Advertised as one of the most proficient scorers in college basketball upon his arrival, Jason Conley struggled to make the leap from small-time VMI to big-time Missouri. Conley led the country in scoring his freshman year and many expected him to make an immediate impact for the Tigers.
It didn't happen. Conley was inconsistent last season before finishing strong. This time around, a quiet start to the year has led to big things lately. Conley and the Tigers are starting to figure out how they need Conley to play.
"When I first got here, I thought my role was to score, score, score," Conley said. "I can do more things, I think, with the help of my teammates. I can go out and do all those little plays on the floor and just get boards for the team."
Conley's 12 points and 14 from sophomore guard Thomas Gardner pushed the Tigers to a 64-51 win against American on Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena.
No longer looking to just fill up the rim, Conley is filling up the stat sheet. He chipped in 10 rebounds against the Eagles for his second consecutive double-double. He also had five assists and a steal to just one turnover, solid production from the senior swingman. Conley brought energy to an otherwise lackluster effort from the Tigers, which coach Quin Snyder pointed to after the game.
"The good thing about it is how he gave it to us," Snyder said. "He didn't give it to us with a jump shot; he gave it to us on the offensive glass, he gave it to us on a loose ball. I'm really pleased with the way he, in particular, is embracing our style."
Conley's effort can be summed up in one play in the second half. With the Tigers up 50-42, Conley turned the ball over to an Eagle defender in the paint. In an aggressive effort to steal the ball back, Conley dove for the ball, grabbed it and flipped it to Gardner, who laid it in to put the Tigers up 10.
"All I remember was, I turned the ball over and I had to get it back, somehow, someway," Conley said. "I jump on the floor and I got a piece of it and, the next thing you know, I look up and Thomas has the ball and he's scoring it. That just feels good."
Snyder took it a step further.
"That's a winning play," he said.
Missouri would have struggled to grab a win without strong perimeter shooting. In an extremely strange statistic, the Tigers went 18-of-53 from the field and 10-of-22 from 3, meaning they scored two more 3-pointers than 2-pointers. That perimeter proficiency helped propel a lackadaisical offense to its eighth win of the season in spite of just seven points from sophomore forward Linas Kleiza.
"It was tough for our post inside," Gardner said. "The defense was collapsing (so) it was hard for Linas to get open for a shot. We tried to get the ball to Linas because we knew he would make plays and be unselfish."
The Tigers missed 18 shots in the paint against the Eagles, including nine layups. Snyder was disappointed in the Tigers' inability to get to the free-throw line in the first half; they took just seven free throws in the first half before earning 16 in the second half.
"Even if you're not finishing, you've got to make someone pay when you get the ball deep," Snyder said. "We've got to be better finishing. A lot of those misses from 2 were point blank. They weren't wide open, but they were plays you need to finish."
A 34-percent shooting effort was redeemed by another evening of strong defense. The Tigers held American, shooting 48 percent entering the game, to just 35 percent. Missouri's strong recent play began with a comeback win against Indiana on Dec. 19 and has been propelled by the defense.
"I'm not gonna tell you that there's some secret about why we've changed since that game: it's just our defense," Conley said. "Everybody knows that. We all know that…
"There were times at the beginning of the year when they would score and we would feel a pressure on our shoulders to come down and score. But now, we come down and play defense and get stops."
Horton rising to new heights: After strong efforts against Illinois and Gonzaga, freshman point guard Jason Horton continued his strong play Tuesday, going 3-of-5 from the field for 12 points to go with two assists, three steals and four turnovers. Ten of those points came in the first half, before Horton suffered a charley horse in his left calf when he hit a defender's knee after driving to the basket.
Horton left the game briefly and played with a noticeable limp the rest of the game. He played 28 minutes, the fewest since playing 22 against the Hoosiers.
Even after Horton underwent two surgeries to remove blood clots in his right arm since the spring, an injury helped his game Tuesday night.
"I think it kind of woke me up," Horton said. "I think everybody was getting kind of dazed because this game was hard to get up for. It really made me focus more."
Snyder said his point guard learned "how to dig in" when the injury came.
"Once he really made up his mind, he was going to guard," Snyder said. "He was getting beat before he got hurt. If anything, maybe the injury helped him concentrate because I think he was better as the game went along."
Horton is also beginning to find his outside stroke. After going 3-for-13 in his first five games, Horton has turned it up recently. He was 2-for-4 against the Eagles, hitting two big 3-pointers near the end of the first half.
After recuperating from the surgeries, Horton struggled to deal with the demands of adjusting to the college level. That period looks to be nearly over.
"Coming in as a freshman point guard, it's tough," Horton said. "You have to be worried about so many other things. Really, my shot was the last thing I was worried about. That's probably the reason why I kind of got away from it a little bit. Right now, I'm trying to get my reps up in the gym and it's been working out for me."
Finding energy: In a disappointing departure from the raucous atmosphere during the Tigers' upset win of Gonzaga last week, the Mizzou Arena crowd was small, quiet and disinterested most of Tuesday's game.
With 6,315 fans in attendance, it was the smallest crowd of the year. Many were kept away by poor weather, including ice and snow in the western part of the state. Tack on the Tigers' shooting difficulties and you have the recipe for a less than thrilling night at the arena.
"Our coaches said we needed to bring out own energy tonight since we didn't have the same crowd we had against Gonzaga," Gardner said. "We tried to get each other pumped up before going out of the tunnel and tried to get everybody going."
Still, Conley wasn't pleased with the Tigers' energy level early in the contest.
"We all know that our energy level was low tonight," Conley said. "There's no secret about it. We just have to find ways to fight through this."
Free throw fundamentals: After a dreadful effort from the free-throw line against Gonzaga, the Tigers went 18-of-23 from the stripe against the Eagles, a 78 percent mark. The improvement could be connected to an increased focus on free-throw shooting in practice: The Tigers are holding a "free-throw challenge" in practice every day, with each player ranked from 1 through 12.
"We make a competition of it and make it fun," Gardner said. "People are really starting to take it serious and that's starting to carry over into games."
Kleiza is No. 1 at the moment, while Gardner is fourth or fifth, he said. Kleiza doesn't plan on relinquishing the lead any time soon.
"I'm No. 1, for a long time," Kleiza said. "Nobody can take me down. I'll be there for a while."
It showed on Tuesday. He had a brutal night from the field, going 0-for-6 with five turnovers, but cashed in all of his points from the line, where he went 5-of-7.
Mike's musings: For the Tigers to get a relatively comfortable win when Kleiza played as poorly as he did Tuesday is telling. The 3-pointers were falling this time around, as Conley, Gardner and Horton all hit big shots. If they had not been falling, American could have made this more of a contest down the stretch. Still, when your best player has as many turnovers as he does points and you still manage to win, you have to be pretty happy. … Freshman forward Kalen Grimes continues to be a defensive force. He played nine minutes against the Eagles but had two blocks. Grimes' offensive game is still developing, but he looks pretty solid on the other end of the court.
Now that he knows what the team wants of him, Conley is coming into is own. Of all the tigers, he brings the most aggressiveness and emotion onto the court, and that is really showing up on the stat sheet. Back-to-back double-doubles is an impressive accomplishment for a 6-foot-5 swingman that plays mostly on the perimeter. Conley's success -- or lack thereof -- the rest of the way will say a lot about how the Tigers fare the rest of the way. Prediction review: I called for a 78-61 Tiger win, so I was in the ballpark when it came to the margin. The Missouri offense regressed a bit, especially on the inside. But they had two decent halves and move into their Big 12 opener against Iowa State on Saturday with significant momentum.