With a young team, the sort Missouri has, dominating the exhibition season is vital. Big wins provide a boost of confidence before the real season opens.
Missouri didn't have that luxury last year, struggling to knock off a Lithuania traveling team and a club from the NBA's Developmental League before the real season began.
That could change this season. The Tigers didn't dominate, but they outplayed Northwest Missouri State more often than not Wednesday, cruising to a 90-60 win. Sophomores Linas Kleiza and Thomas Gardner combined for 42 points and 11 rebounds, sparking the offense to a comfortable win.
To senior guard Jason Conley, what year of school the main offensive contributors are in doesn't make much difference.
"It's an exhibition game; it doesn't matter about the points," Conley said, hinting at an offensive surge by the more experienced players once the real deal begins. "I'm not out to compete with the young guys. People tend to focus on sophomore, senior, all that stuff. When it comes down to it, it's the team, how many points your whole team scores."
On this night, it was 30 more points than the Division II opponent. The Bearcats struggled to sustain anything inside, relying on six three-pointers to get them to the 60-point plateau. Gardner nearly matched that production on his own, hitting 4-of-7 from the outside and 7-of-10 overall on his way to 19 points. Kleiza dominated the game at the beginning of both halves, before quieting down and finishing with a game-high 23 points.
On this night, the shooters were on and the offense was flowing.
"Those guys were just on," coach Quin Snyder said. "The thing that I like about it is that I don't remember bad shots. They took open shots."
Snyder has preached the need to share the ball this season, since the Tigers don't have go-to scorers to carry the load like they had in Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson last year.
"Last game it was Jimmy (McKinney) that was on and we found him," Snyder said. "Tonight, Linas was going and we found him. Thomas really got us going in the second half."
Gardner took over the game in stretches, including a few seconds in the first half that resulted in five points. On a fast break, Gardner slammed the ball home and drew contact. He missed his free throw, but the Tigers regained control and eventually found him open in the left corner, where Gardner converted for three. The play capped a quick 11-0 run and gave Missouri a 29-19 lead.
"That was an emotional play," Snyder said. "I thought that picked our whole level up."
For Gardner, it seemed like everything was falling into place.
"It was just the zone, I guess; I was in it," he said. "It's a real thrill. I'm just trying to get there every game, to be consistent with it."
Grant, Lawrence join the fold: The Missouri athletic department made official Wednesday afternoon what was already widely known: Matt Lawrence, a senior guard at Lafayette High in suburban St. Louis, will walk on with the Tigers next season and attend Missouri on an academic scholarship.
Lawrence, 6-6 and 195 pounds, averaged 16.1 points and five rebounds last season, earning a place on the Class 5 first team.
By not taking a scholarship immediately, Lawrence may be in the same boat as sophomore point guard Spencer Laurie, who walked on last season but is on scholarship this year. After the NCAA stripped the Tigers of three scholarships over the next two seasons, it might be a little longer before the athletic department pays Lawrence's way, however.
Keaton Grant, a senior guard from Gateway High in Kissimmee, Fla., was Missouri's only official signing Wednesday, the first day seniors can officially commit to college programs.
Grant averaged 22.5 points in his junior season, earning Osceola conference player of the year honors. The 6-3, 185-pounder showed off his versatility, chipping in seven rebounds and five assists per game as well.
Ailing Horton: As if going through two surgeries earlier this year to correct blood clots in his right arm wasn't enough, freshman point guard Jason Horton injured his right ankle in the first half, thanks to junior center Kevin Young.
"We were going for a loose ball and Kevin dove for it and he kind of rolled up on my (left) foot a little bit," Horton said.
After limping off the court and sitting out several minutes, Horton returned, contributing 10 points and three assists. He had an ice bag on his ankle after the game, but didn't look too dinged up.
"It was just a little sore," he said. "I've been through worse; I've been in an ICU."
Getting ready: The Tigers didn't tip off their 2003-04 season until after Thanksgiving, a choice that forced them to open their season against teams with a few games already under their belt. By participating in the Guardians Classic next week, the Tigers will get several games in before almost everyone else.
"That had an effect on us," Snyder said of last year's late start. "We played teams that had played four or five games before we played one. Suddenly, we're 4-1 when the team we're playing is like 9-2. This year, getting more games early, especially for this group, is really important. It gives you a gauge."
Snyder gave the Tigers something to shoot for after the game, drawing a bracket of the tournament in his post-game talk to the team. The bracket had the Tigers advancing through to the finals, with their opponents conveniently left blank.
"He's giving us a visual of what he wants from us," Gardner said. "Monday and Tuesday (are) two big games. We can't really worry about the opponent."
Failing freebies: One of the most distressing aspects of the game was the Tigers' free-throw shooting, which finished at 15-of-26. Missouri only reached that mark after having a perfect second half, making all seven shots to balance out an 8-of-19 first half. Kleiza was the main culprit in the first half; although he made 8-of-9 from the field in the first half, he clanked all four of his free throw attempts. Kleiza finished the game with more misses from the free throw line (four) than from the field (three).
Mike's musings: I'll admit it: My heart was in my throat when Horton limped off the court. For a leg injury to hamper his season, after all he has been through the past eight months, would be a shame. From a team perspective, the offense would be greatly limited. Laurie fought through foul trouble Wednesday, committing four in his first eight minutes of action. His speed can't match Horton's, but he should be an adequate reserve, if the coaches give him that role.
I'm an even bigger Kalen Grimes fan after seeing him hit all four of his free throws tonight. Of the Tigers' big men, the freshman appears to have the most touch around the basket, which is translating to success from the line. He only played 10 minutes against Northwest; if I were running the team, he'd be getting more. … Freshman swingman Glen Dandridge isn't too effective when his shot isn't falling. He was quiet for 39 minutes tonight, as his first three 3-pointers were off the mark. In the final seconds, he reminded us what he is capable of, drilling a 35-footer with two ticks left.
I'd like to see center Jeffrey Ferguson get more touches down low. He didn't attempt a shot Wednesday, scoring just one point on 1-of-2 shooting from the line. Interior play is not Missouri's strength, but it doesn't hurt to get everybody involved. … Snyder offered the best quote of the young season after the game, using the Field of Dreams cliché of "If you build it, they will come" when describing the recruiting power of the Paige Sports Arena: "We don't have Kevin Costner or Shoeless Joe. We got Jimmy and Linny."