Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tigers become familiar with close finishes

Somehow, the Fastest 40 Minutes of Basketball has been even more dramatic early in this young college basketball season, as almost all of Mizzou’s games have been in edge-of-the-seat territory. From the unexpected battles and escapes against Western Illinois, Wyoming, LaSalle, and Oregon to the heartstopping overtime games with good Georgetown and Vanderbilt teams, the Tigers have been appointment viewing.

It’s become something of a tradition, the Faster 40 Minutes distilling into the longest five seconds as opponents fly down the court and fire up buzzer-beaters. Sometimes they go in (Georgetown) and sometimes they miss (Oregon, Vanderbilt).

But it has all been riveting, and last Saturday’s 70-55 home win over Presbyterian improved Missouri to 8-1, with the lone defeat being that tough overtime loss to Georgetown in Kansas City. Missouri faces Oral Roberts on Thursday and Central Arkansas on Saturday before the Dec. 22 showdown with Illinois in St. Louis (8 p.m. on ESPN2), which should be another key indicator of how good this Missouri team will be. Here’s a look at some of the key storylines Tiger fans will be following as the season heats up.

Expectations: Missouri was picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 preseason coaches’ poll. The preseason publications I’ve seen have the Tigers anywhere from third to fifth in the Big 12, with most projecting a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament.

It seems most Missouri fans have reasonable confidence in this team. Anderson’s teams often finish above their position in the preseason conference poll.

All in all, it’s reasonable to expect the Tigers to contend for the Big 12 title, even if they appear to be just a notch below frontrunners Kansas and Kansas State. But Missouri has a fine homecourt advantage (14-2 in Big 12 home games in the last two seasons) and lots of upside, so they should remain in the hunt.

The new Tigers: Missouri’s highly-touted newcomers include brothers Matt and Phil Pressey, sons of former NBA player Paul Pressey; junior college transfer Ricardo Ratliffe; Toronto’s Kadeem Green; and Columbia’s Ricky Kreklow, the son of Missouri volleyball coach Wayne Kreklow.

This Tiger team has a mix of experienced players to go with all the new faces. Six of the top seven Missouri players in terms of minutes and points per game so far were on the team last year. The players with experience will do the heavy lifting for now, although there likely will be times during the season when the new players are needed in desperate situations.

Denmon's emergence: Junior guard Marcus Denmon has emerged as the team's best offensive threat early in the season, leading the team with 16.4 points per game. I think he has a chance to pull off the rare feat of shooting at least 50 percent on field goals, 40 percent on three-pointers, and 90 percent on free throws. It's a mark of Denmon's improvement that this difficult standard is possible. Through nine games, he's at 51 percent on field goals and threes and at 88.9 percent on free throws.

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