Rush, Tigers have great expectations

Friday, November 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) _ Bad news for Missouri opponents: coach Quin Snyder says Kareem Rush has gotten better.

The Big 12's leading scorer and preseason player of the year isn't resting on his laurels. He's been fine-tuning his game, learning to create his shot without the ball and catching it ready to fire.

``He's hungry to score, all the time,'' Snyder said.

The 6-6 Rush, named to the preseason AP All-America team and one of 30 finalists for the Naismith Award given to the nation's top player, also has improved on defense.

``I think I'm just more comfortable with what I do,'' Rush said. ``I'm a junior now and I know the system pretty well, so I just try to find out ways to score easy buckets.''

Opponents have had zero success stopping Rush, who last season averaged 21 points and led the Tigers to a 20-13 record and their first NCAA tournament victory since 1995. He's fully recovered from a hand injury suffered in the middle of the season.

``We all know he's a great player, and now he's taking a leadership role,'' teammate Travon Bryant said. ``Everybody knows he's going to be able to play in the NBA one day, it's just a matter of when he decides to go.''

For now, Rush is content to lead the Tigers to glory. Snyder has made steady improvements since replacing legend Norm Stewart three years ago, and this season shapes up as one of the school's most promising in some time.

Missouri, which returns its top three scorers, was picked to finish a close second behind Kansas in the Big 12 preseason poll after ending up sixth each of the previous two seasons.

``Based on talent alone, I think we're right up there,'' Rush said. ``We're not a team yet, we're trying to work that out. Once we get there, we're going to be at the top.''

Guard Clarence Gilbert is the second half of the Tigers' 1-2 scoring punch, setting a school record with 102 3-pointers and a 16.5-point average last season. Plus, he's eased off on an itchy trigger finger, getting others involved at Snyder's urging.

``I'm going to be the same me,'' Gilbert said. ``I'm going to shoot shots and get people involved, it's just that I'm going to get people involved more often because I think it makes our team better.''

Sophomores Arthur Johnson and Travon Bryant have shed baby fat, although it didn't hold them back much. Johnson broke Steve Stipanovich's school record for blocked shots and Bryant was an effective backup inside after joining the team in December.

Bryant, down 35 pounds to 240, is eager to show fans why he was a McDonald's All-America in high school.

``Being able to run up and down the court again, that's the biggest thing,'' Bryant said. ``Last year I couldn't run up and down the court three or four times without being winded seriously.''

Sophomore Wesley Stokes is ready to take over at point guard after a year sharing the position with now-graduated Brian Grawer. Stokes, notable for his flowing locks and awkward 3-pointer as a freshman, has been shooting 200 shots a day after practice.

``He's pretty fearless,'' Snyder said. ``He's so confident with the ball he can have a settling effect.''

Missouri also is loaded with depth. Valuable swingman Ricky Paulding averaged seven points as a freshman, and Snyder has another big recruiting class with 6-6 Duane John, 6-10 Jeffrey Ferguson, 6-7 Najeeb Echols and 6-11 junior college transfer Uche Okafor.

The Tigers open against Tennessee-Martin Nov. 13 in the Guardians Classic and the pre-conference schedule includes games at St. Louis Dec. 3, vs. Iowa Dec. 15 and at DePaul Dec. 29. There's also the annual border war game against Illinois Dec. 22 in St. Louis.