Monday, December 27, 2010

Tigers earn Braggin' Rights win over Illinois

The last two weeks have made one thing as clear as such things can be in December: Missouri should at least compete for a Big 12 Conference title this year. Missouri has not won a regular-season conference title since 1994, so one can imagine the excitement this brings to Tiger fans.

The No. 10 Tigers (12-1) impressed with a 77-64 win over Illinois in St. Louis last week. At times the Missouri offense struggled, but they kept putting pressure on their ranked Big Ten opponent all night. It paid off in the final minutes, when Missouri played a beautiful two minutes of basketball to close out the win.

With the game tied at 58, Mizzou’s Michael Dixon, back from a brief suspension, made a tremendous scoop shot that he banked high above the backboard box and in. This circus shot was followed by Marcus Denmon steal and Ricardo Ratliffe layup for a four-point lead. An Illinois steal and three-pointer cut Missouri’s lead to one and heaped pressure on the Tigers.

Missouri’s response showed a team that can handle adversity. Kim English rapidly inbounded the ball to Denmon, who fired a pass down the court to Laurence Bowers, who was running behind every Illini defender. Bowers made the layup and drew an intentional foul on Illinois’ Mike Tisdale. The Tigers hit free throws and played solid defense to close out the confidence-inspiring win.

In another good sign, there was no letdown after the Illinois game. On Monday night, Missouri destroyed Northern Illionis, 97-61. Missouri roared to leads of 15-0 and 43-9 in the game. This is what great teams do; they absolutely crush the inferior teams. Missouri showed good focus and decision-making with two wins by at least 36 points to bookend the Illinois game. The Northern Illinois game was coach Mike Anderson’s 100th win at Mizzou (100-46).

And about contending for what would be the 16th regular-season conference title in program history? Some of Missouri’s key competition in the Big 12 showed vulnerabilities over the last two weeks.

Kansas received a boost when the ridiculously talented Josh Selby became eligible, but his heroics couldn’t overshadow that Kansas showed it isn’t a juggernaut in only beating USC by 2 at home. It should be noted the Nebraska Fightin’ Doc Sadlers also beat USC by 2 this season.

Meanwhile Kansas State was inept offensively in a loss to Florida, and then played shorthanded in a loss to UNLV in Kansas City. Embarrassing off-court issues have caused key players to miss a few games, and the Wildcats may be missing Denis Clemente’s leadership.

But all this means is the door is open. Kansas is still No. 3 in the nation, has won at least a share of six (!) straight conference titles, and there’s the problem that they never lose at home. Kansas State is No. 17 despite a rugged nonconference schedule, and coach Frank Martin uses adversity to teach and motivate as well as anyone. Plus a handful of Big 12 South schools (Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M) will have a say in the conference race.

But Missouri's play in recent weeks has made it clear that the Tigers are a conference contender, and that has to be exciting for Missouri fans as the Tigers near big 12 play.

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