First season proves difficult for Mizzou freshmen, on and off the court

All five freshmen were suspended at one point or another.
Missouri Tigers guard Deuce Bello (2) stands before Missouri's game against Arkansas Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, at Mizzou Arena. Arkansas beat Missouri 61-60.

They lost 13 straight games, had to teach themselves and learned discipline the hard way. One could say it’s been an eventful year for Missouri men’s basketball’s freshmen.

Since playing in their first NCAA Division I game over four months ago, the five players representing the Mizzou class of 2018 have had their fair share of growing pains. Despite drastically maturing, coach Kim Anderson said he knows it will take time for them to grow and develop into consistent players at the college level.

“I think they’re making (the adjustment),” Anderson said. “I don’t think you’ll make it in one year. I would hope by the end of the year and going into the offseason and into the summer, they would understand more what the level of intensity is and how you have to play.”

That intensity is exactly what freshman Namon Wright showed off against Florida on Feb. 25. Scoring a career-high 28 points, the guard shot 10-for-13 on field goals and propelled the Tigers to their first win in 14 contests.

It hasn’t been easy. After shooting nearly 50 percent in non-conference play, Wright, like most of his classmates, hit a wall, as Anderson put it. Shots stopped dropping, lanes started closing and all of a sudden, an open shot wasn’t one. But Wright hasn’t let those speed bumps slow his productivity.

“(Namon) has worked hard and he’s worked extra with our coaching staff,” Anderson said. “It’s good to see that pay off.”

Anderson said Wright’s ability to recognize intensity makes a difference. The freshman agreed.

“In high school, you’re always open,” Wright said. “You’re bigger than everybody and there’s no seven-footers, so you’re pretty much always open in high school. It’s the opposite in college.”

All year, leadership has been a struggle for the young Tiger team. Without graduated leader Earnest Ross, there hasn’t been much of a mentor for the young players.

Team discipline has been an indication of that. All five of the freshmen have been suspended at some point this season.

“We’ve had to learn mostly on our own,” freshman Jakeenan Gant said. “The coaches would tell us, but we didn’t believe them because they weren’t playing. We’re starting to figure out how to play more like a college player instead of a high school player and learn our role.”

Individually, they’ve all worked on their own weaknesses. Gant has spent extra time in the weight room. Wright has focused on his quickness. Montaque Gill-Caesar has tried to better understand his role after getting off to a hot start but cooling down.

Anderson has tried to help them in their process. Improvement is happening, but it’s a process, the first-year coach said. It won’t happen overnight.

“They’ve all improved and I’ve told them that,” Anderson said. “Especially after we were losing, I was like, ‘You’re getting better. The only problem is the other team is getting better too. You’ve got to push and continue to be even more productive.’ I’m happy with what they’ve done collectively.”

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