The NCAA Tournament has been a hot topic of discussion for the members of the University of Missouri basketball team the past few weeks.
After sitting out the Southeastern Conference Tournament due to past violations and watching the NCAA Tournament games unfold on television, the young Tigers have talked quite a bit about working to put themselves in a position to participate in the future.
“It gives us a great deal of motivation,” Missouri freshman point guard Terrence Phillips said. “I tell these guys all the time, ‘We’re not going to be here next year, we’re not going to be in Missouri and watching this game.’ … I want to be there.”
That’s really the main motivation, freshman guard Cullen VanLeer said.
“We’re all sitting in the lounge area watching the games and we’re like, we have to be here in the next couple years if not next year,” VanLeer said. “That’s just the motivation to get better.”
Phillips, VanLeer and fellow freshmen Kevin Puryear and K.J. Walton spoke with reporters last week, just days after the school announced that sophomores Namon Wright and Tramaine Isabell would be transferring.
Those transfers, VanLeer said, should be added motivation for Missouri’s four-man freshmen class to turn things around under coach Kim Anderson.
“Coach A brought us in for a reason — he thinks we can help turn it around. We all spoke, we all talked together, and we really think that we can be the group that turns this around and gets back to the NCAA Tournament and gets fans back in the stands at Mizzou.”
Missouri went 9-23 overall and 3-15 in Southeastern Conference play during Anderson’s first season, the 2014-15 campaign, and followed that up by going 10-21 this season, including an identical 3-15 mark in conference play.
The reasons for optimism in Columbia are the freshmen class, led by Puryear and Phillips, and an influx of new recruits bolstered by scholarships opened by the recent departures.
Puryear, a 6-foot-6 forward, averaged a team-high 11.5 points to go along with 4.6 rebounds per game. He was the first freshman to lead the Tigers in scoring since Steve Stipanovich in the 1979-80 season and was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team.
Phillips started all 31 games and averaged 7.8 points, 3.5 assists over 26.2 minutes per game. He led Mizzou in assists and steals.
Walton (5.3 points per game) and VanLeer (4.0 points per game) both showed the ability to contribute.
VanLeer, a 6-4 guard, scored a season-high 13 points against Xavier and had 12 against NC State. Walton, a 6-3 guard, had three double-figure scoring outings in his final six contests.
“I would say we all fared pretty well," Puryear said. "Of course there’s bumps and bruises as a freshman but I think we all handled it pretty well. We were kind of thrusted into the spotlight, having to grow up faster than expected, but I think for our college careers that will end up being great for us to get that exposure early because most freshmen don’t get that experience. Now we know what the SEC is like, we know everything about it. Now we just have to get in the weight room and get stronger, faster and just more skilled — just tighten up every aspect of our games and I think that will end up being the key to our success next season.”
The motivation is there.
The two transfers in recent weeks, along with watching the NCAA Tournament unfold, has provided plenty.
“We’re very motivated,” Phillips said. “Me, Cullen, K.J. and K.P, we all played heavy minutes this year so going into next year we’re in a way going to be the older group here with the four of us. We’re excited to get back to our sophomore year. We’re excited for this summer. We’re going to get after it this summer — we’re going to be in the gym probably twice as much as we were last summer. We’re just excited.”