Tigers, Jayhawks stagger into contest

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Kansas is smarting after a loss to Iowa State. Missouri is struggling to stay above .500.

Since there are no ties in college basketball, at least one of these old rivals will walk out of Allen Fieldhouse on tonight with a badly needed victory.

No. 15 Kansas (13-4, 5-1 Big 12) has lost two of its last four. A victory would put the Jayhawks a half-game ahead of No. 18 Oklahoma State and No. 13 Texas Tech in the conference.

For Missouri (9-8,4-3), a victory would boost morale for a team that has been bombarded with off-court distractions and has appeared to be running in place since being picked by many to win the Big 12 title.

"We need a win really bad against a really good opponent," said senior guard Rickey Paulding, "It's a big game for us."

As if the Tigers didn't have enough problems, Randy Pulley, once considered the answer to Missouri's point guard problem, was suspended indefinitely just before Saturday night's game against Kansas State.

In addition, freshman Linas Kleiza is out for at least a couple weeks with a separated shoulder. A leading member of the Big 12's stellar crop of freshmen, Kleiza was averaging 11.1 points and 8.4 rebounds and providing quality depth behind big men Travon Bryant and Arthur Johnson.

Nevertheless, everybody who plays the Tigers comes away impressed with the overall talent of Quin Snyder's team.

Johnson, who had 13 points and seven rebounds against Kansas State, is a combined 14-of-20 from the field over the course of the last two games.

Another freshman, Thomas Gardner, had a team-high 16 points against the Wildcats and is averaging 14.7 points over the past three games.

"It'll be a big one," said Johnson. "Hopefully we're going down there to get a win, but we're not going to judge the rest of our season on this game. It's a big step if we come away with a win, though. If we go down there and do what we're supposed to do, we'll come away with a win."

Paulding, however, has been in a terrible shooting slump, going 7-for-24 in his last two games and hitting only three of 15 3-point attempts.

"I think the key for us on the road is really being focused on executing our game plan and being determined to do the things we need to do," Snyder said. "When we're hanging on to that, we're just better."

Missouri beat Final Four-bound Kansas last season in the Big 12 tournament, but has not defeated its archrival in the regular season since Feb. 29, 2001.

Kansas coach Bill Self is 3-0 against Missouri, but this will be his first game against the Tigers since he became head coach of the Jayhawks.

"I think obviously they've not had the start to the year that most people envisioned for them," he said. "They've got great personnel. They have had so many things going on in a lot of areas, it may have hurt their focus. They have as good a personnel as anybody in the league."

The Jayhawks have something to prove after losing to an Iowa State squad that had recently lost to Baylor.

"That was about as poor as I've ever seen this team play," said point guard Aaron Miles.

Kansas should perhaps be especially wary of Gardner, the Tigers' freshman guard. Iowa State freshman guard Curtis Stinson burned them for a team-high 19 points in handing them just their third loss in their last 38 Big 12 games.

"They've not played their best, just like us," Miles said of the Tigers, "but Missouri is very talented. It's a team with a lot of ability. I think it will be a great game."

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