A surprise to K.J. Walton was an expectation for Willie Jackson, but they’re both excited about it.
Through a summer that featured a trip to Italy, an early fall with events like training with Navy ROTC and the few practices that began last Sunday, Missouri basketball’s newcomers have stood out.
“I think every one of the new guys has a chance to make significant contributions,” MU coach Kim Anderson said last Monday at a news conference. “Not to take anything away from the guys returning, but I think each one of (the newcomers) has a chance, and some more than others.”
Of those, 6-foot-6 freshman guard Jackson looks primed to compete. A driven talent from Garfield Heights High School in Cleveland, Jackson has made an impression on sophomore guard Walton.
“He’s physical, he’s big and even a little bigger than me, so I definitely gotta play a little bit harder,” Walton said. “He’s pushed me a lot.”
The pushing has been a common theme. Sophomore guard Terrence Phillips said there’s “a fresh vibe, a lot of new energy and a lot of positive energy this year,” and for a team that’s gone 19-44 in the last two years under Anderson, that’s much-needed.
But so is depth in the front court, which is something 6-foot-10 freshman forward Mitchell Smith has provided, as well as freshman forwards Jakoby Kemp and Reed Nikko, who is returning from hip surgery.
Asked if the young forwards can contribute immediately, senior Russell Woods said: “I believe so. They’re skilled. I wasn’t that skilled when I was younger, so that’s really good. They have all the skills, (but) I just try to help them stay aggressive and help them defensive-wise.”
While freshman guard Frankie Hughes, Ranger (Texas) College transfer Jordan Geist and Texas transfer Jordan Barnett — who won’t be able to play until the second semester — have contributed to added firepower on the offensive end, Anderson said defense is the team’s strong suit.
And for Jackson, that and rebounding is what’s fun.
“I’m not the type of guy that came in as a scorer,” Jackson said. “I come in and they look for me to rebound, offensive rebound and, the guy that I’m guarding, to give him hell.”
There’s a changed mind-set in this team, Phillips said. Be it the ROTC training weeks ago that had players wake up at 5 a.m. on consecutive days and do team drills, or the jelling that Jackson said the team does in the locker room after practice, they’re resilient.
“When stuff hits the fan, like when we have friction and games get hard or we go into droughts or whatever, it doesn’t affect us defensively like it did last year,” Phillips said. “ That’s a new thing that I’ve seen. When we get into hard times, we just keep going.”
With just one senior in Woods, Anderson said this is “a learning process” for a number of guys. Phillips agreed, but gave a vote of confidence not only for now but for the future.
“I just want to make the (NCAA) Tournament, I just want to win, I just want to put people back in these seats,” Phillips said. “With this group we have here and with this freshman class we have here, I think we have our core here for the next three years that’s going to turn this program around.”
Alec Lewis: @alec_lewis