Missouri freshman forward Jakeenan Gant made quite a splash in his college debut.
Suspended for the first nine games amid an investigation into his eligibility, Gant returned against Xavier and scored 13 points on four-of-eight shooting in 15 minutes.
Gant, who was Mr. Georgia Basketball last season, also had two blocks, a rebound, a turnover and a steal in far outpacing modest expectations for his first college game.
“Obviously, Jakeenan’s play was good,” first-year Tigers coach Kim Anderson said. “I really didn’t expect that much from him just because he hadn’t really been playing with the first group of guys, but I was really pleased with the way he came in. I thought he gave us some energy.”
Initial plans called for Gant to play in two- or three-minute spurts as he got acclimated to playing again.
Instead, Gant swished a 15-foot jumper on his first offensive touch and, in doing so, earned additional playing time for a Missouri squad desperate for offense.
“I threw the plan out in a hurry when he knocked down that shot,” Anderson said.
Gant’s teammates acknowledged that the suspension weighed on him.
“You could tell the games he was sitting out that he was just itching to get out there,” junior forward Ryan Rosburg said. “… It was great to see him out there, because you felt for him all those games.”
None of his fellow Tigers were surprised that Gant, who had not been made available to reporters since the preseason, responded with an energetic debut.
“That’s just kind of the guy he is,” Rosburg said. “He’s got a high motor and he’s so athletic and bouncy and active. He’s all over the place.”
Freshman guard Montaque Gill-Caesar said Gant is similar to freshman forward D’Angelo Allen in terms of the effort he consistently plays with, but Gant is a more polished offensive player at this point.
“He was working hard,” Gill-Caesar said of Gant’s demeanor during the suspension. “He was working harder than us, so he was ready for that game. … He’s been playing that way in practice. He’s confident in his shot and confident in what he can do. We know we’re always going to get 100 percent effort from him.”
Missouri, which shot a dismal one of 16 from three-point range in a 74-58 loss against Xavier, will need all the help it can get in the 34th Annual Braggin’ Rights Game at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
“I thought we had some looks and we didn’t make them, then it got contagious,” Anderson said.
With more than 21,000 fans expected and the arena’s allegiances split down the middle, the environment promises to be the most loud and intimidating Gant and the rest of Missouri’s freshman class have played in.
“I’m going to be honest, I don’t know anything about it,” Gill-Caesar said when asked about his familiarity with the Braggin’ Rights series. “Nothing really.”
Throughout the week, MU’s freshmen have been inundated with stories in preparation for the game.
“I’ve heard that when you play the court shakes a little bit, that it’s half and half fans and it’s usually a game to the end — you win by two, you win by three or something close like that,” freshman guard Namon Wright said.
The Tigers, 5-5, are winless in four games against major-conference opponents, but hope to begin turning things around with a victory against the Fighting Illini, 8-3.
“It would be huge,” Rosburg said. “I think we need a signature win, something to put us over the hump and hopefully get us rolling. It would make Christmas a lot better for us.”