The New Year doesn’t afford Missouri a new basketball season. This one’s in full swing. But it can provide a fresh start, of sorts.
With a 74-58 win Friday night over Oakland, the Tigers were able to finish the 2005 portion of the 2005-2006 campaign at 6-4. While not great, two games above .500 is the high-water mark for the season, assuring Missouri will start 2006 without dropping the ball, so to speak.
Monday’s game against Louisiana-Monroe will be the final non-conference game of the regular season for Missouri, and a win would mean entering Big 12 play on a respectable three-game win streak following the holiday egg the Tigers laid against Illinois.
So with the dawn of the New Year upon us, and the impending conference schedule the closest thing to an in-season renewal the Tigers get, here are a few New Year’s resolutions, compliments of Missouri basketball.
1: “Be the most selfless team in the country,” resolved coach Quin Snyder.
As Snyder pointed out immediately following his resolution, this is a simple idea with a difficult solution. Without a quantifiable measurement of selflessness, it is difficult just to know how selfless Missouri is compared to anyone else. Still, there are a few indicators.
Prior to Friday’s game Missouri’s 11.9 assists per game was the worst in the Big 12, discounting Baylor who has no non-conference schedule due to NCAA sanctions. California-Riverside currently leads Divison I basketball with 21.4 apg. This might indicate a need to be much, much more selfless. On Friday, though, the Tigers dished out 17 assists, a career-high seven of which belonged to Thomas Gardner.
“(Thursday) in practice coach told me I need to be the most unselfish player on the team, and my ability to get in the lane, create shots for myself and my teammates is going to be a positive,” Gardner said after Friday’s win. “Today I tried to get in there and find my teammates and get them shots to get them goin’ and create for myself.
“I think it’s just all our trust we put on the court and off the court is really starting to come together.”
That trust is a cornerstone of the team-ball theology Snyder preaches, and his star pupil’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed.
“We talked about the importance of your leading scorer, or possibly your best player being your most unselfish player and the impact that can have on the team,” Snyder said. “When I look up and see seven assists… when he can do that it’s just gonna help us.”
Another lift Friday came from the return of Jason Horton. The sophomore was the starting point guard in Missouri’s first eight games, but was benched for its entire ninth contest. After receiving what amounted to a one-game message, Horton took the floor in the final minutes of the first-half Friday before finishing the game with three points and three assists.
“I was happy to see the little guy,” Kevin Young said of Horton. “Just the way he breaks the defense down and he just gets into the paint and create for everybody, so everybody was happy to see him come back.”
Horton is the Tigers leading assist man for the season, and as the primary ball-handler, is highly responsible for how the team functions as a unit.
Snyder did not lay out any real details of the situation with Horton. He did, however, indicate his floor leader’s importance to a selfless, cohesive effort from the Tigers that will be necessary to succeed in 2006.
“He played like a guy that wanted to help his team win and was willing to do whatever he had to do to help his team win,” Snyder said.
“He was thinking about other people. When he does that, he becomes a better player.”
2: “Keep our winning streak at home alive, and finish in the top four in the league,” resolved Gardner. Jimmy McKinney added he wanted to win the Big 12, and make the Elite 8 as his resolution.
A repeat of last year’s 7-9 Big 12 finish would leave Missouri at the whim of the NIT, and out of the NCAA tournament for three consecutive years. That will surely be the case if the league coach’s preseason poll prediction of ninth for the Tigers in the Big 12 comes true.
Working in Missouri and their two player/prognosticator’s favor, though, is the relative youth of the conference. According to the Sagarin ratings, the traditionally strong Big 12 is the sixth-best conference currently, behind ‘mid-major’ conference the Missouri Valley. Conversely the Big 12 was ranked third strongest in 2004-2005.
A weaker conference with parity, might allow Missouri to move up. South division opponents Oklahoma and Texas, who the Tigers only have to face once each, are the only schools in the AP top 25, at numbers 14 and 15. While winning the Big 12 seems to be a long shot, a top four finish might be possible… if Missouri can dominate at home.
Gardner commented on this season’s success at Mizzou Arena after the win against Oakland:
“It’s nice, I think it’s more nice to keep our streak going at home, you know six in a row for us. This is the thing we wanted to focus on after the Illinois game, is to get three games in a row. We took two steps in winning Wednesday night and tonight and we want to go back and try to get a win on Monday going into the league.”
Last season’s 14-5 home record included 6-2 in conference. Winning out at home would mean knocking off preseason darling Texas, rival Kansas, and Oklahoma State in Saturday’s opener. The task is difficult, and Missouri’s play against top-notch opponents leaves even less hope, but it’s not impossible.
3: “Try and be the offensive leading rebounder in the Big 12,” resolved Young.
This was Young’s offering when asked for his individual basketball resolution. It’s also what his team has asked of him all season, and thus far he’s responded. Young’s 4.6 offensive rebounds per game in fact led the conference as of Friday.
Snyder reacted bluntly to Young’s dominance on the boards Friday.
“Wow,” Snyder said. “That’s indicative of, I think, his being focused on that, and really desiring that… once he’s down there he’s hard to move.”
4: “Be first team all-Big 12,” resolved Gardner.
An unlikely goal it seemed mere months ago; Gardner wasn’t even a preseason honorable mention selection by the coach’s. On December 12 Gardner was selected the Big 12 player of the week, though, after putting up back-to-back 30 point games. He has continued to lead Missouri and the Big 12 in scoring with 20.1 ppg, and it stands to reason the league leading scorer would make the team.
If Gardner and Young fulfill their resolutions, along with a more selfless team, things bode well for Missouri doing well in the Big 12.
A conference top-four finish would be the only way to salvage an NCAA Tournament bid, much less a run to a regional final. Such a finish could only help invigorate the lifeless fans- 6,501 was the announced crowd Friday. And with many wondering the fate of Snyder, judging by message boards and popcorn-wielding fans more and more are opining for auld lang syne, 2006 has much in store.