Missouri is in unfamiliar territory and so is first-year men’s basketball coach Kim Anderson, but it has nothing to do with returning to his alma mater after leading Central Missouri to the NCAA Division II championship last season.
The Tigers’ roster is full of freshmen, five of them, and that is uncharted territory for Andersonahead of Friday night’s opener against UMKC.
With the Mules, Anderson typically didn’t saddle freshmen with significant minutes, instead relying predominantly on junior-college players and other transfers.
“Freshmen always had the luxury of coming along slowly,” Anderson said. “This group doesn’t really have that. We are dependent on all five of those guys to play. They all are getting opportunities at various times.”
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Missouri had a recruiting class among the best in the nation and perhaps the best in program history.
“They are so far ahead of me,” said junior forward Ryan Rosburg, comparing this group to himself as a freshman. “Just because they’re so athletic, I think it’s been an easier adjustment. They’re not playing like freshmen now and we need to keep it that way, because we don’t have a lot of experience.”
The Tigers’ talented freshmen group is led by Montaque Gill-Caesar, who tied for the team lead in scoring during exhibition play at 13 points per game.
Gill-Caesar played for new MU assistant coach Rob Fulford last season at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep and reclassified from the class of 2015 to join the Tigers this season.
“Pretty much from day one, he established himself as a guy who would play a lot of minutes,” Anderson said.
Anderson has repeatedly said Gill-Caesar must be aggressive offensively for the Tigers to reach their potential, but he’s hardly the only freshman being counted on for a major contribution.
Freshman forward Jakeenan Gant, the reigning Mr. Georgia Basketball, provides depth in the frontcourt off the bench. He’s is a dynamic presence at the rim and solid rebounder.
Freshman guard Namon Wright brings versatility as a good scorer, rebounder and defender.
Freshman guard Tramaine Isabell came out guns blazing in the exhibition games. He took the second-most shots and most three-point field goals in wins against William Jewell and Missouri-St. Louis.
More importantly, Isabell posted four assists and only two turnovers as the primary backup at point guard behind senior Keith Shamburger, a Hawaii transfer, and sophomore Wes Clark.
Finally, there’s freshman forward D’Angelo Allen, the only MU player to go scoreless during the two exhibitions games.
That doesn’t, however, mean Allen doesn’t have a role.
“He brings an energy level to our team, and I think that’s important,” Anderson said. “We knew he was like that when we recruited him, but we didn’t know quite how that would fit in.”
Allen has carved out a niche with his hustle, his defensive intensity and his effort to run Anderson’s high-low offense.
“I praise him, because I think it’s important for everyone to understand that you don’t need to score points to play,” Anderson said. “You need those guys that are going to do some of the dirty work, and he’s kind of shown he can do that.”
The ingredients are there for a terrific crop of players, but the recipe needs seasoning.
“They just need to play,” Anderson said. “Guys need to get out and get their feet wet. … The more they play, the more confident they’ll get.”