The conversation between third-year Missouri coach Kim Anderson and his effusive, affable sophomore point guard, Terrence Phillips, could have been contentious.
Anderson had decided to remove Phillips, who started the first 43 games of his Tigers career, from the starting lineup just as Southeastern Conference was getting underway.
Rather than take it as a blow to his ego, Phillips embraced a new role in hopes of helping unlock Mizzou’s full potential as a basketball team.
“He asked how I felt about the situation and I said, ‘Coach, you know what? Anything to help that first unit really kind of go,’ ” Phillips said. “I didn’t mind it at all.”
Playing for prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., Phillips was used to playing a role — usually not a starring one — and prioritizing team goals above his own stat line.
Making a similar adjustment with the Tigers wasn’t difficult.
“That’s not the first time I came off the bench,” Phillips said. “I came off the bench at Oak Hill, so I knew what it meant to come off the bench. You’ve got to bring energy, bring passion and bring some fire.”
Mizzou has been plagued through the season by slow starts, and options for fixing the problem were limited.
“You start games out and we couldn’t score with (Phillips) in the lineup, so I thought maybe if I take him out of the lineup he could come in and give us a boost …,” Anderson said. “I thought that he would come off the bench and maybe give us a little bit of a spark. I think he’s done that.”
Phillips’ minutes have actually increased since he was moved to a reserve role when Missouri entered Southeastern Conference play.
During non-conference play, Phillips averaged 26.3 minutes per game.
Now that he’s coming off the bench, Phillips is averaging 31.4 minutes, including at least 30 minutes of floor time in all five of the Tigers’ conference games.
His production has spiked, too.
Phillips averaged 7.9 points in 12 games as a starter, reaching double figures three times, and adding 4.2 assists and 4.3 rebounds.
As a reserve, Phillips has scored at least 12 points in every game. He’s averaging 14.6 points, 5.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds.
“I think it allows him to calm (down) a little bit, look around to see how the game’s being called, see who he’s going to guard and maybe see what works offensively,” Anderson said.
Phillips’ assist-to-turnover ratio also is up slightly and he’s recorded at least two steals in every game, a feat he managed only twice as a starter for the Tigers.
“If Terrence is in the starting lineup or coming off the bench, he’s going to do what he has to do,” senior forward Russell Woods said. “He’s going to play hard and that’s just Terrence.”
Anderson said he hasn’t ruled out Phillips returning to the starting lineup, perhaps as soon as Saturday against Mississippi in Columbia, because he sees a different reason for his recent surge.
“He’s played more relaxed, maybe, in the past few games,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, that will spread. I’ll tell you guys now, he’s in here working all the time. He gets a lot of extra shots up. He’s working on his ball-handling. Whatever success he’s having, he certainly deserves it. It’s been hard work. He’s gotten after it and put the time in, and he’s seeing some results.”
Anderson’s hope that shifting Phillips to a spark-plug role off the bench would spur Mizzou to a few victories hasn’t worked yet, but getting a depleted Mississippi squad at home represents a great chance to end a nine-game slide.
“You hope every game that we play well enough to win, obviously …,” Anderson said. “It will be a tough game. I mean, c’mon guys, they’re all tough for us.”