Not so defenseless

After allowing an overmatched Northwest Missouri State team hang with them through the first half Wednesday, the Tigers cranked up their energy defensively in final 20 minutes and cruised to a comfortable win. With such a young team, coach Quin Snyder has his hands full preaching defensive consistency, but the early returns look promising.

If the exhibition season proved anything, it's that Missouri will be able to score.

In two wins against Division II opponents, the Tigers averaged 95 points per game, even shooting a blistering 56.1 percent from the field against Northwest Missouri State in a 90-60 win Wednesday.

What remains very much in doubt is the potential of the Missouri defense. After surrendering 50 second-half points and being outscored in the second half against Central Missouri State last week, Missouri turned the tables in the second half against the Bearcats. The defense was much more aggressive, switching into zone looks and pressing more often.

The result: Northwest scored 21 points on 7-of-24 shooting in the final 20 minutes, allowing the Tigers to cruise to an easy win.

Still, it would be folly to say coach Quin Snyder was pleased with the outcome.

"We gave up 39 points in the first half; it's not where we want it to be," Snyder said. "I see some depth. When we come off the bench, I see guys concentrating on some (defensive) things."

The potential of the bench will play a large role on both ends of the court, particularly at point guard and in the paint. Even after rolling his left ankle in the first half, freshman point guard Jason Horton returned to provide solid on-ball defense, while junior guard Jimmy McKinney, promoted to the starting lineup against Northwest, rewarded the coaching staff with four steals to go with his 12 points. Down low, the Tigers gave up just 14 points in the paint and, with the exception of junior center Jeffrey Ferguson, all of the big men avoided foul trouble.

Even sophomore forward Linas Kleiza, the team's most powerful offensive force, had to make some adjustments on the defensive end. Despite racking up 17 points before the break, Kleiza received some pointed encouragement from his coach at halftime.

"The first half, he was terrific offensively, but he wasn't as solid," Snyder said, before altering his train of thought. "He was playing hard defensively, but he wasn't as disciplined. He needs to be an anchor for us defensively."

His scoring pace slowed significantly in the final 20 minutes, but Kleiza made more contributions on the defensive end, allowing the Tigers to pull away late. Senior forward Jason Conley, who, like Kleiza, accumulated three steals against the Bearcats, said a few fundamental changes made the difference.

"The first half, our D wasn't where we needed it to be," he said. "Over time, we started getting in the passing lanes, cracking on the glass. In the second half, we picked that up."

So it wasn't Northwest's cold outside shooting (1-of-8 from beyond the arc in the second half after going 5-of-11 in the opening period) that made the difference?

"It was us," Conley said. "The defense, as far as the team goes, improved a lot."

Concentrating on playing consistent defense, sophomore guard Thomas Gardner said, was the Tigers' primary goal in the exhibition season and will continue to be as the nonconference schedule unfolds.

"Right now, that's our main focus," he said. "Trying to create offense off our defense is really important. We're really long and athletic and quick, so we can push up on the wings and on the ball. We create turnovers off our defense and make offense a lot easier."

The Tigers forced Northwest into 17 turnovers, including 11 in the second half. That led to 26 points off turnovers, nearly matching the margin of victory.

Not that the offense needed much help. With a wider variety of bodies to choose from this season, Snyder has the bodies to match up against almost anyone. Experience may be lacking, but Snyder can now run out more than one player he is comfortable with at every position.

"(Defense) has been coach Q's focus for a long time," Horton said. "But I think now we have the personnel to really just get up in people and force them to make mistakes."

Preaching defense to such an athletic group may be a difficult task, but Snyder will continue to drive the point home.

"Our team has to understand that our identity has to start there," Snyder said. "It's not really in stone yet, but we're chipping away at the stone…

"We have a long way to go, though."


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