COLUMBIA — Turns out nothing not even Christmas can get in the way when the Missouri Tigers need to prepare for a game.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
MU coach Frank Haith noted earlier this week that because of the way the schedule worked out the Tigers face their first road test of the season at 9 p.m. Friday against UCLA the Tigers had to practice on Monday (Christmas Eve) and Tuesday (Christmas) to keep with their normal routine.
Our normal prep work (begins) three days before a game, and (Wednesday) is a travel day, said Haith, who had players over at his house on Christmas night to relax. Well get some work done in the morning before we get on a plane, then shoot around when we get there.
With UCLA on tap, it makes sense the Tigers didnt waste time getting back to work. The only break was Sunday after a hard-fought 82-73 win over previously undefeated Illinois in the annual Braggin Rights Game the night before in St. Louis.
The Bruins, 9-3, are winners of four straight and appear to be rounding into form after an inauspicious start to the season. UCLA lost to Georgetown and San Diego State at neutral sites, but opened some eyes in a bad way with a home loss to a Cal Poly team that is 4-6.
UCLA is starting to click a little bit, Haith said.
A big reason for this, Haith said, is the emergence of athletic freshman swingman Shabazz Muhammad, the No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2012, according to Rivals.com. Muhammad, 6 feet 6 and 225 pounds, missed the Bruins first three games as the NCAA investigated whether he accepted improper gifts. He has become the Bruins leading scorer with 18.8 points per game since he has been reinstated.
He joins two other gifted freshmen 6-5 guard Jordan Adams (18.2 points per game) and 6-9 swingman Kyle Anderson (nine points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game) in a starting lineup that has remained the same for the past six games after the transfers of center Joshua Smith and guard Tyler Lamb.
Now that theyve got their team in place, youre starting to see them play better especially on the offensive end, Haith said. Watching tape from then to now, you can see them getting better.
Especially in transition, where Haith says it will be imperative for the Tigers get back on defense and find the ball. Turns out the triggerman of the attack is senior guard Larry Drew II, son of Missouri and Wyandotte High School star Larry Drew.
Drew, who transferred to UCLA after three up-and-down years at North Carolina, ranks second nationally with 8.5 assists per game and has only committed 19 turnovers all year, an average of only 1.58 per game. In comparison, Phil Pressey Mizzous star point guard has 35 turnovers in 11 games, an average of 3.18 per game.
At Carolina as a freshman, he wasnt really sure of himself, Haith said of Drew, who averages 5.9 points per game. Now he makes perfect passes and puts it where those guys can put it in the hoop.
But while Haith is concerned with stopping UCLAs attack, hes also got some questions about his own team. Key backup Tony Criswell, a junior forward, will miss the game because of a broken middle finger on his non-shooting hand. He will be reevaluated next week, but Haith will be forced to alter a rotation that appeared to settling into place.
The starting lineup Pressey, Jabari Brown, Keion Bell, Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers could remain the same, but Criswell and junior guard Earnest Ross were the first off the bench against Illinois last week. Ross, a physical swingman, could see some time at the four spot in Criswells absence, or Haith could turn to freshmen big men Stefan Jankovic and Ryan Rosburg.
No matter what Haith settles on, there should be some comfort in knowing that this years team is better equipped to handle injuries than last years thin but battle-tested group.
Weve got so many guys that can play, Haith said, when asked about his deep rotation. But guys understand from game-to-game what our needs are. As long as attitudes stay great and guys arent pouting we havent had that its nice. Its one other thing our opponent has to prepare for.
That includes UCLA, which figures to give MU a battle as Southeastern Conference play draws near. No wonder Haith didnt adjust his preparation plan for Christmas.
Their talent is as good as any team well play this year, Haith said.
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.