Hochman: Phillips comes to pass for Mizzou hoops team

July 30, 2017 GMT

He’s played in Rupp Arena and in the SEC Tournament, but this?

The point guard’s ball distribution had never been scrutinized by this large a crowd.

Mizzou’s Terrence Phillips, a baccalaureate of accurate, locked eyes with his target, and with his loose right arm released the spinning ball just so.

“Right down the middle!” exclaimed John Ulett over the Cardinals’ PA system.

Yes, Phillips threw out the first pitch Friday — Mizzou Night at Busch Stadium — and calmly floated a strike to Luke Weaver like an alley-oop to a lane-weaver.

“He said he was super-nervous,” the Cards’ rookie Weaver said. “But of course he gets there on the mound, and I didn’t even need to move my glove.”

Out of his element, the basketball player was in his element. He’s a showman for sure. He did a little on-field dance with Truman The Tiger. Earlier, at the fun fan gathering on the concourse, Phillips valiantly led the M-I-Z chant. He posed for pics with the glistening Golden Girls. And at one point, he took over playing the drums for one of the members of Marching Mizzou, while the drum was still strapped to the young student’s body.

Of the basketball Tigers, Phillips is not the most famous, but he’s the most effervescent.

Of the basketball Tigers, I feel Phillips will most benefit from the most famous of them all.

And you thought you were excited when Mizzou got Michael Porter Jr.?

“It was,” Phillips said, “like Christmas.”

Imagine being a point guard, after a terrible season, which came after a terrible season, and suddenly your team gets the best danged high-schooler in the country?

And then also gets one of the best big men, too, in Jeremiah Tilmon?

And then also inspires a 40-percent 3-point shooter, Kassius Robertson, to transfer to the Tigers?

This must have been what Terry Bradshaw felt like in 1974 when the Steelers selected Hall of Fame receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth in the same draft.

“It’s a point guard’s dream, having a roster like this built around him,” said Phillips, a junior this coming season.

I’m fascinated by the facilitator. Amid the frustration of last season — frustration sometimes caused by Phillips himself — he filled up the stat sheets with assists, 142 in all, the eighth-highest total of any Tiger ever. Phillips can be erratic or over-emotional. And his shooting guards weren’t known much for their shooting (or guarding). But Phillips finished with 4.4 assists per game, just 0.4 less than the SEC leader, Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, who is now a Sacramento King.

So what are Phillips’ assist goals for this coming season?

“I really would like to lead the SEC and hopefully the NCAA,” he told me Thursday in Columbia. “With the roster that we have, I feel like I could do it. As we get closer to the season, I’ll really sit down and come up with a realistic goal — and maybe even an unrealistic goal, something I can really strive for and go get.”

To lead the NCAA in a hoops stat is tricky, because even if you’re the best in your power conference, there could be a guy from the Big Wide Sky Conference or something who has, say, an absurd assist total. For instance, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball led the NCAA last year with 7.7 but was followed by fellows from Belmont and Wofford.

Regardless of where Phillips finishes in the rankings, his presence will be crucial for his “Christmas” present. He’s developing a relationship with Porter Jr., the potential top pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. The team has spent the majority of summer in Columbia, practicing together, learning tendencies more nuanced than just “pass it to Michael.”

“Obviously, he’s a different breed, he’s really up there,” Phillips said. “But it’s just like having another teammate — he’s a humble kid, he wants to get better and he wants to win. It’s a great experience.”

Phillips is familiar with actual good pass recipients, because in high school past recipients of said assists included NBA Draft picks Dwayne Bacon and Sindarius Thornwell, the 2017 SEC player of the year.

“And we have that type of talent on this team, to where he can facilitate — but also not lose sight of his jump shot, because he has a really good jump shot,” Tiger teammate Kevin Puryear said. “I think things will be a lot easier for him this year.

“Terrence is one of those players who is extremely selfless. He’s not looking to score very much, honestly. We needed that from him last year, because we were struggling offensively. But this year, now that we have a lot of firepower on the wings and on the interior, he’s going to enjoy that.”

Phillips averaged 8.7 assists as a high school senior.

In his last two seasons at the famed Oak Hill Academy, Phillips’ team only lost four games.

In his first two seasons at Missouri, Phillips’ team only won five conference games.

This year, Missouri might only lose five conference games.

And all fall we’ll talk about MPJ and Tilmon and others — maybe even Jontay Porter, the prized recruit who could announce this week if he’ll play for the 2017-18 Tigers.

But the difference between a bunch of highlights and a bunch of wins could be Terrence Phillips.