COLUMBIA, Mo. • Frank Haith has always believed his point guard position would be in good hands since Phil Pressey entered the 2013 NBA draft. More than any time this season, the ball found the hands of freshman reserve Wes Clark Saturday at Auburn, where Clark played a season-high 33 minutes in the Tigers’ 70-68 win.
Part of the extended duty came out of necessity. Shooting guard Jabari Brown picked up two early fouls, shifting point guard Jordan Clarkson to the wing and Clark from the bench to the floor to grab the controls from Clarkson.
But after a few shaky performances as Mizzou’s lead guard, Clark might have earned a bigger backcourt role as Southeastern Conference play continues. At Auburn, the 6-foot rookie from Detroit went scoreless but delivered three assists with just one turnover. With three capable scorers on the perimeter — Clarkson, Brown and Earnest Ross rank among the SEC’s top 15 in points per game — Clark can afford to settle into Haith’s desired role: playmaker.
“He has (scoring ability) in him, but we really need him to be a pure point guard for this team to be good,” Haith said. “That doesn’t mean when he’s open he shouldn’t take a shot, because he can shoot the ball and he has that ability. But we do want him to give us that passing with this team.”
Clark’s next opportunity comes tonight in Nashville, Tenn., against a depleted Vanderbilt team that’s down to just seven scholarship players. The Tigers (13-2, 1-1 SEC) and Commodores (8-6, 0-2) tip off at 6 p.m. on ESPN2.
Missouri is 3-3 all-time against Vandy and 0-2 at Memorial Gymnasium, one of the more unconventional settings in college basketball. The elevated court sits above some portions of the crowd, and the teams’ benches are situated along the baseline. Missouri last played at Vandy in 2009, when Mike Anderson’s team suffered an 89-83 defeat. Haith has coached there as an assistant at Wake Forest, while Brown and Ross have both played there while playing for Oregon and Auburn, respectively.
“This is a unique setup,” Haith said, “something we’ve got to get used to and prepared for in terms of the benches.”
It’s been a season of adjustments for Haith, whose roster of freshmen and transfers continues to be a chemistry experiment of rotations and combinations on the floor. With the luxury of two ball-handlers in Clarkson and Clark, Haith has been able to change his lineup’s look based on the point guard in the game. As Saturday’s game showed, the Tigers can function better offensively with Clark at the point and Clarkson on the wing, where he’s less absorbed in finding open looks for teammates.
“There’s no question we’re a better team offensively when we have (Clark) in the game and Jordan’s off the ball and we play (Ross) at the four,” Haith said. “We’re a pretty good offensive team. But you give (away) some of the other parts of the game.”
That would be rebounding and post defense, but against shorter lineups or teams with shallow benches — like Vanderbilt — the smaller group could be more productive. Clark, shooting just 32.8 percent from inside the 3-point arc, has scored just four points in MU’s last four games, but he’s also turned the ball over just once with six assists since the start of SEC play.
“He’s a confident player, man,” Clarkson said of Clark. “He’s been coming a long way. Now you see him growing. I tell him he’s a sophomore now. He’s really picking it up at the point guard position, getting everyone involved.”
Clark’s not the only newcomer Haith plans to use more. During his five game-suspension to begin the regular season, Haith watched as interim coach Tim Fuller relied heavily on MU’s starters to pull out wins against overmatched opponents, a philosophy Haith generally followed once he returned to the bench in late November. But he’s since adjusted his thinking.
Freshman forward Torren Jones pulled down 11 rebounds in a career-high 13 minutes at Auburn, while Keanau Post, a junior college transfer buried on the bench the seven previous games, played a season-high 14 minutes and contributed six rebounds. After not leaving the bench for three consecutive games, freshman point guard Shane Rector has played 11 minutes in MU’s two SEC games.
Whether or not senior forward Tony Criswell plays tonight — he sat out at Auburn and his status is uncertain after violating an undisclosed team rule — Jones and Post should see more time in the frontcourt at Vandy.
“As you get through the season, you look at your team, and I think it’s what’s best for our team is that those guys get court time and increase our depth a bit,” Haith said. “Those guys have also improved at practice. I’ve seen progress in what they’re doing out here on the court and having an understanding of what we want them to do.”
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings would love to have such options. Eric McClellan, Vandy’s leading scorer and Clarkson’s former teammate at Tulsa, was kicked off the team last week. Already suspended for the season for academic issues, McClellan was dismissed for good once Vandy learned of a theft arrest from last summer. The Commodores have also lost junior center Josh Henderson to a knee injury.
“It’s not the easiest thing in the world, but it is what it is,” Stallings said. “We have other good players and other guys that have to step up. We had some guys step up on Saturday (at Kentucky). It certainly diminishes your margin for error. If a guy’s having an off night, and it’s a little more costly because your depth is dwindled. But our guys will adjust and will figure out the things we have to do to give us a chance to win.”