Criswell gives Tigers a boost

COLUMBIA — It was the perfect remedy for an inexperienced frontcourt struggling to make its mark.

The return of Missouri senior forward Tony Criswell gave the Tigers a much-needed boost during Saturday’s 92-80 victory against Hawaii in Kansas City. He had missed the first two games due to suspension after an unspecified violation of team rules.

Criswell made his presence felt immediately, becoming the first Missouri post player to reach double figures this season. He chipped in 11 points in addition to a team-high nine rebounds while playing 22 minutes off the bench.

The type of performance from the frontcourt’s elder statesman becomes almost necessary if the inexperienced unit is to keep improving.

“He sets the tone,” sophomore forward Ryan Rosburg said. “When he goes out there in his first game and gets nine rebounds, 11 points, it encourages all of us to step our game up. If he’s bringing that to the table, we can too.”

Without Criswell, Missouri’s frontcourt has just three combined years of NCAA Division I experience. Rosburg, Stefan Jankovic and Danny Feldmann all saw limited time last season.

That makes Criswell all the more important.

“Tony Criswell is a veteran, experienced guy,” Missouri interim coach Tim Fuller said while speaking with the media Wednesday afternoon. “Just having played and been battle-tested. We talked about him being a part of our Illinois win last year. We talked about him having battled the bigs from Ole Miss here last year and battled the bigs from Florida. We knew that it would be that type of game and we needed that physical presence. We actually reiterated and showed film on different times when Tony would have a physical box out or when he’d drive the ball to the rim hard, for the rest of our bigs to see this is how we have to play in order to be successful.”

Criswell is still on track to play against Gardner-Webb at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Mizzou Arena.

“Tony has certain criteria he has to meet on a daily basis,” Fuller said. “It was an agreement that coach (Frank) Haith made with our academic advisor and Tony. He has things he has to continue to do. It’s more in his hands than my hands.

“He did what he was supposed to do (Wednesday) as far as I know.”

Criswell’s teammates realize the importance of keeping him on the court.

“He’s making a big impact,” junior point guard Jordan Clarkson said. “We just have to keep him on the floor and keep him on the team. That dude can play. He’s hard-nosed. He’s a rebounder, he wants to do all the dirty work. I just love playing with the guy.”

Added shooting guard Jabari Brown: “Tony’s a dog out there. I love playing with Tony because he’s going to bring it every game. It just felt good to have him back out there. I hadn’t played with him in a while. I know he’s going to keep bringing efforts like that, because I know he’s capable.”

Criswell averaged 5.2 points and 4.8 rebounds while playing nearly 19 mintues per game last season. While certainly not gaudy numbers by any means, Criswell is expected to lead a group riddled with Division I neophytes that includes freshmen Johnathan Williams III and Torren Jones and junior-college transfer Keanau Post.

“We joke around that he’s like 25 years old,” Rosburg said. “He’s been around the block.”

Criswell hasn’t just become a leader by default based on seniority. He’s done it out on the court, even with just one game under his belt in 2013.

“Like we saw against Hawaii, we’ve been seeing in practice,” Rosburg said. “He’s just a hard worker. He got a ton of rebounds and that’s what we need him to do, be a junkyard dog, get his hands on balls, finish. That’s what he did for us.”

And that’s started to rub off on the younger forwards.

“Tony has a personality that makes you gravitate toward him,” Fuller said. “He’s a jovial young man. He’s very hard working. (The younger posts) naturally, beyond his actual basketball experience, gravitate toward him just because of who he is. He’s kind of the tough guy on our team. We talk about that a lot, needing the tough guys to step up and do things in the midst of battle.”

Criswell led the frontcourt against Hawaii. Now it’s up to the senior keep that going all season long.

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