COLUMBIA, Mo. – Vicki Puryear was blown away.
The noise. The media buzz. The sheer amount of people that crammed into Mizzou Arena for the Missouri men's basketball team's Nov. 10 season opener. It was all a welcome sight.
The first sold-out crowd since March 2013 literally brought her to tears.
The past two years, Vicki sat in her seat praying before every game.
She prayed for her son, forward Kevin Puryear. For the team. And for that one day “the roar would be restored in Mizzou Arena.”
Now, after the Tigers won just eight conference games in three years, the roar was back.
“I saw those seats filled. It just … it melted my heart,” Vicki said.
In his first two years as a Tiger, Puryear’s role as one of Missouri’s top scorers was well-defined. He averaged double figures each year and led the team in scoring his freshman year.
Despite his on-court success, Puryear’s role was about to change.
Heading into this week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament, Puryear is averaging 8.8 points, fourth on the team.
Though Puryear would like to shoot better than 26 percent from 3-point range, a career low, his diminishing scoring role doesn’t bother him.
“My hat's off to him. I see the maturity in him,” Vicki said. “Whatever his role is on this winning team, he is perfectly OK with it.”
He’s OK with it for one reason. He didn’t grow up wanting to play at Missouri. He wanted to win at Missouri.
Whether his stats say it, he’s helping Missouri do that. And in a big way.
On Feb. 11, 2012, Puryear fell in love with the idea of playing for Missouri.
He attended his first game in a sold-out Mizzou Arena as the Tigers beat No. 6 Baylor 72-57.
“I know for a fact that I want to go to college here,” Puryear told Vicki that day.
But it took time to get an offer.
Kim Anderson took the coaching job in April 2014 and contacted Brad Loos about an assistant-coaching job. Loos' first call was to Jimmy Cain.
Cain, the head coach at Blue Springs South, and Loos are good friends. Loos knew about Puryear already. He knew Puryear was interested in Missouri but needed to talk to him.
Although Puryear had an obvious interest in Missouri, it wasn’t as simple as Loos calling and Puryear jumping on board right away.
“It was a two- or three-month process of us building a relationship,” Loos said.
Puryear and Loos spoke frequently, and, despite his love for Missouri, his parents urged him to take visits to his other choices – Nebraska and Mississippi – as well.
“Our thought was, ‘How can you know if you don’t want to go to these other places if you’ve never seen them?’” Vicki said. “He was dead-set on wanting to go to Mizzou. Even before the offer.”
Puryear signed with Missouri. He poured in 20 points and led Missouri to an 83-74 win over Wofford in his first game at Mizzou Arena.
“That was a dream come true, honestly,” Puryear said.
Puryear is undersized for the power forward position.
At 6-foot-7, he isn’t towering over many players, especially in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he has to make up for in toughness.
“He is not going to win any beauty contests by the way he plays,” Loos said. “He wins with work ethic, grit and toughness.”
When Puryear was in high school, his size was a topic of conversation among recruiters around the Kansas City area.
He had to be a guard to have success at the Division I level, they said. Cain said he saw that weighing on Puryear until his junior year.
“From that point to his senior year, you could see a lot of the recruiting stress leave him,” Cain said. “What set him apart was his willingness to win a state championship for his school.”
What brought Puryear success in high school is bringing him success now.
“That is being physical, aggressive and being successful at the line,” Cain said.
For Puryear, a career 43 percent shooter and 79 percent free-throw shooter, it takes a certain mentality to play in the post when you know that you are physically overmatched.
“You just have to go in there and think that I’m not going to get outworked,” Puryear said.
With that mentality and an adjustment to the way teams defended his left hand and jumpshot, Puryear exploded at the end of his sophomore season.
In the last three games, Puryear averaged 21.3 points, six rebounds and shot 80 percent from the free-throw line.
“He stopped settling for certain stuff and started taking what the defense gave him,” Loos said.
The highlight of that season was a 30-point outburst in the first round of the SEC Tournament, which included his first collegiate game-winning shot against Auburn.
“To hit a shot in that type of environment, well with not that much on the line, but the emotion that went into the game with Coach Anderson losing his job. That was pretty exciting for me,” Puryear said.
Time of uncertainty
The time when Missouri didn’t have a basketball coach weighed on Puryear.
“I came pretty close to transferring,” he said.
“The wheels were very much in motion,” Vicki added.
One of Vicki’s concerns was that Puryear, who had won 97 games in high school, could go through college without once experiencing a winning season.
“I knew he worked hard, and I know how much he likes to win,” Vicki said. “It was at some point you look at the situation and are like, ‘Do we do something different?’ But it worked out.”
In came Cuonzo Martin, and Puryear did his research.
“He averaged 20 wins at every school he went to, and not one person I talked to had anything bad to say about him,” Puryear said.
That research and a conversation with Martin assured the Puryears that staying at Missouri was the right decision. They knew change was coming but liked the direction.
“I’m huge on honesty. Let us know what your plan is so we can make an educated decision. There were some guys that didn’t hang around, and if Kevin wasn’t in the plan, I wanted for him to be up-front,” Vicki said. “We never outright asked, but he gave indications that he very much wanted Kevin to be part of the team. Kevin wanted that too, he didn’t want to go anywhere, anyway.
Playing his role
“Tell him what you need.”
That’s what Puryear’s parents have told every coach since he was a kid.
“If you tell Kevin what you need, he is going to do his best to make you happy,” Vicki said.
What Martin needed was different from Anderson. An incoming top-five recruiting class brought loads of scoring talent.
It included an NBA-level scorer in No. 1 recruit Michael Porter Jr., a prolific shooter in graduate transfer Kassius Robertson and two other top-100 players, and post scorers, in Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter.
Missouri was also returning leading scorer Jordan Barnett.
What Martin saw in Puryear was a natural leader and a player who could cause matchup problems.
“When I met with him, just being around him, his passion and his energy, his level of toughness, all of those things,” Martin said. “I think he is one of the few guys that can create mismatch problems for us.”
It’s not that he can’t score. He’s scored in double figures 12 times this season, with a 20-point performance against Miami (Ohio), but Barnett said there are other crucial things Puryear does.
“He’s just a really good post player and defender when he is out there. He brings so much to this team,” Barnett said.
Those close to Puryear compliment him on adjusting to the role he has this season. He’s done it at every level, they say.
“The only thing I wanted at the university was to win,” Puryear said. “I’m not scoring as much as I was, but I’m still an asset to my team.”
When Puryear thinks back to his memories of Missouri basketball, he thinks about the 2012 team right away.
It finished 30-5 before becoming one of the few No. 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament to lose to a No. 15 seed.
“One of Mizzou’s best teams ever,” Puryear said.
This year’s team won’t go down as one of Missouri’s best ever.
But it will make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years and will be the team that turned around one of the worst stretches in Missouri basketball history.
Puryear is right in the middle of that turnaround, not because he is leading the team in any statistical category. But because of his willingness to win at Missouri.
As his mom sat in section 111 at Mizzou Arena waiting for the season to begin against Iowa State. A Missouri hype video came across the jumbotron.
Who did the voiceover? Puryear, of course.
He gave a 50-second monologue. With the arena ready to burst from excitement, Puryear ended his monologue saying: “This is Missouri basketball, and we’re back. So, welcome to the new era.”
In this new era, Puryear’s living his dream in every way possible.