It was a strange sight Saturday at Alabama to see Missouri freshman guard Cullen VanLeer stealing a few minutes at power forward.
The move, of course, was made necessary by the Tigers’ lack of front-court depth, with three reserve forwards unavailable due to suspension or illness.
That left coach Kim Anderson without a scholarship front-court player on the bench in an 80-71 loss in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
It also might have inadvertently provided Missouri with a new, albeit unconventional, outlet for generating points from a struggling offense.
“When he’s (VanLeer) playing the four, it’s a huge mismatch (offensively),” senior forward Ryan Rosburg said. “I know he has to guard bigger guys, but … a lot of bigs hate guarding shooters like that and having to get all the way out on them and follow them around everywhere. I knew that was going to give us some opportunities as well.”
VanLeer wasn’t able to make the Crimson Tide pay. He and the rest of the Tigers’ guards went 1 of 12 from three-point range, but the floor spacing made a difference.
“I was talking to (VanLeer) the day before, when we found out we weren’t going to have everybody,” Anderson said. “We had to tinker with this and practice some, but I said, ‘All right ... which offensive sets do you know?’ He said, ‘I know all of them,’ and he does. He’s been playing the guard, but he knows every other position. He’s the son of a coach and a student of the game.”
The net result was that Rosburg and freshman forward Kevin Puryear carried the offense, with both resetting their career-high scoring marks.
“We put Cullen at the four, which really stretched the floor,” freshman guard Terrence Phillips said. “A lot of people key on him shooting, so it really opened up some driving lanes. That led to some bigs helping, which led to Ryan Rosburg having a lot of dishes.”
Puryear posted 22 points, his first 20-point game since the season-opener against Wofford, and Rosburg pumped in 17 points. The duo combined to shot 16 of 29 from the field.
“I was getting the ball in good spots,” Rosburg said. “Teammates had some great assists and great passes to me. Shots just started to fall, and it became easier.”
Aside from sophomore Tramaine Isabell — who was 3 of 4 from the field and finished with 10 points, helping close the gap in the closing minutes after trailing by as many as 24 midway through the first half — Missouri’s guards shot a combined 4 of 23 overall.
However, spreading the floor freed up Puryear inside for more pick-and-roll action and allowed Rosburg to go to work on the block more effectively.
“There were some bright spots and, at this time of year when you’re struggling like we are, I think that’s kind of what you look for,” Anderson said. “Kevin Puryear played really well, and our guys did a good job getting him the ball. … He looks relaxed and got some rebounds, which is good.”
Anderson lauded Rosburg’s footwork on the interior and said the emphasis in practice on creating better angles for shots clearly is paying dividends.
“Ryan Rosburg played maybe one of his best game since I’ve been around him,” Anderson said. “Hopefully he can continue that down the stretch.”
Forward Adam Wolf, a 6-foot-7 freshman walk-on, also provided solid minutes off the bench. He’d played 10 career minutes in four games before called on for 12 minutes at Alabama.
“Here’s a guy who, as a walk-on, does everything right — comes to practice every day, goes to class, plays on the scout team,” Anderson said. “He was in the right spot every time. … Now he did not always stop the guy or make the shot, but he was always in the right spot. I was happy for him, because he comes every day and works hard.”
Now Missouri, which has lost eight consecutive games, just needs to put the pieces together and get the guards and forwards to play well for two halves in the same game.