Column: Mizzou basketball shows two sides to team in inconsistent start

Frankie Hughes and the Tigers provide hope for future but still need to shore up several areas of weakness.
Freshman guard Frankie Hughes, 3, jumps for a shot to score two during the Tigers’ home game facing Alabama A&M.

For two heart-pounding hours against No. 11 Xavier, Mizzou showed more guts than they have at any point during the two-plus years of the Kim Anderson era. In an instant, though, all that effort was all for naught.

With the game tied in the waning seconds of overtime, sophomore point guard Terrence Phillips took an ill-advised 3-pointer, then committed an unnecessary foul to send Xavier to the line for the winning free throw. Phillips played a great game up to that point, scoring 21 points and providing an answer for every punch the Musketeers threw. But people will remember the mistakes.

Phillips will learn, but it was in that late-game moment that Mizzou sorely felt the absence of a veteran leader, someone who has already learned, already made those mistakes. The Tigers needed a veteran leader the next day, when the latest loss may have been on their mind and the team looked flat in a 70-55 loss to Davidson.

The Tigers showed their potential in the tight loss to Xavier. Against Davidson, reality set in: This team still has a long ways to go.

Ultimately, the team will go as far as their young guards take them. Specifically, freshman guard Frankie Hughes has had a large impact on the results of the team’s games thus far. In the team’s two wins, plus the close loss to Xavier, Hughes averaged over 20 points. In the team’s blowout loss to Davidson, he scored two points on 1-for-11 shooting.

Outside of Hughes and the typically steady Phillips, sophomore K.J. Walton has shown improvement, notching 20 points in Mizzou’s comeback win against Tulane. Sophomore Cullen VanLeer is shooting over 42 percent from 3 after shooting just 27 percent last year.

The Tigers are going to need these positive trends to continue because they are not going to outmuscle most Southeastern Conference teams. The Tigers have actually outrebounded three of their four opponents, but against a larger Xavier team, they lost the rebound battle 52 to 39.

Sophomore forward Kevin Puryear, of course, is the steady force down low. Puryear leads the team in rebounds with 6.8 per game and is second in scoring at 13 points per game. Freshman forward Willie Jackson has potential and senior Russell Woods is a solid piece, but neither can take control in the post the way Puryear can.

If Mizzou is going to have success this season, Puryear will have to be a consistent anchor down low and the guards will need to pack a scoring punch. It’s going to take two or three players stepping up and “simply” putting the ball in the basket each game, whether it’s Hughes, Walton, VanLeer or Phillips, to consistently win games.

Perhaps most importantly, the team needs to learn how to deal with tough loss. If Mizzou has hangovers like the way they did against Davidson and in the sluggish first half against Tulane, it will be a very long season.

There are going to be a lot of bumps along the way, but if the Tigers can learn from their mistakes and move on from their losses, they will go a long way toward establishing a winning culture.

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