Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Seniors on any team are traditionally expected to step into a leadership role. For Justin Safford, the only senior on the Missouri men's basketball team, the pressure is intensified. After a difficult injury in his junior season, however, Safford is more than ready to take on the challenge.
A standout athlete at Bloomington (Ill.) Central Catholic High School, Safford received several college offers. A three-year starter who led the Crimson Tide to a 36-8 mark as a senior, Safford was named to several top recruiting lists, including a top 20 ranking for post graduate players by Scout.com and a three-star ranking by Rivals.com. He turned down offers from Oklahoma, Providence, Virginia Tech and Xavier, however, to play for coach Mike Anderson and his signature fast-paced style at Missouri.
"I chose Missouri because I really liked the coaching staff and I really liked the style of play," Safford said. "There's nothing better than the Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball!"
Safford has fit well. A solid post player who can play above the rim, he quickly earned playing time, seeing action in 24 games as a freshman. His development with the team continued under forwards Leo Lyons, currently playing in Europe, and DeMarre Carroll, selected in the first round of the 2009 draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. Under their guidance, he played all 38 games as a sophomore and started 23 as a junior before a late-season knee injury.
"Leo and DeMarre, as you can see, are pros," Safford said. "Every day going against them truly helped me get better every single day and expand my game."
The program was not without its rough years. Safford's freshman year was also Anderson's first year with the team, and it was a challenge to make the transition to a winning mentality and a new style of play. After that year came the turnaround 2008-09 season, however, and the team's effort finally paid off as they set a school record for victories and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
"The turnaround has been amazing," Safford said. "People like winners and we have had a bunch of guys on this team and in the past couple of years that have wanted to win and have done everything necessary to win, which means carrying yourself in a first class manner on and off the court."
The team enters this year with the highest expectations it has had yet, after a stellar recruiting offseason and the continued development of the team. As the lone senior on the team, Safford knows other players will look to him.
"As a senior I have been here the longest, so in certain situations I know what coach Anderson is looking for," he said. "It is also important for me to show leadership off the court, such as making good decisions, because the younger guys are always watching to see what you do."
His senior season is especially important to Safford because of the opportunity he missed as a junior. In a victory against Colorado on February 24, Safford went down just seven minutes into the game with a torn ACL. The injury took him out for the remainder of the season and took away his opportunity to play in the second NCAA tournament of his college career.
"I was miserable not playing in the tournament last year because that is the best time of the year," Safford said. "A lot of people don't know the work we put in to just get to that point and so that's truly something special. It was definitely a bummer when I couldn't play."
Safford rehabbed during the offseason and now puts himself at 100 percent. He feels that missing out on last year's tournament will only add to his motivation for the season to come.
"Getting hurt definitely made me more hungry," he said. "I want to have a great senior year."