MU looks to rebuild, again, following NIT exit

Missouri’s Earnest Ross (left) loses control of the ball in front of Southern Mississippi’s Jerrold Brooks (23) and Michael Craig during their NIT game Sunday in Columbia.

Missouri’s Earnest Ross (left) loses control of the ball in front of Southern Mississippi’s Jerrold Brooks (23) and Michael Craig during their NIT game Sunday in Columbia. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Earnest Ross sat back in his chair and stared at the ceiling of the interview room.

Missouri had just lost in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament to Southern Mississippi, and the senior guard started to realize his college career was over.

“I had a great time at Missouri,” Ross said as his eyes reddened. “The fans did a great job of bringing me in. Coach (Frank) Haith and the rest of the coaching staff did a great job of coaching me. I had a great time here and wouldn’t want to have spent it anywhere else.”

The Auburn transfer combined with junior guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson to score 70 percent of the Tigers’ points this season. All three might be gone next season as Ross exhausted his eligibility while Brown and Clarkson both consider entering June’s NBA Draft.

“I’m not thinking about that right now,” Brown said.

Brown led the Southeastern Conference this season with 19.9 points per game while Clarkson ranked seventh with 17.5 points per game. Ross averaged 14. All three stand 6 feet, 5 inches tall and would likely play at the shooting guard position professionally despite Clarkson manning the point for Missouri.

Both Brown and Clarkson also learned of news off the court this season that could impact their decision to leave school early. Their fathers were diagnosed with cancer, and only their families know how each player is coping.

“There were things within our program, personal things with our players,” Haith said. “When you talk about two guys that lead us, Jabari and Jordan, no one knows what’s going on with those guys personally.”

Missouri’s on-court performance seems inconsequential by comparison, but the Tigers (23-12, 9-9) won just half of their final 22 games en route to missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years.

The team replaced four starters (all but Brown), and would have to plug three more openings should Brown and Clarkson both turn pro. Haith has relied heavily on transfers during his three-year tenure at Missouri, and Deuce Bello (Baylor), Cameron Biedscheid (Notre Dame) and Zach Price (Louisville) all become eligible next season.

Haith credited his transfers, including Brown (Oregon) and Clarkson (Tulsa), for stabilizing the program after previous coach Mike Anderson left Haith with no recruits after the 2010-11 season. Haith said the focus now is switching back to incoming freshmen.

“I do see us having balance,” he said. “If you don’t do that, you bottom out and then it’s hard to recruit. I think we’ve been able to recruit top players because we have shown consistency with winning.”

Freshman Johnathan Williams III showed the most promise this season, starting every game and averaging 5.8 points and a team-high 6.5 rebounds per contest. The 6-foot-9, 223-pound forward got pushed around at times underneath the basket, though, because of his lanky frame.

Wes Clark played 20.4 minutes and averaged 4.1 points per game backing up Clarkson and could start next year at point guard as a sophomore. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.32 bested Clarkson’s 1.27 but still fell well short of Phil Pressey’s 2.00 last year.

As a team, Missouri committed just 355 assists compared to 442 turnovers, the first time its assist-to-turnover ratio fell below 1.00 since the team went 12-16 in 2005-06 season and fired coach Quin Snyder.

To make it back to the NCAA Tournament, Missouri must improve its ball-handling and find scorers to replace Ross and potentially Brown and Clarkson. Who those scorers will be remains to be seen, but Haith hopes to avoid a repeat of this season.

“We had three guys returning from last year’s team — one starter — and 23 wins,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll feel good about that later on, but right now I’m disappointed because I felt like this team could’ve had some great things happen to us this year.”

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