COLUMBIA — With a team that is decidedly bigger and potentially better at rebounding and blocking shots than last year’s group, one might think Missouri may move away from the heady tactics it used to defend the rim and earn extra possessions last season.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Not so, according to coach Frank Haith.
“If we can work on loose balls, work on taking charges and work on blocking out, we’re going to be a much better basketball team,” Haith said. “Those are things everybody can do. We still are not great at those things, and that’s the effort game – that’s what we want our identity to be.”
Led by senior Kim English, last year’s team made up for its lack of height and shot-blocking with a willingness to take charges and by hustling to loose balls. So although center Steve Moore was the only player in the seven-man rotation who could be considered an inside presence on defense, Missouri managed to go 30-5 and win the Big 12 tournament championship.
“It didn’t take (them) real long (to embrace it),” Haith said. “We couldn’t make plays defensively if we didn’t, because we couldn’t block shots.”
It looks like that won’t be a problem this year. Through three games, senior center Alex Oriakhi – a transfer from UConn – has five blocks, while senior forward Laurence Bowers and freshman forward Stefan Jankovic each have three.
Bowers said he and Oriakhi, especially, are adjusting to the change in philosophy. Both love to challenge shots in the traditional manner, but understand the importance of sacrificing their bodies when possible.
“I’ve never been a charge-taker, but it’s a transition, just something I’ve got to work at,” Bowers said. “I think everything will start to fall into place. It’s still early and guys want to do it, it’s just a matter of doing it.”
Haith is helping them. Like last year, the Tigers chart whenever each player avoids taking a charge – they call it a dodge – and Bowers says there are repercussions for failing to step up, even in practice.
“Coaches chart if we dodge a charge and we have to run afterwards, so if you don’t want to run, you’ve got to do it in practice,” Bowers said.
Haith noted that the Tigers had a couple of dodges in their 74-54 win over Nicholls State on Friday, though senior guard Keion Bell did step up and take a charge.
“Kimmie was outstanding at it, and we don’t have that outstanding guy yet,” Haith said. “I think Keion took one tonight, but I swear I thought his eyes were closed when he took it. I’ll wait to see it on tape but we’ve got to get much better at that, that’s for sure.”
Bowers said Bell’s effort was a good start, but he agrees with Haith’s assessment that the Tigers better pick it up with all of the grunt work – i.e. rebounding, taking charges, corralling loose balls – if they want to beat the really good teams. Missouri will face its first real test of the season at noon Thursday, when its takes on Stanford in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
“We took a fair amount of charges today, but all in all to beat the really good teams, you’ve got to have all the 50-50 balls, do all the dirty work,” Bowers said. “We’re talented…but being talented without that blue-collar mentality is not going to win many games.”