Missouri basketball is banking on big things from a leaner and meaner Kevin Puryear.
As a freshman last season, Puryear exceeded modest expectations, becoming the first freshman since Steve Stipanovich in 1979-80 to lead the Tigers in scoring at 11.5 points per game.
Puryear, a sophomore forward from Blue Springs South, earned SEC All-Freshman honors at the end of his impressive inaugural campaign, which also saw him average 4.6 rebounds and start all 31 games.
But he wasn’t satisfied.
Puryear worked hard throughout the offseason with Mizzou graduate assistants Connor Wheeler and Carl Richburg and assistant coach Emanuel Dildy, “adding moves to my repertoire and making me as complete as I can be.”
With the help of new strength coach Nick Michael, Puryear also transformed his body in the weight room, boosting his athleticism by shedding 20 pounds — though he confessed Wednesday he gained a few of those back.
“I don’t think it’s affected his strength,” third-year Tigers coach Kim Anderson said. “I think he’s as strong as he ever was, but I do think it’s made him bouncier and able to run the floor a little bit better.”
There were times last season Puryear lagged in transition, but he’s noticeably quicker up and down the floor now and has even led the break on occasion.
“My conditioning and being able to play a longer span of minutes has gotten a lot better,” Puryear said.
He tired after a 5-minute shift as a freshman but said he feels more comfortable and confident with stretches as long as 8 minutes this season.
“I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in as a basketball player,” Puryear said.
Coupled with a year of seasoning under his belt having endured the rigors of SEC basketball, he’s also adopted a more physical and hard-nosed approach.
“I learned you shouldn’t be the one on your heels,” Puryear said. “You should put the person guarding you on their heels. Obviously, that means you attack and play aggressive. You go after rebounds and play hard always. Just be a presence.”
Certainly he’s been that during Mizzou’s first five games this season, leading the Tigers with 6.6 rebounds per game and ranking second in scoring with 12.6 points a game.
The latter was expected after he demonstrated a scoring prowess last season, but the former is an encouraging sign for an MU squad that needs even more impact from Puryear.
“We’ve challenged him to be a better rebounder … and his rebounding has gotten a lot better,” Anderson said. “I think he’s become more physical and understands how physical it is to play in the SEC. I think he’s tried to alert the other guys that they better get in the weight room, get going and get stronger.”
Puryear was a spark for the Tigers as a freshman, but he’s now entrenched as a leader, especially in the eyes of the incoming freshman group.
“He’s somebody I do take after,” freshman forward Willie Jackson said. “Everything he does, I watch just to learn.”
When Mizzou fell behind by 10 points at halftime against Tulane in the Tire Pros Invitational finale, Puryear’s ferocious play — he scored nine of the Tigers’ 11 points in the first 4:05 of the second half — set the tone for a comeback.
“Kevin is a dominant player,” freshman guard Frankie Hughes said. “We look to Kevin for a lot of things, not just scoring. We look to him to defend, rebound and basically be an all-around beast for us. That’s why he’s special for this team. He’s a big piece.”