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.

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