One of the reasons why coach Quin Snyder stresses defense over all else is that defense never slumps. No matter how poorly you may be playing offensively, staying focused on the defensive end means your play there will never fluctuate.
Slacking off a bit defensively earned sophomore forward Linas Kleiza some time on the bench in the second half of the Tigers' loss to Arkansas on Tuesday. Kleiza looked more focused on that end Saturday and, coincidentally or not, his shots began to fall. Kleiza scored 26 points, a career high, to push Missouri to an 87-62 win against Montana on Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
Kleiza said he was happy to finally see his shots fall.
"I started off kind of slow, but I just kept my head in it and shots started falling," Kleiza said. "I've been waiting for it for a long time."
He had to wait about 12 minutes before it began against the Grizzlies. Kleiza missed his first five shots before bouncing back to convert nine of his final 10 attempts, including his final four 3-pointers.
Snyder said Kleiza handled his emotions well after a slow start, allowing him to take over the game.
"Linas is so competitive and wants to win, and there are times that because of that he gets really emotional," Snyder said. "That emotion makes him a warrior, too. I think sometimes he can kind of want to put the whole world on his back and march up the hill, and he just needs to let the game come to him."
Eventually, that's what he did.
"As the game progressed, I think he got more relaxed and more settled in his reads," Snyder said. "When he's making his reads and playing with his mind, he's a much more efficient offensive player."
Kleiza's sudden effectiveness benefited the rest of his team. Four days after shooting 30 percent against Arkansas, the Tigers improved to a respectable 48 percent against the Grizzlies.
"Some other guys' shots weren't falling, but we stuck to our game plan and did what our coaches told us to do," Kleiza said. "And it worked."
That game plan looked to include sharing the ball and rotating it around the perimeter more consistently than in the past. Missouri seemed to do that well against the Razorbacks, but the shots simply would not fall. Against Montana, they did.
"There's no secret to it; we passed the ball a lot tonight," senior guard Jason Conley said. "There's been games when we've come on the court and made a pass and shot it up. Those type of shots are not good for your team. As we start to get the ball going around, we made them guard, and we scored."
Kleiza was the main beneficiary of that. Three players reached double figures against Montana, but guards Conley and sophomore Thomas Gardner had relatively quiet nights, scoring just eight points apiece.
"We got a lot of guys who can score, but we're still young," Kleiza said. "We're learning how to play with each other and how to get other guys going."
Fab Four?: Saturday was a breakout day for three of Missouri's four freshmen. All four saw at least 10 minutes of action for the first time, and the results were palpable: they combined for 28 points and eight rebounds.
"Any time you come into a program, you have to learn not only what's expected, but what it takes," Snyder said. "I think those guys are learning the level they have to play at."
Forward Kalen Grimes had the best day, tallying 12 points and three offensive rebounds. He had a knack for the basket, converting 5-of-8 shots in 14 minutes, the most of his brief Missouri career.
Grimes' biggest plays came on the defensive end, where he swatted down four shots. For a team whose coach continues to emphasize defense over all else, it was a fantastic day for Missouri's freshman from suburban St. Louis.
"People are impressed with his dunks, but those blocks, those are huge," Conley said. "He not only gets a piece of the block, he sends the ball in the stands. That kind of stuff can get a team going."
Snyder said Grimes has spent a lot of time with junior center Kevin Young, learning the defensive craft. Even though the two split time at center, Young has embraced his role as teacher.
"They're trying to do the little things," Snyder said. "Kevin has been a really good influence on him. He's kind of taking to tutoring Kalen a little bit."
Grimes said he enjoys working with Young, and the results are evident.
"It's a great learning experience playing with him every day," Grimes said. "Every day, I pick up new moves and new techniques from him. He's a great defensive player."
Point guard Jason Horton had a strong afternoon, tallying eight points, five assists and four rebounds in 27 minutes. His best stat: 3-of-3, Horton's numbers from the field.
"I've been struggling a little bit with my jumper, and from the free-throw line, too, (which) I haven't seen before in the past," Horton said. "If I just keep working, I think that stuff will follow."
Snyder said he liked what he saw out of Horton and that he hopes to see it more consistently in the future.
"I was impressed today; I want him to impress me everyday," Snyder said. "I want him to come on Monday and impress me in practice with his focus and work ethic. As he learns to do that, he'll continue to improve."
Horton, still working toward getting back to 100 percent after two surgeries to remove blood clots in his right arm, is close to where he wants to be.
"I'm slowly getting back into a rhythm," he said. "It's real important for me to get into practice and go hard, trying to push myself. I think the results are showing up in the game."
Horton said he has worked on his footwork throughout practice recently, especially on the break.
"In practice, we're really pushing the ball," he said. "That's when we're at our best and I'm at my best, when we're playing more aggressive."
Swingman Glen Dandridge also had a strong day, scoring seven points in 16 minutes, including a long 3-pointer from the right wing in the first half, after playing two minutes combined over the past four games. Forward Marshall Brown had his breakout afternoon a game early, managing one point and two assists against the Grizzlies.
Injury update: Sophomore point guard Spencer Laurie sat out the Montana game and is struggling with his high ankle sprain. Snyder said Laurie could have played against Arkansas, but since the Tigers controlled most of the contest, there was no need to force him into action.
Junior center Jeffrey Ferguson's status is less clear. Snyder said there has been no decision about the course of action to treat his partially torn meniscus in his right knee.
"We'd love to have him back, but I think his thing's going to be longer," Snyder said. "They're evaluating over the next week or so and there's the hope that maybe it'll heal and he'll be able to come back soon. Otherwise, there's a possibility he might need surgery, in which case he probably won't be back until February."
Getting physical: Before Missouri faced Colorado at home last season, Snyder practiced with his team during the pregame shoot-around. The move paid off, and Snyder continued to do it most of the rest of the season.
After seeing his team win half of its first eight games this season, Snyder is reviving the move, but in practice instead of pregame.
"I'm gonna get in the gym with the guys," Snyder said. "Even though we can't go on the road, our assistants are burning the phones up recruiting. I just want to get in the gym with them and work with them."
Mike's musings: This was a solid win, but there is no reason why the Tigers couldn't have done this against Davidson and Houston. A win is a win, and hopefully the Tigers saw what they could do when they both shared the ball and hit their shots. Montana was not as good as I expected them to be, but there are a lot of positives to build on after this game. … One stat that disturbs me: Montana outrebounded the Tigers 45-35, including 18-12 on the offensive glass. Montana had quite a bit of height, but Missouri gave the Grizzlies way too many second-chance opportunities. If Indiana manages to pull down 10 more rebounds than the Tigers do next weekend, it would be hard to see how the Hoosiers do not win that game.
I've touted Kalen Grimes several times in this space, so I'm glad to see he's getting more playing time. I believe he's Missouri's most talented post player, omitting Kleiza, who is more of a perimeter/slashing threat. Grimes has good hands down low and is an evolving force on the defensive end. I wonder how long it will take him to sneak into the starting lineup. … Prediction review: Looks like I overestimated the Grizzlies. I expected a big game from Kamarr Davis, but he had just two points at the break before finishing with 12. Missouri now has a week to get ready for Indiana, which looked less than spectacular against rival Kentucky on Saturday. To me a win looks increasingly possible.