COLUMBIA, Mo. — Two of the Southeastern Conference’s most highly anticipated newcomers will be on Norm Stewart Court on Saturday. One has taken the league by storm. The other is still finding his role.
Fourth-ranked Alabama, led by star freshman Brandon Miller, a bona fide national player of the year candidate, roars into Columbia with the league’s best record (16-2, 6-0 SEC) and loads of Final Four potential. The Tide have won their six SEC contests by an average of 20.3 points per game — and all by double-digit margins. Miller, a gifted 6-foot-9 perimeter player and future NBA lottery pick, leads the SEC in scoring (20.1 points per game) and 3-point shooting (46.2%) and leads the Tide in rebounding (8.3).
“I still think he’s not where he’s gonna be,” Mizzou coach Dennis Gates said Friday. “There’s a unique base and foundation that he has and it’s unbelievable sight. I think he has an ability to score off the dribble. He can shoot over defenses, but also when you look at his patience when he gets to the rack, being able to play off two feet but also defensively, I think he can bother shots. And he has confidence.”
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On the other side of the floor is Missouri’s Isaiah Mosley, the mercurial first-year transfer from Missouri State. The two-time Missouri Valley Conference scoring champ returned Wednesday from his six-game absence, scoring eight points in 19 minutes in the Tigers’ victory over Arkansas. Last month, Mosley had missed practice time for undisclosed reasons, did not join the team for its trip to Arkansas two weeks ago and had otherwise sat at the end of the bench every night since MU’s game against UCF in Miami.
But he’s back in the mix now, giving the Tigers (14-4, 3-3) a much-needed scoring threat as they approach the midpoint of conference play.
Gates has consistently declined to discuss the reasons for Mosley’s absence — Mosley hasn’t talked to the media since early November — but on Friday, when discussing Mosley’s return to the court, Gates stressed the importance to “humanize” his players.
“Our players have put their arms around Isiaih in his moments to help him when we knew he would say, ‘Coach, I’m ready,'” Gates said. “And at this point, he said, ‘Coach, I’m ready.’ And ultimately when that happens, that’s the level of respect. You got to allow people space and understand through it all we’re here for him.”
Gates went as far to thank the media for respecting Mosley’s privacy.
“It’s not easy at all for any of these young men that have the light shine on them,” Gates said. “What I look at ultimately is a young man that has a dream and his dream is locked into his team’s success, the level of connection, the level of coaching. He’s the first one jumping up and down when guys are successful. When we win he’s the first guy giving high fives. When we are not doing well he’s the first guy being able to correct (teammates). … It’s the same thing when you have a loving environment. You see guys give, you see guys receive.”
Alabama’s team is dealing with its own adversity, under a far brighter spotlight. Earlier this week, Alabama junior forward Darius Miles was charged with capital murder in the fatal shooting of a 23-year-old woman in Tuscaloosa on Sunday. Miles had already been ruled out for the season with an ankle injury and has since been removed from the team. In their first and only game since Miles’ arrest, the Crimson Tide beat Vanderbilt in Nashville on Tuesday.
“Obviously we’re still within a week of when it all happened,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said Friday. “Everyone is still taking it day by day. Everyone processes things differently. We’re continuing to lean on the support of each other.”
Oats said he hopes fans at road venues resist jeering the Tide for the tragedy that occurred earlier this week. He didn’t hear anything derogatory from Vanderbilt fans on Tuesday.
“This isn’t a case where someone got in light trouble … these are serious matters,” Oats said. “There’s a 5-year-old that doesn’t have a mother anymore. This is not, to me, something students should joke about. If someone does happen to say something, I told our guys, ‘Be strong enough, tough enough. We’re here to play basketball. We know who we are and what we’ve done. If they’re yelling things at us, they’re completely out of line. Ignore them, move on.’”
As for the matchup, Oats is winless in three visits to Mizzou in his four seasons as Alabama’s coach, the only SEC school where he’s coached a game and hasn’t won. Can Mosley’s return to the rotation be enough to take down the SEC’s best team? The Tigers should be at full strength for the first time on Saturday. Forward Noah Carter, out Wednesday due to what the team called health and safety precautions, returned to practice and will be available Saturday, Gates said. For the first time all season, Mohamed Diarra, the 6-10 junior college transfer, has earned a bigger role in the rotation and could supply much-needed rebounding.
Gates still insists the Tigers haven’t played a complete game or skimmed their potential. Perhaps that becomes possible with a full lineup.
“We haven’t played well yet. I am dead serious,” Gates said. “I am honest. When I say this, I’m not just pulling anyone’s leg. I have not seen my team play well yet. And I’m excited about that day when it comes.”