Even when the smoke cleared, Earnest Ross and Keion Bell were standing together.
The transfers and close friends were the first to be introduced before Missouri's exhibition opener with Northwest Missouri State. After the game, they were the first names listed in the box score for points.
“They try to split us apart, and they can’t,” Ross said. “… We are like best friends, almost brothers.”
And he’s almost right: Half of Bell’s family goes by the surname Ross, though the two are not related.
But Monday night’s similarities between the two — Ross finished with 22 points, just ahead of Bell’s 20 — were not so coincidental. Haith has consistently spoken of the two in the same breath, emphasizing the challenge to find them roles that balance their skills with the rest of Missouri’s weapons.
“Keion hit 20 (points) or whatever he had tonight, but his role (for) our team to be really good is to be a great defender for us,” Haith said. “Same thing with (Ross) … If he’s a good defender, those two guys, we’re going to be really good, and they’re buying into that.”
Thirteen months ago, Ross and Bell took different paths to a similar place. Ross transferred after two years at Auburn, where he led those Tigers in rebounds as a sophomore in 2010. Bell made his move from Pepperdine, a small school near Los Angeles that he led in scoring in 2010.
Bell and Ross said they instantly became best friends while they and redshirt sophomore guard Jabari Brown (from Oregon) sat out last season due to transfer rules. As Missouri enjoyed a 30-5 season in coach Frank Haith’s first season, Ross and Bell worked together on their personal games, served on the scouting team and even lived together.
On Monday, they traded moments energizing the crowd. Ross got the first cheers of the night when his first shot went for three points.
“It got me going very well,” Ross said. “Just being out there to play my first college game in front of Mizzou, it was a great experience for me, and I thank everyone that came out to support us tonight.”
Ross shot 6 of 10 from beyond the perimeter. He said the performance is a sign of things to come.
“Like I’ve been telling everybody: This year I’ve been off working on my 3-point shot and my defense,” Ross said. “That’s what I take pride in. In this offense, I’m going to get a lot of open shots just with Phil (Pressey) being able to create in the lane and stuff like that.”
Bell, meanwhile, continued the dunking show he gave to fans Oct. 12 at Mizzou Madness. Two of his eight field goals were crowd-energizing dunks, including one in the second half when he went airborne through a scrum for a one-handed slam.
Bell and Ross showcased what is capable of many players on the team this season, Haith said.
“We have a lot of guys that can go get 20,” Haith said. “Two of those guys got 20 tonight.”
It was the two players who just can’t separate.