Freshman Terrence Phillips seems to have found a groove, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time.
He went through a five-game stretch during nonconference play in which he committed at least four turnovers in four of five games.
Against Kansas State, Northwestern, Northern Illinois and Nebraska-Omaha, Phillips — a freshman from Orange County, Calif., by way of Oak Hill Academy in Virginia — had 13 assists with 18 turnovers.
Since returning from a brief holiday hiatus, though, Phillips has been much improved with 20 assists and only four turnovers in 82 minutes against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Savannah State, Georgia and Auburn.
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He hasn’t committed more than two turnovers in any game and hasn’t recorded fewer than four assists during that stretch.
“The more games he plays and the more teams he faces that are high-level teams, like a Georgia or like an Auburn and now like an Arkansas, hopefully, even though it speeds the game up, in his mind it slows the game down a little bit so you don’t feel like you’ve got to play at such a crazy pace,” second-year Tigers coach Kim Anderson said. “I think he’s gotten better.”
That’s good news since Phillips is Missouri’s primary ball handler and with an Arkansas team that leads the SEC in turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio on the docket at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Mizzou Arena.
The trademark of former Tigers coach Mike Anderson and the Razorbacks is 40 minutes of hell, which is bound to test Phillips and MU’s backcourt.
“Certainly, when you play a team like Arkansas, you are concerned about the pressure …,” Kim Anderson said. “You’ve got to hope that, even though we’re still a young team, that we’ve gained experience and maturity that we won’t let the pressure bother us. The more we talk about it, the more we’re going to let the pressure bother us.”
That starts with Phillips, but it’s also critical for junior guard Wes Clark, whose four-game streak of double-figure games was snapped Saturday in a win against Auburn.
Clark has had 12 assists and 12 turnovers in Missouri’s last five games, while sophomore Tramaine Isabell has only two assists but no turnovers in 39 minutes during the first two conference games.
“Wes has some experience,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, he can handle it some. My hope is that Tramaine Isabell can kind of follow Terrence’s lead and let the game slow down a little bit … and make good decisions against the press, also.”
During Monday’s SEC coaches’ teleconference, Anderson said Isabell is really more of a combo guard and reiterated that he’s one of the Tigers’ best shooters.
Of course, handling the ball against Arkansas pressures will be pivotal if Missouri, 8-7 overall and 1-1 in conference, is going to remain above .500 and move above .500 in SEC play — not that Anderson plans to harp on it.
“I think it’s like anything,” he said. “You talk about it too much, you kind of freak people out. Arkansas does a great job with the pressure. We obviously will work on it; we have worked on it. The important thing is to play basketball and realize you’ve got to look up the floor, you’ve got to get the ball in the middle of the floor, you’ve got to get the ball reversed.
“You’ve just got to play basketball. You can’t really diagram it, because Mike’s team does such a great job of changing things up. … Hopefully, our experience being through it with some guys a year ago and facing a team or two this year that’s pressed us a little bit will be enough to allow us to play in a little bit of a comfort zone.”