggled with foul trouble and could not duplicate his efficient offensive play from the first half of the season. During the last 11 games, Bryant made 44 percent of his shots. He shot 55 percent in nonconference play.
Kleiza was the team’s leading rebounder, at 8.4 per game, before he was injured while attempting to take a ball away from Colorado’s David Harrison on Jan. 28.
If everyone had performances similar to Johnson’s down the stretch, the Tigers would likely still be playing. The play that earned Johnson preseason All-American consideration appeared as the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament hopes dwindled.
After Missouri’s 78-62 loss at Nebraska on Feb. 7, Johnson averaged a team-high 21.3 points and 7.8 rebounds. He scored a career-high 37 in the final game at Hearnes Center, an 84-82 loss to Kansas on March 7, and finished his Missouri career with 26 points at Michigan.
Sophomore Kevin Young contributed defensively in limited minutes, but the Tigers often used Johnson or Bryant with four guards instead of using Young.
Kleiza’s injury and Pulley’s dismissal drastically limited the capabilities of the unit.
Despite being benched earlier in the year, Conley rediscovered his confidence and became one of the Tigers’ most threatening offensive players. He scored 24 in a 70-66 victory at Baylor on Feb. 21.
Kroenke was the only other Tiger to have an impact off the bench, but he missed two games in February with a cut to his right leg.
Laurie and guard Brian Dailey, a walk-on, rarely played.
Final Grade: C
—- MICHAEL PETRE, S. SCOTT ROSENBERG and ANGELA STRICKER