Missouri basketball’s veterans forced to adjust with influx of new talent

As Missouri approaches its season opener Friday, the Tigers’ veterans are shifting into new roles on a team that will rely heavily on its freshmen.

Kevin Puryear, 24, attempts a jump shot against Miami of Ohio in 2017. Maneater File Photo

Kevin Puryear knows what he’ll be feeling when he steps onto the floor Friday night in Missouri men’s basketball’s season opener against Iowa State.

It’s a feeling he can trace back to his freshman year of high school and one he says he’s felt every opening night since.

“There’s always a little pit in my stomach, like butterflies every year,” Puryear said Wednesday. “I think that’s necessary. Like I think when you lose that type of anxiousness or excitement, then you probably shouldn’t even be playing basketball anymore.”

When the Tigers tip off on Friday in Mizzou Arena, the pit in Puryear’s stomach will be nothing new. But his role, and the role of the team’s other veterans on this new-look Missouri team, will be quite different.

With the addition of four freshmen who were ranked in Rivals.com’s top 150 for the 2017 recruiting class and graduate transfer Kassius Robertson, the Tigers taking the floor against the Cyclones will bear little resemblance to the Missouri teams Puryear and his fellow veterans have been a part of in the past.

After winning just 27 games in the past three seasons, the Tigers now have the talent to be at the top of the Southeastern Conference and have realistic NCAA tournament aspirations.

For the veterans on the team, the improved roster will require adjustments both on and off the court.

Some, like junior point guard Terrence Phillips, who started 23 games last year, will be asked to take on a reduced role. Head coach Cuonzo Martin announced Wednesday that it would be Robertson starting at point guard for the Tigers in the opener. Phillips is among several players who will come off the bench after playing more prominent parts last season.

Others, like senior forward Jordan Barnett, will not be as heavily relied upon offensively.

Barnett, who led the Tigers in scoring last season and averaged 12.2 points per game, will likely be used as a fourth or fifth option on offense this season and may be utilized by Martin as a bench scorer. On Wednesday, Barnett expressed his excitement about having to carry less of the offensive load.

“I’m not forced to score as much; that’s a big thing for me now,” Barnett said. “I can just really play in space and really let the game come to me instead of having to force things like I kind of did last year.”

Barnett also said he expects forward Michael Porter Jr. and center Jeremiah Tilmon to have a major influence on opening up the offense. He believes that the attention the two will draw from opposing defenses will provide the rest of the team with higher-percentage shots.

“I think it’s really going to benefit this team a lot because people are going to key in on Michael [Porter Jr.] and key in on Jeremiah [Tilmon],” he said. “That’s going to give me, Kassius [Robertson], Cullen [Van Leer], Terrence [Phillips], all guys who are really good shooters, open shots.”

Puryear doesn’t anticipate having to make changes to his game in the same way Barnett has. He’ll likely lose minutes to the likes of Tilmon and freshman Jontay Porter, but for him, it’ll be more of the same.

“I’ve always been expected to run the floor,” he said. “I’ve always been expected to rebound and to finish around the rim and get to the line and stuff like that. You know, coach Martin expects those same things out of me.”

It’s his role as a teammate that Puryear sees being different with this young team. Now with two seasons behind him, he knows he has a responsibility to adjust into a leadership role.

“As an upperclassman, I’m definitely a leader on this team,” he said. “I know I have to bring it every day at practice.”

In particular, Puryear feels he has to be one of the more vocal players in the locker room, something he saw in the veteran leaders on the team when he was a freshman.

“I know I have to be vocal,” he said. “I have to make sure guys are doing what they’re supposed to be doing and also developing relationships off the court so guys are willing to follow me.”

Barnett, who said he doesn’t feel the same pressure to be a leader, still knows the power that upperclassmen can have on molding younger players.

“We have unique perspectives, and we know what it takes to be successful,” Barnett said. “I think it’s just about imposing that wisdom on these guys; that can go a long way.”

Ultimately, Barnett sees leadership as something that will emerge naturally within the team. He finds himself more focused on the season ahead more than anything else.

“I’m just going to go out there and help where I can, and if I feel like someone needs me to say something to them to help them do better, I’ll do it,” Barnett said. “We’re going to have a packed house, and I know everyone wants to see us do extremely well, so we’re going to do whatever we can to get to that point.”

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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