Mizzou not looking to rely on bigs for offense — at least until Haith returns

ST. LOUIS — For a bunch of guys who stand 6-8 or taller, Missouri’s big men sure have been easy to overlook. After two games, six Tigers frontcourt players have combined to take 25 shots — the same number as just one of their guards, Jabari Brown.

Missouri’s big men have totaled 37 points, or 22.9 percent of the team’s output. Freshman Johnathan Williams III leads the way in shots, with four a game, and points, 6.5. Four of Missouri’s guards have scored more, with Jordan Clarkson’s 45 points surpassing the production of the entire frontcourt. Though Southern Illinois played no one taller than 6-7, the Tigers’ big men took only nine of the team’s 53 shots Tuesday night.

Are the Tigers’ bigs incapable of scoring or are they being ignored?

The correct answer, so far, is somewhere in between. The precise answer, ultimately, remains to be seen.

But as interim coach Tim Fuller admits, the Tigers aren’t looking for a lot of offense from their center.

“We don’t have a post player that we’re going to ask to score 20 and 10,” Fuller said. “We’re trying to get that out of three guys versus trying to get it out of one.”

Missouri’s frontcourt certainly lacks experience, especially as its most seasoned member, 6-9 senior Tony Criswell, has watched the first two games in his sweats from the end of the bench because of a team-imposed suspension. He could play Saturday night against Hawaii.

Four of their frontcourt men are playing their first season in Division I and two others, Ryan Rosburg and Stefan Jankovic, are sophomores who played sparingly last season.

All the inexperience and youthfulness is hard not to miss. Williams, a 6-9 lefty who was a top 50 recruit, has shown off a few moves in the paint but, at 208 pounds (after gaining 10-12 since arriving on campus), his lack of strength has been evident, too.

Another freshman, Torren Jones (6-8), looks like the stereotypical newcomer who has yet to adjust to the speed of the college game. Keanu Post, a 6-11 junior, has shown few of the skills that made him one the top junior college players in the country last season. He has however, been slowed by a sore ankle.

No doubt, the big men have a lot of developing to do. “They’re growing every game,” Clarkson says. “I feel like they’ll find a way of getting their production.”

But they might grow faster if they were passed the ball a little more. In their 72-59 victory over Southern Illinois, the Tigers went to Williams on the first two possessions and that was it for feeding the post in the first half. Williams got a few more touches in the second half, but other than one pass in to Rosburg, the backcourt again dominated the ball.

“In the second half, we did a little better,” Brown said. “We have to make a conscious effort to get it there.”

Don’t look for much to change in the near future. Fuller made it clear his objective is to win the five games during coach Frank Haith’s suspension, even at the cost of developing the younger players against outmanned, nonconference foes. He played Clarkson and Brown all 40 minutes and Ross for 36 against Southern Illinois and said to expect more of the same against Hawaii.

“Maybe when coach Haith gets back he’ll have a different remedy, but I’m going to let these guys ride it out for these next three games,” Fuller said. “They’re my go-to. I know they’re going to give everything they have and they can score the basketball.”

While Fuller won’t be looking for a lot of points from his big men Saturday night, he will need them to pick up their games on the other end. As Fuller pointed out, Hawaii has “big men that can go for 20 and 10, that can score with their back to the basket.”

Like Missouri, Hawaii starts three guards and two big men. But unlike the Tigers, Hawaii counts on its bigs to score. Senior Christian Standhardinger is their top returning scorer (15.8 per game) and best player. Isaac Fotu, a 6-8 wild-haired sophomore, was named MVP of the just-completed Rainbow Classic tournament.

The 6 p.m. contest at the Sprint Center in Kansas City will be the first on the road for Hawaii (2-1), the preseason pick to finish sixth in the Big West Conference.

It will be Missouri’s first game against a quality frontcourt, which means the Tigers’ big men will need to step up. At least on defense, that is.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.