A chance to step up

Early-season games against the likes of Brown, Oakland and Montana are great...as long as you win. Missouri has not managed to win everything it should have so far, but those games are mostly behind the Tigers now. With visits from Indiana and Gonzaga sandwiched in between the Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis, Missouri has an opportunity to reestablish itself quickly.

There are names that just mean a lot. In college basketball, some games have more meaning than others do. Around here, those are matchups with Kansas and next week's face-off with Illinois.

It might be a little premature to add Indiana to that category, but Missouri coach Quin Snyder sees a lot of significance in Sunday's matchup.

"It's a huge game," Snyder said Saturday. "We need everybody there and loud and behind us."

That statement came just days after Missouri managed fewer than 11,000 fans in the first game of its renewed rivalry with Arkansas. While there are many reasons not to come out and watch what has been a disappointing Tiger bunch, Snyder said he thinks his team's improvement merits fans taking another look in person.

"I think our kids realize we have work to do, and I've been grinding away at getting better," he said. "And you're starting to see some of it. Indiana gives us an opportunity to test ourselves against a program with as much tradition as any in the country."

The Hoosiers, who have lost to three top 10 teams already this season, will not be favored when they enter Mizzou Arena on Sunday. This game marks the beginning of what will probably be the most difficult three-game stretch of the Tigers' season, with a trip to St. Louis to face Illinois and a visit from Gonzaga before entering 2005. Illinois -- or Indiana, for that matter -- is no Brown, Oakland or Montana, so the Tigers will need to step up.

"That's a huge game for us," senior guard Jason Conley said. "There's nothing else to it."

That's not entirely true. With the exception of its loss to Creighton in Kansas City and its big win against Montana on Saturday, Missouri has consistently played down to its competition. Not that any of that matters to Conley.

"We're not so concerned about what everybody may think about playing teams like (Montana and beating) them by however many points," he said. "I've been talking about it for weeks now: You have to finish guys off."

It will take more than the Tigers have given to finish off the Hoosiers. In terms of talent, the teams are relatively similar, with both relying on talented freshmen at important positions. Missouri does not have an equal for junior guard Bracey Wright, but Indiana will enter Columbia looking to break a four-game losing streak.

Snyder said the Tigers' win against Montana could allow them to string together several games of consistent play.

"(That) was a step in that direction," Snyder said. "A game like Indiana provides an opportunity for us to grow some more."

While Snyder -- and, subsequently, his players -- continues to stress defense above all else, progress needs to begin on the offensive end. The Montana win showed Missouri could score by driving to the basket, and not just with the jump shot, a mindset that led to the Tigers shooting 48 percent from the field. Sophomore forward Linas Kleiza's 26 points had a lot to do with that, but the emergence of freshman forward Kalen Grimes as a capable contributor under the basket -- airballed dunks aside -- is just as important.

"I don't think (the coaching staff) just brought in four guys for no reason," Conley said of the freshmen. "They're coming in and they're helping. With guys like me that get into foul trouble early, it makes me more confident in them to come off the bench and help."

If it is a big game from Kleiza or the further development of the four freshmen, Missouri needs whatever it can get to grab a win and avoid taking a losing record into conference play, which is looking increasingly likely with this difficult run looming.

"We need every win right now; it doesn't matter how it comes," Kleiza said. "It's gonna be a hard stretch for us."

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