Click here for audio: Missouri coah Frank Haith talks LSU
Laurence Bowers could only slam his palms together after plopping down in a folding chair on theMissouribench late in a victory againstAlabama.
With roughly four minutes left on Jan.8, the forward’s right knee crumpled after point guard Phil Pressey landed on it beneath the Missouri basket, leaving the Tigers’ senior forward and leading scorer with a right MCL sprain.
Expected to miss only two games, Bowers, who averages roughly 17 points and 7 rebounds per game, has sat out the past five for No. 17 MU (15-4, 4-2 SEC), which visits LSU (10-7, 1-5) at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the PMAC.
Bowers’ absence was also clearly felt, depriving the Tigers of their best low-post scoring option, shifting the onus in the process to senior Connecticut transfer Alex Oriahki. Without Bowers, MU’s offense sputtered four days later in a 15-point loss at Ole Miss, and a week later when then-No. 10Floridatrounced the Tigers in an 83-52 victory inGainesville.
On Monday, coach Frank Haith told the MU press corps his team is poised to potentially get Bowers back in some form on Wednesday. Yet Haith, in his second season at the helm in Columbia, put a caveat in place: Any decision is based on how Bowers handles going full tilt in practice.
“It’s going to come down to my confidence and seeing him take a hit,” Haith said. “He’ll practice the next two days and see how his reaction is getting back out there to see if he’ll be able to play Wednesday.”
If Bowers is able to go, it will add a key match-up in the lane, presumably, against LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant, who has seemingly regained form after being slowed this season by a left calf strain and a high right ankle sprain. O’Bryant has averaged 17 points and 12 rebounds his past three games after a slow start in SEC play.
And it will present a tweaked challenge to LSU, coach Johnny Jones said Monday.
“He’s inside-outside, can play both so he gives them a different dimension that they don’t have right now on a consistent basis and something that they look to,” Jones said of Bowers. “He’s a very important piece to their team.”
Of course, grappling a knee injury is not new for Bowers, who missed last season with a torn ACL in his left knee. It left Missouri relying on a four-guard line-up, with now-graduated big man Ricardo Ratliffe working inside.
Yet, the set-up worked, with MU rolling to a 30-5 season and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament before being bounced by No.15-seeded Norfolk(Va.) State in the first round.
But what made the experiment work for Missouri last season was four of its guards each carried at least two years of experience, paced by seniors Marcus Denmon and Kim English and junior Michael Dixon.
Those three upperclassmen rated between No. 15 and No. 68 nationally in offensive efficiency, while Ratliffe led the nation in true shooting percentage — which accounts for the extra value of a 3-pointer — at 69.3 percent, according to kenpom.com.
Oh, and there was the orchestration efforts of then-sophomore point guard Phil Pressey.
In other words, MU, which ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency, compensated ably without Bowers with its chemistry and experience in the backcourt.
But this season, Haith has imported four transfers — former Auburn guard Earnest Ross, former Pepperdine scorer Keion Bell,Oregon guard Jabari Brown and Oriahki — toColumbiato fill the void. A talented core? Yes. However, it’s been an exercise in trying to formulate chemistry — a challenge that was suppose to be eased by having a veteran in Pressey running the show and Bowers inside.
Now,Missouristill ranks No. 25 in offensive efficiency, and its defense has improved markedly, rising from No. 117 to No. 71, according to KenPom.com. A closer look, though, shows the Tigers benefit from pounding the offensive boards, snaring 40.1 percent of their own misses for second possessions.
Here’s a key stat: Last season,Missourishot a 58.0 effective field goal percentage, tops in the country. This season? It’s at 50 percent, or No. 109 nationally. And Bowers, a 6-8, 227-pound power forward, is the key cog with MU pumping 28.7 percent of its shots through him when he’s on the floor.
Without him, the offense can become an exercise in Pressey turning a corner to get dribble penetration before kicking out to Ross,Belland Brown on the perimeter.
As Florida showed, though, and experienced team sound its rotation can contest those looks, holdingMissourito galling 6 of 24 (or half of its shots) from behind the 3-point arc. Meanwhile, the Tigers front line gimped to a 4 of 16 (25 percent) day from the floor.
“You take a great player out of your lineup, the focal point of what you do and you’ve got to get adjusted,” Haith said. “It took us a couple games for us to get adjusted, and, obviously, I thought we got better without him being there.”
In Bowers’ stead, Oriahki was, obviously, expected to provide a portion of the scoring inside — a struggle in his first three games against Ole Miss, Georgia and Florida by averaging just 7 points. Granted Oriahki has scored 18 points the past two games, victories against South Carolin aand Vanderbilt.
“Without Laurence in the lineup, he’s been our focal point in the low post,” Haith said. “I only think that makes us a better team when Laurence does come back to form. We’ve asked him to be a guy that can score in the paint for us, and be a presence inside-out, and I think he’s just gotten better and better as the year (has) gone on with that with that roll.”
Yet it’s a stark change from Oriahki’s role at UConn, where he was supplanted last season by freshman and NBA Draft pick Andre Drummond: Rebounding and screening. Frustrated at being relegated to the bench after being a key player in the Huskies run to a 2011 national title, Oriahki, who had already graduated, transferred to MU to play immediately alongside former AAU teammate Pressey.
Oriahki appears happier his minutes have returned by Haith said it’s still a dogged effort to convince him he can be an offensive threat.
“He’s a Looney Toon,” Haith said. “He says, ‘My best offense is when I rebound.’ We want him to score, too.”
But there’s the clear hope, too, that Oriahki has grown comfortable with an expanded scoring role as a traditional front-line player, allowing Bowers to work away from the rim in face-up situations while still providing a steady rebounding presence. Collapsing defenses on post-entry plays also presents the Tigers front-line with the ability to feed the ball to shooters, and take some pressure off Pressey.
“He’s a force to be dealt with inside,” Jones said of Oriahki. “He gives them definitely a strong option down there on the block. He’s one of those guys that you have to really be concerned about because if he’s down there one-on-one he’s shown that he’s a very capable scorer.”