COLUMBIA - The Missouri basketball team has struggled this year, and the team's freshmen have exhibited many of those struggles.
The Tigers' five freshmen, all of whom average more than 13 minutes per game, have each been suspended for disciplinary reasons and have not played well in Southeastern Conference play.
But another first-year Missouri player has provided a steadying hand in the Tigers' trying first season under coach Kim Anderson.
Keith Shamburger, a senior transfer from Hawaii, entered Missouri's game Saturday with the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the SEC. His 34.9 minutes per game are highest on the team.
"Keith doesn't make a lot of mistakes," Anderson said. "He's pretty steady."
Shamburger's 11 assists against Alabama are tied for the most in an SEC game this year, and he's seventh in the conference with 83 assists, despite playing for the low-scoring Tigers.
He has also been a necessary voice in the locker room.
"Keith is great," Missouri guard Wes Clark said. "Mentally he tries to stay positive with all the guys and keep everyone on the same page. And he's got a lot of prior history with the NCAA, so he's a good guy to listen to."
Clark should know. After the sophomore missed two free throws at the end of Missouri's one-point loss to Arkansas, Shamburger helped him recover.
"Man, we all know how tough that loss was and what a heartbreaker that was, so I kind of got a little depressed, you could say," Clark said. "And he was just there for a shoulder for me to lean on and kept me motivated and made me look over some film and got me back to where I needed to be."
It has paid off. Clark has bounced back in the four games since, averaging 12 points a game and tallying 13 assists and five steals.
"I don't know how things would be without him on this team, if I was here alone," Clark said. "That's just a great thing to have."
Leading the Tigers wasn't always easy for Shamburger, who is playing for his third collegiate team.
"That's hard for a new guy to come in and take over the locker room," Anderson said.
But as the season has gone on and the losses piled up, it became apparent the young team needed an experienced leader to step forward. Anderson said he noticed a few weeks ago some of the older players looked inward and realized they had to step up.
Shamburger has become more comfortable with his position as elder statesman.
"Now, I really embrace the role," he said. "At first it was kind of me shaking, talking to the team and stuff, but now I really don't hold anything back. I say what I've got to say, and I just try to keep everything moving forward, because with the team, I know I have to talk, and they tell me I have to talk. I don't mind now being the leader at all."
Some of that leadership was necessary after the Tigers' 20-point home loss Jan. 31 to Mississippi. The team had a long talk after the game and Shamburger was one of the players to speak up.
"I just said we need to all hold each other accountable and to just play hard, just play hard like we do against Kentucky," said Shamburger, one of four Missouri scholarship players not to be suspended this season. "Just because we're playing Ole Miss, why should the level of how we come out be different?"
Though the team's discussion hasn't seemed to work any magic - Missouri lost its next two games and has now lost nine straight - Shamburger feels this is a crucial month for the young team.
"I was talking to (associate head coach Tim Fuller) about it, and February can be a great month or we can make it a bad month, and I think we can make it a great month," Shamburger said "... Nobody thinks we can, but we've got a lot of talent, as you can see, and next year, it'll be a whole different team. This team will be a great team. They're still young."
Shamburger looking toward the future is one sign of maturity. Earlier in the year, he expressed frustration with talking about next year, knowing he wouldn't still be playing.
Now, he hopes to see success in the coming years for players like Clark, his roommate.
"He acts like an older guy," Shamburger said of Clark, who he has referred to as his brother. "He's just mature. Real mature. He's just like a family member to me. My mom, I met his family, and our families love each other, and it's been a great year just with me and him."
With Shamburger gone next year, Clark will likely take over most of the point guard duties. But he will have to fill Shamburger's shoes in another way, too: as a leader.
"Somebody has to step up and show some of the young guys," Clark said. "We have so many young guys. Somebody has to step up and show them the way how things are supposed to be done."