Johnathan Williams III is among the most polite young men you’ll meet.
He’s relatively soft-spoken and often mentions how blessed he feels to play basketball at Missouri.
Williams doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body, but first-year Tigers coach Kim Anderson is working on that.
Anderson needs Williams, a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward from Memphis, to find a mean streak inside that lanky frame.
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During halftime Tuesday with Missouri trailing 30-24 against Southeast Missouri at Mizzou Arena, Anderson hammered that message home in no uncertain terms.
“He’s such a great kid,” Anderson said after that game. “… (But) I yelled at him tonight, ‘You’ve got to quit being such a nice guy. You’ve got to be a meaner guy.’ We need that.”
Missouri, 4-3, has trailed at halftime in five of the season’s first seven games. It would be six if Valparaiso’s layup at the first-half buzzer wasn’t wiped away.
The only other exception was during a victory against Chaminade, an NCAA Division II squad, in the seventh-place game at last week’s Maui Invitational in Hawaii.
The Tigers had halftime staggers to make up against Oral Roberts and Southeast Missouri.
“We’re an extremely slow-starting team and we’ve tried all different ideas,” Anderson said.
Against Southeast Missouri, a game Missouri eventually won 65-61, Anderson was upset by the Tigers’ listless start.
He called a few timeouts, trying to cajole some emotion from Missouri’s players and eventually resorted to a fiery halftime speech, alternately ripping into and challenging Williams among a handful of players.
“He got on me a little bit, and I think I kind of needed that,” Williams said. “I can handle the coaching. I’m not a player who’s not going to listen to the coach. I’m going to listen to him, try to understand what he’s saying and try to do better. I think I did do better in the second half.”
Williams had six points and only three rebounds at intermission, but he responded with 12 points and eight boards in the second half, finishing with a career-high 18 points and a season-best 11 rebounds.
It was a terrific finish, but the Tigers still need to address the underlying problem.
“SEMO came out and threw the punch, but we have to learn as a team to come out and throw the first punch instead of always getting punched first,” Williams said.
Missouri certainly can’t afford to dig another early hole Friday against No. 22 Oklahoma at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Okla.
The Sooners aren’t likely to be as accommodating of a Tigers comeback during the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
“You’ll have to fight off that first punch,” Anderson said. “… We’ve got to make sure we don’t get knocked down.”
Getting Williams, who was limited throughout the preseason with a partially torn meniscus in his right knee, to play with an attacking mind-set from the opening whistle would be a good start for a team looking for better starts.
“A year ago, he was a secondary guy — from the games I watched he was,” Anderson said. “… Now, he’s a primary guy. He’s got to learn, but it takes time and it takes encouragement and it takes falling down and getting back up.”
Williams, who missed the second half against Chaminade with tightness in his knee, insists the injury isn’t a lingering concern.
“The knee is feeling great,” Williams said. “I think tonight I kind of just forgot about the knee and just went out there and just played. That’s what I’ve got to continue to do.”