The Missouri men’s basketball team arrived in paradise Thursday, but Johnathan Williams III’s family and friends probably shouldn’t expect souvenirs from the 6-foot-9 sophomore forward.
“I know Hawaii is a nice place, but we’re going there for three reasons, and that’s to win three games,” Williams said in a postgame news conference Wednesday after the Tigers knocked off Oral Roberts 78-64. “That’s our main focus. … This trip is a growing experience for us, because we’re going to be around each other the whole entire time.”
At that point, MU coach Kim Anderson chimed in, “It’s sort of like going to Moberly,” referencing a preseason trip he took the Tigers on last month as a team-building exercise.
Missouri opened the season with a loss against UMKC before rebounding with wins against Valparaiso and Oral Roberts.
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Up first Monday in the Maui Invitational, the Tigers, 2-1, tussle with No. 2 Arizona, 3-0 — a game (at 4 p.m. on ESPN2) that promises to be a terrific early-season litmus test.
“We’re going into that game with confidence,” freshman forward and MU’s leading scorer Montaque Gill-Caesar said. “We know we’re capable of competing with any team in the country. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Arizona or Oral Roberts, no matter who it is we’re going to go into each and every game with confidence.”
Missouri will face either Purdue or Kansas State in its second game Tuesday in Maui.
“It’s going to be a great experience — good to see where our team is and what strides we have to make towards March,” sophomore point guard Wes Clark said. “We’re a young team and we’re trying to find our chemistry and feel for each other, so we’re looking to see where we’re at exactly.”
That young team was shell-shocked after dropping the opener against the Kangaroos, but the Tigers responded well.
Against Valparaiso, Missouri allowed only 41 points and cruised to a 15-point victory behind a stout defense.
The Tigers turned to red-hot three-point shooting and a second-half defense that limited Oral Roberts to 20.8 percent from the field in the second half to achieve a modest winning streak with a 14-point drubbing of the Golden Eagles.
“I think they’d been freaked out,” Anderson said. “I don’t think there’s any question. That’s a great point, and that’s why I wanted something good to happen. I’m not taking anything away from UMKC, because they did a great job. But I think our guys — it was a great wake-up call, but then you’ve got to continue to build on it.”
Anderson said the Hawaii trip is pretty regimented, but he said there would be time built in for Missouri’s players to soak in some of the Aloha State’s majesty between practice and study hall.
“I’m not very smart,” Anderson said. “I asked, ‘Hey, has anybody been to Hawaii?’ (Keith) Shamburger raised his hand. I said, ‘Of course. Have you ever been to Maui?’ He said, ‘Nope, never been to Maui.’ So, it’s a great trip.”
Missouri has played in the Maui Invitational three previous times, going 6-3 overall and winning the tourney championship in 1989. The Tigers finished third in 1986 and fourth in 1997, going 1-2.
“This is a tournament I always wanted to play in, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us,” said Shamburger, a senior point guard who transferred this season from Hawaii. “The Maui Invitational is one of the best tournaments I’ve always heard.”
Freshman forward Jakeenan Gant, who is being withheld from competition as the NCAA reviews his eligibility, did not travel with the team to Hawaii.