Questions dogging Missouri off court

Ex-player's allegations of payments casting shadow over Tigers

College Basketball

December 26, 2003|By Skip Myslenski | Skip Myslenski,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - This promised to be the season of perhaps Missouri's greatest glory. The Tigers were deep and talented, ingrained in the ways of fifth-year coach Quin Snyder, and many expected them to win the Big 12 title and advance to the NCAA Final Four.

"I do think this team is capable of being a top team at the end of the year," Snyder said.

But conference championships and the postseason aren't what people discuss when they talk about the Tigers now. The talk instead is of former Mizzou guard Ricky Clemons and his jailhouse tapes.

On those tapes, Clemons said he and current players Arthur Johnson and Rickey Paulding received cash from Missouri assistant coaches. Clemons was convicted of an assault charge filed by a former girlfriend. He violated probation in that case and had a subsequent stay in jail.

Even before those incidents, though, there were questions about Clemons' academic record. Questions about shoes and clothing he received. Questions about the frequent phone calls he made to the wife of the university president while in jail. All that - plus an ongoing NCAA investigation - swirl around Snyder and his 11th-ranked Tigers.

"All I can say is, as difficult as it is for me personally and for my staff not to respond to some of the stories, we've been asked as part of the ongoing review to not speak until its conclusion," Snyder said. "We have complete confidence in that process, and we are cooperating fully. That's all I can say on the specific stuff."

Missouri asked the NCAA to allow Johnson and Paulding to speak specifically, and both have denied receiving money.

"That's crazy," Johnson said in a brief phone conversation.

"All I can say is that we have not ever received any impermissible benefits, including cash, from any of our coaches," Paulding said in a statement.

But the questions still hang over Snyder and his Tigers. It doesn't matter that Clemons is said to have denied receiving cash in an interview with NCAA investigators. Nor does it matter that he did the same in earlier interviews with newspapers in Kansas City and St. Louis.

"It's the story until proven otherwise," Snyder said.

Mike Krzyzewski, whom Snyder played for and coached under at Duke, has called to offer support. So has Michigan coach Tommy Amaker, Snyder's former Blue Devils teammate. They and others have counseled Snyder to stay focused on what he can control, and that is what he also tells himself.

"You could be out there like Don Quixote fighting windmills if you wanted to," Snyder said.

Still ...

"You want closure to some of the issues resolution," he said. "You hope for the best. You hope people are open-minded about all the events as they unfold. How am I getting through it? Just do your job. Stay focused on that and the things that are most important on the job.

"A lot of the external stuff created as a result of a situation like this, you have to be aware of it and deal with it to the extent you are able. But in the end, there's only a certain amount you can control.

"When you go through adversity like this, what I tell the team, what I've been taught, [is] you look for ways not only to learn from it, but to improve from it. I've tried to make that my focus. If mistakes were made, seek to correct them. But I love the guys I'm coaching right now. Every time I see them in the locker room or on the court, they deserve my heart, mind and spirit. That's the thing I stay focused on."

Said Johnson: "It's not a distraction; it's a burden. You don't want to hear that stuff over and over. You want it done with. But we all keep a positive attitude; we attack it together. Basketball is the main thing on our mind, so it's easy not to think about it. We know when we're on the court, we don't have to answer any questions. We just have to play."

The Tigers have played well enough to run up a 4-1 record, losing only to Gonzaga in overtime in Seattle. Yet they are still very much a work in progress. Johnson is their anchor at center, and Paulding is an experienced presence on the wing.

But they are still adjusting to Lithuanian freshman forward Linas Kleiza, Virginia Military Institute transfer Jason Conley and junior college product Randy Pulley.

Missouri has benefited from the mentality Snyder brought from Duke.

"The guys are closer to knowing what it takes to accomplish [reaching the Final Four]," Snyder said.

But they still must play under the cloud created by Clemons and the NCAA investigation, which is not expected to end until early summer.

"It's not too troublesome," Johnson said. "The coaches have been doing a good job of keeping us at a good level."

When it shakes out, is Snyder sure he'll be OK?

"It would be imprudent of me to speculate on dust settling," he said. "I don't know everything that's going on. All I can do is cooperate and be as available as I can be in the process."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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