The good news: Jefferson High's Thomas Gardner has worked his way into the Missouri starting lineup. The bad news: Missouri may be working its way out of NCAA Tournament contention.
A top 10 team at the start of the year, Missouri fell to 9-9 after losing to Kansas in the first matchup between Gardner and former Jeff teammates Aaron Miles and Michael Lee. And Miles put an exclamation point on the 65-56 win Monday, scoring 11 points and handing out eight assists, often with Gardner trying to guard him.
Miles, who leads the Big 12 Conference in assists, sat out for long stretches of the game Ñ he was in foul trouble in the first half and sprained his ankle in the second. Still, he got the last laugh. Gardner, who had averaged 15 points in the previous three games as a starter, went 1 for 9 from the field in 22 minutes.
Gardner has impressed the Tigers with his scoring ability and his perimeter defense. He had 17 points against Nebraska, 11 against Colorado and 16 in 24 minutes against Kansas State.
'He's got a lot more energy and confidence than I had as a freshman,' Missouri's Ricky Paulding told the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune. 'The energy he brings and the confidence he has right now and the way he plays defense is amazing.'
Gardner probably will replace Paulding full-time in the Missouri lineup next year. An injury to point guard Randy Pulley originally put Gardner in the lineup this season, and then coach Quin Snyder suspended Pulley for two games for missing practice. Then, Pulley unexpectedly did not show up at the Kansas game.
So, it looks like playing time will continue for Gardner, whose enthusiasm sticks out among the laid-back seniors. Maybe it runs in the family, as in the Jefferson family. Miles, who tweaked an ankle he had injured in mid-January, sparked KU in its rivalry game against Missouri.
'I mean, I don't feel like a hero,' he told the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World. 'We just played our butts off. We played well. We beat a rival because we competed and played hard.'
'Aaron is the heart and soul of this team,' teammate Wayne Simien said after Monday's win, which put the Jayhawks at 14-4 overall and 6-1 in the Big 12.
KU coach Bill Self said, 'We don't look quite as good when Aaron is not in the game.'
Added teammate Keith Langford, in the Lawrence newspaper: 'A lot of people say he's not a 40 percent 3-point shooter, and he's not this and that. The heck with percentages. It's what you do for the team. The Internet geeks can talk about his free-throw percentage or assist-to-turnover ratio or whatever. When he's in the game, we're better.'
For the record, Miles leads the Big 12 in assists (7.5) and has an incredible assist-to-turnover ratio (3.5 to 1) in league games.
Oregon (10-6 overall, 5-4 Pacific-10) probably needs 18 wins to make the NCAA Tournament. So, with at least 10 left Ñ 9 league games plus the Pac-10 tourney Ñthe second Civil War game (4 p.m. Saturday at McArthur Court) is important for the Ducks. Oregon State (8-11, 2-7) has lost five in a row and must win some games to be one of the eight teams in the Pac-10 tourney.
The Ducks, who dropped a 19-point lead to Stanford and let the Cardinal score on 15 consecutive possessions, will play two fewer regular-season games than normal, a result of the NCAA penalizing them for playing too many games last year.
'Realistically, it's going to be hard to catch (unbeaten) Stanford, but you can get to second,' UO coach Ernie Kent told the Eugene Register-Guard. 'This is why a tournament is good, for a year like this when so many teams are improving so much during the season.'
In the last 10 years, no Pac-10 third-place team has missed the NCAA Tournament.
'We've gotten so much better since we played Oregon State. É I wish we could start the conference over with all of our people healthy,' Kent told the Register-Guard.
The Ducks have missed point guard Aaron Brooks since early January (broken wrist bone), and he may not return until the Pac-10 tourney.