On and off the court, Missouri senior forward Russell Woods felt lost at times last season — his first with the Tigers as a transfer from John A. Logan College, a two-year school in Carterville, Ill.
“Coming out of junior college, I was always the bigger guy, so basically coming to the SEC, guys were more athletic and stronger than me,” said Woods, a Chicago native. “That was a big adjustment.”
More rigorous coursework only added to Woods’ challenge, along with new and unfamiliar teammates — especially when his former John A. Logan teammate, Martavian Payne, left the team.
“I was one of the older guys, but I was still new at the same time,” Woods said. “ … I didn’t really have someone I could look up to. I did kind of, but ’Burg (former Mizzou forward Ryan Rosburg) was somewhat quiet.”
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Everything feels more settled in 2016-17 for Woods, who barely had more points (80) and rebounds (77) than fouls committed (73) last season.
“Russ has made the most improvement on and off the floor of anybody,” third-year Mizzou coach Kim Anderson said.
While nobody’s projecting that Woods suddenly will emerge as an NBA Draft lottery pick, Mizzou certainly is counting on more than the 2.8 points and 2.7 rebounds he provided in 13.4 minutes per game last season.
“We need him to play and do the things that he can do — that is score around the basket, block some shots, play good defense and make the hustle plays,” Anderson said. “But he’s really done a good job. He was really good in Italy.”
Woods scored 16 points on 7 of 12 shooting with a game-best 14 rebounds in Missouri’s final exhibition game during the Italy tour against Kosovo’s national team.
He shot nearly 70 percent in the four games combined, going 16 of 23 overall, and averaged 9.3 points and 7.0 rebounds.
“I’ve been talking with all the coaches, and they feel like I could have done way more last year,” said Woods, who’s set to graduate in May. “So, it’s just confidence. I worked hard this summer. I didn’t even go home. I stayed here, so I just worked on my game, trying to get better and just trying to have a better year.”
Woods’ teammates have noticed the dedication and have faith it will pay off.
“He will be one of our main go-to guys,” freshman forward Willie Jackson said. “When you’ve got somebody that’s 6-(feet)-8, 245 (pounds) and strong like that, why wouldn’t you give him the ball? The past couple of days, that’s what we’ve been focusing on — Russ getting the ball inside and getting him some touches.”
Woods sees rebounding, defense and leadership as the areas in which he can make the biggest impact for the Tigers, who officially started practice on Sunday, in his final season.
“Some of the freshmen look up to me and, when I’m gone, I want them to be able to excel,” Woods said.
Now that he’s familiar with Anderson’s system and feels centered both on the court and in the classroom, Woods is ready to show Tigers fans the best version of himself, especially given the chemistry he feels with a team that enjoys hanging out more than last season.
“I feel like we can win a nice amount of games this year, more than the past two years,” Woods said. “We’re working hard — harder than before, and Coach A is pushing us to the limit. … We all want to win. We all have a will to win.”