COLUMBIA — For Laurence Bowers, the signs of progress are small, yet noticeable.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Like the way he reeled in that one pass on Saturday, then slammed the ball with so much vigor that he was given a technical foul for hanging on the rim. Or the way he ran back on defense, elevated and rejected a shot.
Sure, Bowers only finished with four points and five rebounds in what turned out to be a 98-79 Missouri win over Mississippi. But considering he is still working his way back from a MCL sprain in his right knee — one that caused him to miss five games — both Bowers and his coach will take it.
“Physically, he’s fine — it’s just a rhythm and timing thing,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said of Bowers, who missed last season because of an injury to his other knee. “When you’ve been gone for three-plus weeks, you’ve got to get back into the flow.”
Before Bowers got hurt against Alabama on Jan. 8, he was easily Missouri’s most consistent player, an inside-outside threat who terrorized defenders with his newfound jumper and array of moves.
Through Missouri’s first 16 contests, Bowers, a 6-foot-8, 227-pound fifth-year senior, averaged a team-best 16.8 points per game and 6.9 rebounds in 28.4 minutes. But since he returned against LSU on Jan. 30, Bowers is averaging 8.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in 22.5 minutes.
“You want to come back and produce the same (way) you were before you went out, but it’s a process,” Bowers said. “I’ve been talking to coaches and people around the team and they tell me to keep my spirits up.”
Bowers also dismissed the notion that he’s still not completely healthy.
“I’ve been asked that a lot,” Bowers said. “But I definitely feel like I’m back to 100 percent.”
Haith said the recent emergence of senior forward Alex Oriakhi, who is averaging 16 points and 10.7 rebounds in Missouri’s last three games, has also had an effect on Bowers’ stats.
“During that time period (Bowers was out), we had to adjust our focus for us to win games so Alex became more of focal point in getting paint production,” Haith said. “Alex was the guy we needed to score … he’s established himself, but now we’ve got to get Laurence going because if we get him back in there, then we’ve got a hell of a front line.”
Wednesday would be a nice time for that to happen. The Tigers, 17-6, 6-4 in the Southeastern Conference, will try to get their first road win of the season when they take on Mississippi State, 7-15, 2-8 in the SEC, at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville.
The Bulldogs, losers of eight straight, are short-handed, as coach Rick Ray’s team has only six scholarship players available because of injuries and suspension. But given the Tigers’ struggles on the road, Haith is not about to take anything for granted.
“Numbers-wise, they’ve had some issues,” Haith said of Mississippi State. “But that’s not for us to worry about because I do think Coach (Rick) Ray gets those guys to compete.”
There’s also this; with March quickly approaching, Missouri — which fell out of the polls this week in part because of a loss at Texas A&M last Thursday — could use a couple of road wins on its NCAA Tournament resume.
“We have to taste some success (on the road),” Haith said. “The first step was playing well (against LSU and Texas A&M). We easily could have won both those games if we just executed a little bit better down the stretch.”
Bowers did his part against A&M, drilling a three-pointer that put the Tigers ahead by one with 50 seconds left, though they ultimately lost. His heroics weren’t needed in Missouri’s smackdown of Mississippi on Saturday, but the glimpses of his past form he showed in that game — the thundering dunk, the big-time block — only give him confidence that more are on the way.
“It definitely helps my confidence, making plays like that,” Bowers said. “It’s just a matter of repetition.”