Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Welcoming" the Jayhawks to Columbia

As the 2010-11 college basketball season rolls into the final week of the regular season, it is clear that Missouri, like many teams, has a very hard time winning on the road. That point was driven home further last Saturday with Missouri’s 80-70 loss to Kansas State in Manhattan, the Little Apple.

Foul trouble limited the Tigers’ big men, forcing the Tigers to often play with forward Laurence Bowers and four guards. The Wildcats took it to the Tigers inside late, pulling away even with star guard Jacob Pullen on the bench with foul trouble of his own.

Missouri (22-7, 8-6 in Big 12 play at week’s end) has won all seven of its Big 12 home games while going 1-6 in conference road games through the loss at Kansas State.

But it’s also clear, as the season rolls into the final week of the regular season, that Missouri is very, very good at home. The Tigers have won 52 of their last 54 home games dating back to the last game of the 2007-08 season. To put it another way, Missouri has only two home losses in the last three seasons, going unbeaten at home in 2008-09, 16-2 in 2009-10, and 17-0 this season heading into the final home game.

That final home game is against the Kansas Jayhawks, a team you may have heard Missouri fans talk about some. Tiger fans know how different their team is at home and on the road, so it seems entirely likely that Missouri can avenge its 17-point loss at Kansas in February.

Kansas will quite possibly come into Mizzou Arena on Saturday (11 a.m. on CBS) as the No. 1 team in the nation. But Missouri has frequently thrived in the underdog role against Kansas in Columbia. In the brief, six-year history of Mizzou Arena, Kansas has been the Big 12 champion or co-champion each year. Missouri has finished 8th, 11th, 6th, 10th, 3rd and 5th in these six years. And yet, the Tigers have rose up and gone 3-3 against the Jayhawks in the six Mizzou Arena meetings.

Again this year, Kansas is tied for first in the Big 12, and Missouri is tied for fourth, but expect a frantic effort from the Tigers and yes, their fans.

The Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball always seem to try to be a bit faster against Kansas. The loudest Mizzou Arena crowd each year is against Kansas. Students camp out for tickets to the game against Kansas. In great seasons and poor seasons, memories are made when Missouri wins at home against Kansas.

Missouri’s struggles in the Jayhawks’ vaunted Allen Fieldhouse are well documented. But the Tigers have clearly given the Jayhawks sensational fights in Columbia. Missouri is 7-7 at home against Kansas in the Big 12 era, despite the Jayhawks winning at least a share of the league title in 10 of those 14 seasons. Legendary Missouri coach Norm Stewart was 19-13 against the Jayhawks in Columbia.
The last time a top-ranked Kansas team came to Columbia, in 2002, Kansas won by three over an unranked Missouri team that would advance to the Elite Eight. The time before that, in 1997, another unranked Missouri team this time knocked off the top-ranked Jayhawks, 96-94, in double overtime.

After a long winter, March has arrived. And what better way to start the Madness than with Missouri-Kansas in Columbia?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Missouri survives wild week in Big 12

With the Big 12 Conference more or less going mad last week, Missouri (21-6, 7-5 in Big 12 play) kept chaos a handful of points away in wins over the league’s worst teams. Kansas State shocked rival Kansas, then No. 1, and Nebraska pulled perhaps an even bigger stunner against the object of the Huskers’ loathing, the then-No. 2 Texas Longhorns. Throw in a Texas Tech win at Baylor without their best player, and it was quite a shakeup week for the Big 12.

It wasn’t comfortable or pretty for the Tigers, but Missouri managed to avoid joining this list of upset victims. The Tigers played bad-bordering-on-indifferent defense in a home game against 11th-place Texas Tech, outscoring the Red Raiders for a 92-84. Then, last Saturday, Missouri finally picked up its first Big 12 road win of the year, winning 76-70 at last-place Iowa State.

Missouri turned the ball over 16 times against the Cyclones, who for their part committed 14 turnovers in what was a pretty sloppy game. But road wins are rarely pretty or easy, and for Missouri prior to Saturday they had simply been rare, so the Tigers and their fans will take it. Several trends were reversed with the road win. Instead of being called for more fouls and shooting fewer free throws, as often happens to the road team, Missouri was called for 16 fouls to Iowa State’s 21. The Tigers shot 24 free throws; the perimeter-oriented Cyclones shot nine.

Marcus Denmon scored 25 points in the Tigers win over Iowa State. It was a big week for both Denmon, who scored his 1,000th career point in the win over Texas Tech, and Kim English, who scored his 1,000th point with he second point at Iowa State.

And speaking of milestones, the Iowa State win was the 1,498th win in Missouri men’s basketball history. With four tough games remaining, there’s a chance the Tigers will be going for No. 1,500 in the season finale against Kansas at Mizzou Arena.

There’s a better chance they get it before then. After hosting the talented-but-inconsistent Baylor Bears at home on Wednesday, Missouri has two road games against teams battling to get into the NCAA Tournament.

First is Saturday’s trip to Manhattan to play Kansas State. The Wildcats surged onto the good side of the tournament bubble with the win over Kansas, and this game will be another chance for the hungry Wildcats to burnish their resume with another quality win. Fortunately, Missouri has got the first Big 12 road win out of the way, but it will be tough to beat the resurgent Wildcats, who have won four of five through Saturday, in Bramlage Coliseum, the “Octagon of Doom.”

The game at Nebraska will also be tough. Nebraska’s slow-it-down approach is often tough on Missouri’s up-tempo style, as Husker coach Doc Sadler is 6-5 against Missouri coach Mike Anderson. However, Missouri clearly has more talent than Nebraska, so this is an opportunity for another road win to improve the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament seed.

The Tigers’ win over Iowa State was their third in a row. These wins all came against teams that are 4-8 or worse in Big 12 play, but they do give Missouri a boost heading into the challenging final two weeks of the regular season.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tigers look to heat up down the stretch

The outcome of Missouri’s home game with Oklahoma last Saturday was fairly predictable. The Sooners hung around early with some hot shooting they almost certainly couldn’t sustain, trailing only 37-31 at the half. The Tigers buried the Sooners in the second half with their typically balanced scoring attack, winning 84-61, just over the 20-point margin of victory I was expecting. As the final minutes wound down, Missouri students chanted “Just like football!” in reference to the Tigers epic 36-27 home win over Oklahoma last fall.

Oklahoma (12-12, 4-6 in Big 12 at week’s end) is a struggling basketball team, but this was still another win over big, bad Oklahoma. Indeed, it was the first time Missouri had swept Oklahoma in football and men’s basketball since the 1981-82 school year.

What was most surprising about this game was where the points came from for Missouri (19-6, 5-5 in Big 12 play at week’s end).

Players off the bench scored half of Missouri’s 84 points. Mike Dixon poured in 16 off the bench. Justin Safford, who has had some struggles this year, had a fine game, scoring 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting. He also recorded six rebounds and, beautifully, zero turnovers. Missouri also got six points from Steve Moore, who showed some nimble post moves that brought the roar out of the sellout crowd at Mizzou Arena.

Freshman Ricky Kreklow also broke through for seven points. Kreklow, the son of Missouri volleyball coach Wayne Kreklow, hadn’t made a field goal in a Big 12 game, but he made 3-of-4 on Saturday, including a banked-in 3-pointer he can always remember as his first field goal in conference play.

The Oklahoma win was the first of four straight very winnable games for Missouri. After Tuesday’s home game with 11th-place Texas Tech, the Tigers play at last-place Iowa State on Saturday (12:30 p.m.). Missouri is 0-5 in Big 12 road games, but this may be their most winnable road game of the conference schedule. Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum can be tough, known for its passionate fans and “Hilton Magic,” but Iowa State is rebuilding from the ground up under new coach Fred Hoiberg.

The game at Iowa State is followed by a Feb. 23 home game with Baylor, a very talented basketball team that has trouble consistently winning basketball games, somehow.

Winning these games would help Missouri heat up as we head into the homestretch of the season. Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament is four weeks from today (Sunday).

With the Tournament in mind, keep an eye on Missouri’s conference record.

In the history of the Big 12, which dates to the 1996-97 season, the 44 teams that have gone 11-5 or better all made the NCAA Tournament. Of the eligible teams that went 10-6, 14 of 17 made the Big Dance. (Texas Tech went 10-6 in 1996-97 but was ruled ineligible due to massive NCAA rules violations dating back to the near-lawless days of the old Southwest Conference.) Of the 19 teams that went 9-7, 16 made the Tournament.

However, only one of six teams that have went 8-8 made the NCAA Tournament, the 2007-08 Texas A&M Aggies.

With their 14-1 nonconference record, Missouri could maybe get in with an 8-8 Big 12 record. But to be safe and to avoid an uphill battle with history, not to mention to get a decent seed, the Tigers would do well to get to 9-7 in conference play. Making the Oklahoma win the first of four straight would help get them there.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Tigers fall in Lawrence

Despite the Missouri Tigers’ strong effort against the Kansas Jayhawks on Monday night in Lawrence, some unfortunate trends continued with the 103-86 Jayhawk win.

Perhaps most frustrating, Kansas continued its firm grip on the rivalry, particularly in Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas now leads the overall series 170-94, including a 41-14 edge in the historic Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks have won four straight, nine of the last 10, and 18 of the last 22 in the series.

Missouri last won in Lawrence in 1999, Norm Stewart’s last trip to the venue in which he posted a respectable 11-21 mark. (Mizzou is 3-20 in Allen Fieldhouse with coaches other than Stewart at the helm.) Missouri (18-6, 4-5 in Big 12 play) is now 2-22 all-time against top-10 Kansas teams in Lawrence, and 2-15 against top-five Jayhawks teams in Lawrence.

So, after wading through those rather uncomfortable numbers, this loss was more the following of unfortunate trends than something to be terribly upset about. After all, Kansas is now 115-8 in Big 12 home games.

Missouri hung tough, leading by five midway through the first half. Missouri trailed by only four at the half, 46-42, and kept close for a few minutes in the second half before Kansas finally buried the Tigers with a preposterously hot shooting run. For the game, Missouri shot 51.7 percent, an outstanding percentage, but Kansas shot an astounding 60.7 percent for the game. As the Tigers clawed to stay in the game, Kansas poured in backbreaking three-pointers. The Jayhawks didn’t run the Tigers out of the gym; only four of their 103 points came via fast breaks.

If you had told me Missouri would shoot 51.7 percent and score 86 in the game, I would have loved the Tigers’ chances. But with Kansas scoring like it was the 1970s, when triple digit games were fairly common in college basketball, it wasn’t enough.

It was, however, the Tigers’ best effort in Allen Fieldhouse since coach Mike Anderson’s first year, when his seemingly overmatched squad fell just three points short.

However, another trend that continued with Monday’s loss was the Tigers’ inability to win on the road. Through nine conference games, Missouri is 4-0 at home and 0-5 on the road, including last week’s bad loss at Oklahoma State. It’s tough to win on the road and something beyond tough to win in Allen Fieldhouse, but each road loss drops Missouri’s projected seed for the NCAA Tournament, down to a 5 or 6 in most projections on Monday. Seeding and matchups are crucial to making a deep run in the tournament.

Fortunately, Missouri now has two home games, starting with Oklahoma at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday (Big 12 Network, check local listings). After another home game with Texas Tech, the Tigers travel to Iowa State, then another home game, this one with Baylor. With three of four at home, and the road game at the Big 12’s last-place team, there’s a decent chance Missouri could win all four of these games and greatly improve its NCAA Tournament standing.

After that, however, comes a tough closing stretch of games at Kansas State, at Nebraska and then back home against Kansas to close out the season. The guess here is that Missouri will finish 7-1 in Big 12 home games and 2-6 on the road for a 9-7 league record. But as wild as the Big 12 has been, about anything seems possible right now.