Time to move up
Rush's presence could lift Missouri into elite ranks
By Adam Thompson, Special to CNNSI.com
Luckily for Missouri coach Quin Snyder, Kareem Rush is a perfectionist.
If not for a thumb injury that held him out of seven games last year, the Tiger small forward could have won the Big 12 scoring title, the league player of the year award and a pass to the NBA Draft's green room. Instead, Rush only claimed the first of those three prizes, with a 21.1 points-per-game average.
He says now that some were telling him he could have remained a lottery pick even after the injury.
"But," he added, "I set my goal to be picked higher than that."
Instead, Rush returns for his junior year in Columbia, giving Mizzou arguably the best player anywhere without a "Duke" on the front of his jersey and a "Williams" on the back.
Because of a frontcourt that lacks both experience and depth, and with a Kansas team returning two Naismith Award candidates in Nick Collison and Drew Gooden, Snyder is hesitant to call his team the best in the Big 12 this year. But with Rush, conscience-less shooter Clarence Gilbert and the young cast around them, the Tigers are undeniably the most intriguing.
How young a cast is it? Gilbert, who broke a school record with 102 3-pointers last season, is the only senior. Even their coach is a relative pup. Snyder turned 35 the last week of October.
His tone this preseason has been guarded, but at the very least, Snyder will grant that winning a league crown -- which would be the Tigers' first since 1994 -- in his third year as a head coach is feasible.
"The last couple of years, there was no chance it was going to happen, because we weren't good enough," he said. "I think this year we have an opportunity to aspire to that, but there are still a lot of question marks."
The biggest unknown is the one Snyder has the least control over. Uche Okafor, a Nigerian junior-college transfer from the College of Southern Idaho, is still waiting to hear on his eligibility from the NCAA. Without him, Missouri is left with talented but still green forwards Arthur Johnson (six foul-outs in 2000-01), Travon Bryant and freshman Jeffrey Ferguson, who was ruled ineligible for his senior year at Michigan's Benton Harbor High School after transferring from Canada. Another freshman, Najeeb Echols, would have to leave the perimeter to help if Okafor can't play.
A thin frontcourt is nothing new for Snyder, who said, "I've been sitting on the bench begging for a rebound for two years now."
Still, most coaches would kill for Snyder's problems. If precocious sophomore Wesley Stokes can ably replace the Tigers' only major departure, Brian Grawer, at the point, this team will be very, very dangerous. Missouri was also young last year, and managed to get to the second round of the NCAA tournament before falling to Snyder's mentor, Mike Krzyzewski, and a nearly unbeatable Duke team.
Aside from all of the other talent on the floor, Snyder sees a more complete player in Rush, which to anyone who saw him play last year would sound almost absurd.
"Instead of getting scored on, getting a three to your two, I think he's taking much more pride in his defense," Snyder said. "He's trying to crash the offensive boards. He's trying to become a much more competitive leader. Some of the intangible things he's more aware of and focused on. Not that he's been insufficient in them, but he's adding to an already pretty strong package."
Rush agrees that he cares more about defense than he has in the past, though he still calls his play on his own end of the court a work in progress.
But, he added, "It's an insult for me to get scored on. That's the way I look at it now."
Snyder also believes Rush would have come back with or without the injury. But as good as his forward is becoming, he knows he will be lucky to keep him beyond this March. Asked if this is his last year, Rush admits that it probably will be, unless the perfectionist in him pops up again.
"But who knows?" he added. "If we go out and win a national championship, I might want to come back to try to repeat."
Adam Thompson covers the Big 12 for the Denver Post. His "This Week in the Big 12" column will appear weekly during the season.