Two new faces in particular signify new era in Mizzou hoops

COLUMBIA — The Missouri Tigers still plan to push the pace. They still will run a spread pick-and-roll offense and their roster again features a host of transfers.

But 2013-14 promises to be very different from last season.

And in a good way.

Even if these Tigers aren’t entering the season as a shoo-in to reach the NCAA Tournament as did the 2012-13 Tigers, they should be more enjoyable to watch — not to mention considerably less frustrating for Missouri fans.

For one reason: They will not have any single player dominating the ball. As dynamic and exciting as Phil Pressey could be, he also struggled enough that the Tigers’ season went down as a disappointment, with a 23-11 record and first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament.

With Pressey now employed by the Boston Celtics (he has played in two of their first five games), the Tigers are breaking in a new point guard, Jordan Clarkson, who won’t have the ball in his hands all the time. The change in personnel means a different — and welcomed — approach to the offense.

“Phil dominated the ball, but he was such a great player and could make plays,” coach Frank Haith says. “We’ve got to spread the ball out with this team. We have to share the ball. This group has bought into that.”

It starts with Clarkson, a junior transfer from Tulsa who went against Pressey in practice all last season. The two play as differently as they look. While Pressey, 5 feet 11, relied on quickness and (usually) looked first to pass, Clarkson, 6-5, can break down opponents with his height as well as his speed. He’s not always thinking about the pass, either.

“I’m a guy who likes to push the ball out in transition, but I don’t like to hold the ball that much,” says Clarkson, who went to high school in San Antonio. “I am aggressive on offense, looking to score.”

Clarkson will not always be manning the point. When Haith calls on 6-foot freshman Wes Clark, Clarkson can slide over to shooting guard. Another freshman, 6-1 Shane Rector, also is expected to get minutes at the point.

“I like the fact we have three guys who can set us up and get us in the offense,” says Haith, entering his third season as Tigers coach. “Our first year we had great ball movement. Last year, it wasn’t as crisp. But really, we only had one primary ball-handler. This year’s team, with Wes, Jordan and Shane, we have three guys who can do that.”

Interestingly, the Tigers’ other key lineup change will not provide the same kind of contrast in styles. In fact, when you watch Johnathan Williams III shoot an elbow jumper, you might think that Laurence Bowers hasn’t moved on to play professionally in Israel.

Like Bowers, Williams is a slender 6-9 forward with a left-handed jumper. And like Bowers, Williams hails from Memphis.

Williams, however, arrives with considerably more hoopla. Considered one of the nation’s top 50 seniors last season, he is the Tigers’ most heralded recruit since Pressey. Williams already has worked his way into the starting lineup, where he assumes Bowers’ role as power forward. Though Williams could be outmanned at times as a 208-pound freshman in the SEC, his offensive skills are more advanced than were Bowers’.

“I love his ability,” Haith says of his prize recruit. “There’s no question he’s going to have to rely on his quickness until he gets stronger and better. But man, he’s got a chance. I like where he’s at.”

The arrival of Williams and the debut of Clarkson signify another change for Missouri. This will be the first Tigers team recruited entirely by Haith and his staff as no players remain from the Mike Anderson era. This is no big deal to Haith, who says he embraced the players he inherited as his own from the time he stepped on campus.

“Those guys believed they had my heartbeat. They knew I cared about them,” Haith says. “That really helped give us a chance to be successful.”

That chance for success rests with a different group now, one that should be more fun to watch than a season ago.

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