KANSAS CITY, Mo. — OK, so we got an early-season glimpse of what the Missouri Tigers look like without stud transfer guard Jordan Clarkson.
Try sloppy and disoriented.
With Clarkson sitting out all but three minutes of the first half after receiving a technical foul for taunting, the Tigers’ offense coughed and sputtered, committing 10 turnovers, and trailed Hawaii 46-45 at Sprint Center.
But with Clarkson back in the game, the Tigers regained their mojo in the second half and finally put away the pesky Rainbows, 92-80, in front of 13,681 fans — mostly relieved Tiger faithful.
It was the sixth straight win at Sprint Center for Missouri, and its first since winning the Big 12 conference championship there in 2012.
“This is Mizzou West,” said associate head coach Tim Fuller, still filling in for the suspended Frank Haith. “We love it here and this is our home away from home.”
But for the first 20 minutes, Missouri looked like it was ready to head home with a shocking defeat.
Clarkson, after getting four quick points, jawed at a Rainbows defender as he made his way back down court to the defensive side. He was quickly slapped with a technical, and Fuller sat him the rest of the half.
“I was doing some yakking,” Clarkson said. “I can’t be doing that kind of dumb stuff. You won’t be seeing that again.”
With Clarkson on the bench, the Tigers relied heavily on guard Jabari Brown, who scored 13 points and grabbed five rebounds to keep Missouri close in the first half. Brown finished with a game-high 23 points.
“Oh, man, he really picked it up for us,” guard Earnest Ross said.
Fuller expected as much.
“He can do so many things for us,” Fuller said of Brown. “I mean, it’s really hard to get him off the floor. He plays with such intensity and he can hit the three for us.”
The Tigers also got a huge boost with the return of 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior Tony Criswell, back from an academic suspension. Well, actually, Criswell is still under a conditional suspension.
“It’s conditional if he doesn’t perform his academics,” Fuller said. “But there are just certain parameters he has to stay within.”
Criswell, a grinder down low, bumped and muscled his way to 11 points and nine rebounds in just 22 minutes.
“He gives us such intensity on defense, too,” Ross said. “It was great to have him back.”
But there’s little doubt the game turned when Clarkson returned after halftime. The Tigers immediately went on an 11-2 run and never really looked back.
Clarkson’s numbers won’t wow anyone — 13 points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal. But everyone on the court could feel his presence and see that smoking-fast first step.
Hawaii coach Gib Arnold was virtually in disbelief of Clarkson’s skills.
“I don’t know how anyone in the country is ever going to guard him,” Arnold said. “We tried everything to guard him. We blitzed him and trapped him and tripled him and … nothing. He is so talented.
“You know, I thought we did a pretty good job of defending him in the first half when he was sitting on the bench playing assistant coach. But that was about it.”
Arnold said the Rainbows simply didn’t have a way to slow Clarkson’s first step in the second half.
“He should probably give some of his scholarship money to the rules committee,” Arnold said. “Because with the new rules changes (on hand fouls), he’s not going to be stopped. He’s just not. There was one time I think he held the ball for 25 seconds and we couldn’t stop him. And then he dished it to one of their bigs.
“He just wore us out. He is relentless.”
Clarkson brought the crowd to its feet with a slash to the lane and a sweet feed to power forward Ryan Rosburg for a thunderous dunk that gave the Tigers a 75-65 lead with 7 minutes, 45 seconds remaining.
The Rainbows, who hit 19 of 25 free throws, stayed within striking range the rest of the way, but simply couldn’t close against the bigger and quicker Tigers.
“I thought their size was an issue for us,” Arnold said. “But really, we did a pretty good job defending. We just had problems stopping their guys out top and that first step.”
The Tigers improved to 3-0 but know they still have a lot of room for improvement. They had 16 turnovers for the game and hit just 20 of 32 free throws.
“The free throws, that’s something we have to get better at,” Fuller said. “It’s just a matter of going up to the line with confidence and knocking them down. We’ll get there.”
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter @jflanagankc or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.