Senior forward Tony Criswell was suspended for violating team rules and missed Missouri’s first two games of the season.
Truth be told, he was suspended for failing to live up to a pact Tigers coach Frank Haith made with his mother, Bridgette, when he arrived in Columbia, Mo.
“He and my mom had an agreement that he would help me get my degree while I’m here, and he’s stuck to his word,” Criswell said. “When I got off track a little bit, he showed me life without basketball to wake me up a little.”
No. 25 Missouri, 10-1, which plays its first true road game at 7 p.m. Saturday at North Carolina State, didn’t need Criswell to beat Southeastern Louisiana or Southern Illinois, but he found out how much he needed basketball.
“You’re never happy to have to sit out a competition, but I know what coach Haith’s main goal is and I respected everything he was putting me through,” Criswell said. “I feel like it made me a better player and person as well. I thank him for it, but it’s in the past now and we’re moving forward.”
Criswell has settled into a key role for the guard-heavy Tigers. He brings scoring punch and toughness to a front court in desperate need of both.
Freshman Johnathan Williams III has shown flashes of brilliance, but, like most incoming freshmen, he’s also been inconsistent.
Sophomore Ryan Rosburg continues to grow into a starting role, but he remains raw as well.
That leaves Criswell — a native of Spencer, Okla., who is set to graduate in May with a degree in sports venue management — as the only seasoned frontcourt player for Missouri.
Among the Tigers’ current cast of frontcourt players, which also includes junior transfers Keanau Post and Danny Feldman in addition to Williams and Rosburg, Criswell owned 83 percent of the career points scored and 81 percent of the career rebounds entering the season.
“He had the most experience of our frontcourt coming back,” Rosburg said. “He’s been around the game and been different places. He knows the competition.”
More importantly, Criswell — a 6-foot-9, 240-pound power forward who played at UAB and Independence (Kan.) Community College before arriving at Missouri — brings a tenacious attitude to the floor.
“He’s got toughness and he rebounds and plays with a certain energy,” Haith said. “That helps us and we are different team when Tony plays that way.”
It makes Criswell’s leadership and his example even more important than mere stats.
“We need him to be a junkyard dog — rebound, get his hands on balls and finish,” Rosburg said. “That what he does for us. Tony’s a relentless guy and he’s not afraid of anyone. He sets the tone for us in terms of playing hard.”
Every basketball player wants to start, and Criswell is no exception, but he’s accepted his role as a sixth man. He and freshman guard Wes Clark are the only reserves seeing significant minutes off the bench at the moment.
“You have to be more mature about the situation and see the bigger picture,” Criswell said. “It’s like coach Haith always says, ‘It’s not about who starts, it’s who finishes the game.’ Today, that’s how the game is played, the sixth man is as important as any of the starters.
“You watch the NBA, players like Jamal Crawford and (Manu) Ginobili, they play a big part for their team even though they come off the bench. I feel like I play a big part on this team.”