University of Missouri

MU basketball team focused on defense as practice starts

Updated: 2013-10-02T04:22:50Z

By TOD PALMER

The Kansas City Star

— The idea that Missouri’s men’s basketball team tipped off its season Monday is misleading.

Sure, that was the Tigers’ first official practice, but through summer workouts and preseason workouts, the team already has spent plenty of time together on the practice floor.

And if there’s an emerging identity for Missouri this season, it’s centered on defense.

“That’s pretty much what we’re trying to harp on is our defense,” said forward Tony Criswell, one of two seniors on the Tigers’ roster. “We have a lot of talent and a lot of athletic guys. We’re sure that we’re going to be really good on defense, but, as far as effort and being together, that’s the strides we’re taking.”

It’s been eye-opening for freshman forward Johnathan Williams III, a four-star recruit and potential starter. He said Missouri’s practices have been as intense as games already.

“You just have to see it,” Williams said. “It’s amazing out here.”

Last season, when Missouri finished 23-12 and reached the NCAA Tournament for the third straight time, the defense ranked in the middle of the pack nationally — 176th among 345 teams — in scoring defense at 66.7 points allowed per game.

Additionally, the Tigers ranked 56th overall in field-goal percentage defense (40.3), which leaves room for improvement.

Now in his third season with Missouri, coach Frank Haith is confident he’ll see that improvement.

“I think we’ll be better this year than we were last year,” he said. “With our interior defense, we’ve got presence. We’ve got length and when you talk about a lineup with Jordan Clarkson and Jabari (Brown), all those guys are long and we can shut down passing lanes and driving lanes.”

Former Tigers point guard Phil Pressey had many strengths as a basketball player, but size and defense weren’t chief among his assets.

Clarkson, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Tulsa who sat out last season, brings both. Perhaps even more important, he realizes how critical his defense will be to Missouri’s fortunes.

“That’s where it all starts on the defensive end,” Clarkson said. “I feel like I’ve got to set the tone, because I’ll be playing the point and guarding the man with the ball.”

Brown, 6-5, is a stout perimeter defender as well, and the Tigers are well stocked with tall, athletic forwards — 6-9 Williams, 6-9 Criswell, 6-11 sophomore Stefan Jankovic, 6-11 junior Keanau Post and 6-10 sophomore Ryan Rosburg.

Freshman point guard Wes Clark’s defense also draws raves from Haith, but it still starts with Clarkson — as so much will for Missouri this season.

“Wes Clark, as a freshman, is a pretty good defender too, but Jordan’s our best defender,” Haith said. “He’s really good on the ball. He’s good off the ball. He has great instincts. He runs down loose balls. That’s a great quality to have if your point guard’s your best defender, a guy that’s the frontline of your defense.”

It’s also going to define the Tigers’ upcoming season.

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com.

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