COLUMBIA — If a teammate needs to buy shoes, Matt Lawrence takes him to St. Louis and shows him where to go.
And when Lawrence needs more than his four allotted tickets for the Braggin’ Rights basketball game in St. Louis, his teammates can hook him up.
As the only Missouri basketball player from St. Louis, Lawrence is somewhat of a novelty.
While players coming from far away places like New Jersey, Georgia, Alabama, Texas and Lithuania have to learn Missouri’s traditions on the fly, Lawrence is one of few who had black and gold ingrained in him well before he stepped foot on campus.
The “lifelong” Tigers fan has been to the annual Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois as a fan, but it’s not just a coincidence that he is now going as one of Missouri’s integral and most popular players too.
Lawrence arrived on campus in August 2005 as an invited walk-on. The day before classes started another recruit dropped out, opening up a scholarship, but Lawrence still played the role of a walk-on under then coach Quin Snyder.
The two-time all-state guard from Lafayette High School played in 25 of Missouri’s 28 games averaging 1.5 points in 6.8 minutes per game.
“I just wanted to be a Missouri Tiger,” Lawrence said. “I didn’t come with any expectations. I didn’t want to change this program around or anything or start right away. I just went in there with an open mind saying you have to work as hard as you can.”
At least 30 people asked Lawrence for tickets to Saturday’s game in St. Louis. With help from his out-of-state teammates, Lawrence secured enough for his parents, two grandparents, aunt, uncle and brother.
The lanky 6-foot-7, 203 pound guard is one of the most popular athletes in Columbia. As one of Missouri’s few big-name athletes from the state’s biggest city, Lawrence is one of the more visible players around campus and usually receives the loudest ovation when he enters a basketball game.
That has led, to some extent, Lawrence becoming the unofficial face of the program. When the team had to select two players to represent the team at the Big 12 Conference media day in October, it was Lawrence and forward Marshall Brown, not leading scorer Stefhon Hannah, who made the trip.
A big step for a guy not initially offered a scholarship.
The transformation started as soon as Mike Anderson took over as coach. He offered the players a clean slate, erasing anything that had happened the year before.
“I just kind of took that and ran,” Lawrence said.
He spent the summer working on his strengths, namely shooting. Lawrence wanted to become the “knock down, spot up shooter” he was expected to be when coming to Missouri.
“I thought he took literally what I said,” Anderson said. “The slate was clean, and I think he took advantage of that. And look at him now.”
Lawrence came back as a sophomore, started all 30 games and was second on the team with 11.2 points per game, the Big 12’s most improved scoring margin.
“He was true to his word and gave everyone an equal opportunity,” Lawrence said. “I was just real thankful for that.”
Even so, Lawrence has been singled out as a misfit in Anderson’s system. He’s not athletic enough, some say. His defense is criticized too.
But none of that is true. At least Anderson doesn’t think so. He sees Lawrence as an important, and underrated, piece of the puzzle that is his basketball team.
“I saw him as a guy that can really shoot the basketball and had a good feel for the game and really understood the game,” Anderson said. “With the way we play, I thought he had a chance to make an impact on our basketball team.”
Dating back to his years as an assistant at Arkansas, Anderson’s system requires the “knock down, spot up” shooter like Lawrence to open up the court.
Pat Bradley of Arkansas holds the Southeastern Conference career record for 3-pointers made. At Alabama-Birmingham, Marvett McDonald and Mo Finley played a similar role to Lawrence’s.
“I think he is a better athlete than most people think he is,” Anderson said about Lawrence. “And that’s the thing that gets lost.”
All he needed was a bit of confidence to shoot, which the coaches were quick to give.
“It’s good to know you have a coaching staff that wants you to shoot the ball 10 to 15 times a game, every game,” Lawrence said.
The feel-good story is over on Saturday. Lawrence isn’t taking his teammates shoe shopping, he is taking them into his hometown with the intention of ending a seven-year losing streak to Illinois.
“He’s kind of always got an extra chip on his shoulder (for this game),” said Nick Berardini, who is Lawrence’s best friend and roommate. “I think part of that stems from the fact that people didn’t expect him to be where he’s at. No one expected him to be here, and when coach Anderson got here, no one thought he would be able to stick around and make it.”
In what he called a “learning experience,” Lawrence played 12 minutes and missed three 3-pointers in a 82-50 loss in his first Braggin’ Rights game.
“I was real sad,” Lawrence said.
Last year, Lawrence started and scored eight points in 18 minutes, but the Tigers still lost 73-70.
This year, Lawrence is no longer the former walk-on or surprising upstart perimeter shooter, he is a bona fide starter and important player for Missouri.
“Now that I’ve got a bigger role on the team, I hope that I can just help my team as much as I can to win that game,” Lawrence said.
The future is bright for Lawrence. His scoring averages are down this year, but Anderson says Lawrence could still go down as one of the best shooters he has coached.
With a season and a half left, Anderson wants Lawrence to expand and become a more complete player. Specifically, he wants Lawrence to showcase his ball-handling abilities and become a stronger rebounder before he leaves Columbia.
Knowing Lawrence, his legacy at Missouri is far from complete.
“I don’t have all of the God-gifted ability as some of the other players in the Big 12, so I have to work that much harder,” Lawrence said. “I thought if I worked hard then good things would happen, and it has so far.”