Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Monday, March 21, 2011
The Missouri Tigers’ 2010-11 basketball season began with promise as the team rolled to a 14-1 record in its nonconference games, the only loss in overtime to a strong Georgetown team. The season ended with a thud last week in Washington, D.C., a 78-63 loss to Cincinnati in the Tigers’ opening NCAA Tournament game.
Colorado rocked Missouri to open Big 12 play, and from that game through the loss to Cincinnati, the Tigers sputtered to a 9-10 record, finishing 23-11 overall and 8-8 in Big 12 play.
Missouri lost five of six to close the season, including back-to-back 15-point losses in the final two games. Missouri’s lone win in that stretch, by four over a Texas Tech team with the worst overall record in the Big 12, likely kept the Tigers in the tournament, as they were one of the last five at-large bids selected, based on their 11 seed.
Pretty much all of the Tigers’ key problems were on display against Cincinnati. Missouri, outrebounded by about five per game in conference play, was outrebounded 33-27. Missouri couldn’t force the turnovers it needed to compete, as the Bearcats only yielded 11 turnovers to Missouri’s eight. Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates did largely whatever he wanted, scoring 18 points while missing only one shot. And, unforgettably, Missouri’s offense was nonexistent for about a fourth of the game, going nearly 11 minutes without a field goal in the late first and early second halves. Missouri shot 38.1 percent for the game, while the Bearcats made 52.7 percent of their shots.
It was, on the bright side, a third straight NCAA Tournament season. But it was also a missed opportunity to win a game in the Big Dance for the third year in a row, a feat accomplished only one other time in Missouri basketball history, from 2001-03.
Now that it’s over, regardless of what happens with the persistent rumors linking coach Mike Anderson to the open Arkansas job, it feels like a crossroads moment for Missouri. Perhaps it’s this way every offseason. But Missouri’s conference record has declined by at least two wins in each of the last two seasons, from the 12-4 mark in the wonderful 2008-09 season to 10-6 last year to 8-8 this year. The team slipped from third to fifth to a tie for sixth in this span, falling far behind Texas and Kansas State in the seemingly unending race to knock Kansas of its perch atop the league. Under Anderson, the Tigers have never come within a game of winning the Big 12 regular season title.
But the Missouri program has talent, especially in its senior class, making next year so important. The seniors for next year include First Team All-Big 12 player Marcus Denmon, Laurence Bowers, Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe and Matt Pressey. Younger players like Mike Dixon and the occasionally brilliant Phil Pressey give the team obvious ability.
If this team is to ever reach a Final Four level, or win that first regular-season conference title since 1994, next year needs to be a progress year. The talent is there, like it was this year, but Missouri needs a lot of help inside. Devastating rebounding deficits can rob them of any advantage created by forcing turnovers. The team has to play better defense, has to consider it an affront to their honor to give up open shots in the half-court, not just an oh-well-it-happens thing. And yes, the team needs Kim English to think less and smile more on the court and let his hours of experience in the gym take over.
This season was a disappointment, but hope is certainly not lost. However, regardless of who coaches this team, next year is both an opportunity and a challenge for this program.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Sunday, March 13, 2011
Less is more, and lower can be better, which may have been the case for Missouri on Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament. Most projections had the Tigers as a No. 8 seed, but when the brackets were revealed Missouri was an 11 seed, scheduled to play 6 seed Cincinnati at 8:50 p.m. Thursday in Washington D.C. in the West Regional.
The Tigers are the lower-seeded team in their first game, but they now play a 3 seed if they win. If they were an 8 or 9 seed, they would have had to play a 1 seed in the second round.
But the hypotheticals are done now. The 11 seed showed Missouri had slipped very close to the bubble, going 8-8 in Big 12 play and losing four of its last five games, including an absolute drubbing at the hands of Texas A&M in the Big 12 Tournament.
It was a bit shocking to see Missouri fall to an 11, but it was largely a shocking day for Big 12 teams. Texas and Texas A&M also had lower seeds than projected, and Colorado was left out of the 68-team field. The Buffaloes were done in by an incredibly weak nonconference schedule (ranked 325th in difficulty). With Colorado’s exclusion and Missouri’s inclusion, only two of the eight Big 12 teams that have gone 8-8 have made the NCAA Tournament, this year’s Tigers and the 2007-08 Texas A&M Aggies.
Missouri got in with its 14-1 nonconference record and lack of bad losses, but the Tigers less-than-challenging noncon schedule clearly hurt their seed. They would be wise to schedule some tougher opponents in future years, if they value higher tournament seeds.
Cincinnati, out of the vaunted Big East conference, is led in scoring and rebounding by junior Yancy Gates. The Bearcats (25-8, 11-7 in Big East play) finished sixth in their 16-team league. They began the season 15-0 before losing three of four to begin conference play. They recovered and won six of their last eight games, but were routed 89-51 by Notre Dame in the Big East Tournament.
To peek ahead, if Missouri wins, they would play the winner of the Connecticut-Bucknell game. Bucknell is known for shocking Kansas in the 2005 NCAA Tournament. They were a 14 seed then, too. Connecticut just reeled off five wins in five days to win the Big East Tournament, a staggering feat. The sensational Kemba Walker, a national player of the year candidate, leads the Huskies.
Heading into this tournament, Missouri carries the dubious distinction of having the most NCAA Tournament wins without reaching a Final Four (22, tied with Boston College). The Tigers are 22-23 in their 23 alltime NCAA Tournament appearances. Missouri’s 24th tournament appearance trails only BYU for most Big Dance appearances without a Final Four. (This is the Cougars’ 26th NCAA Tournament bid.)
The Tigers are probably a Final Four long shot this year. But it’s been an unpredictable season, and it seems there are no dominant teams. Coach Mike Anderson’s teams have outperformed their seeding in each of the last two seasons, his two NCAA Tournaments at Missouri. The regular season ended with a thud, but the Big Dance is a fresh canvas.
Monday, March 7, 2011
It was all so close for the Missouri Tigers last Saturday. The Tigers had hung with No. 2 Kansas in Columbia for most of the game. Kansas had stretched its lead to 15 late, only to have Missouri charge back to within four with a little over a minute to play.
The sellout Mizzou Arena crowd, which had seemed resigned to defeat moments ago, was roaring again. All day, Kansas had been turning the ball over like it was going out of style. This could have been Missouri’s signature win, gave the Tigers a winning record in conference play, preserved the undefeated home season, improved Missouri’s NCAA Tournament seed, in many ways saved this uneven season.
But Tiger fans had seen this movie. Kansas bled the shot clock down. Jayhawk senior Tyrel Reed slipped into the corner, caught a pass, and buried a three. Game over. Seven straight Big 12 titles for Kansas. Reed barked at the silenced Missouri student section.
Missouri’s shooting against Kansas was awful. The Tigers shot 29.3 percent overall and missed 20 of 23 three-pointers. At one point, Missouri was 1-for-18 on threes, having to make two of five late to get to 13 percent for the game.
It was Missouri’s third straight loss, coming after losses at surging Kansas State and Nebraska, who destroyed the Tigers with an inexplicable 17-2 run. The Tigers (22-9, 8-8 in Big 12 play) now limp into the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City.
Missouri is not without hope. They did just come within four points of beating a surefire No. 1 tournament seed. But it is crucial for the Tigers to get something productive from someone other than Marcus Denmon or Laurence Bowers on a consistent basis. Denmon, who on Sunday was named First Team All-Big 12, scored 19 points, was the team’s third-leading rebounder (really) and was turnover-free. Bowers, playing virtually the entire game after senior Justin Safford started in his spot for a few minutes as a Senior Day courtesy, had a monster game, recording 22 points, 10 rebounds, five steals and no turnovers while going up against Kansas’ trio of Thomas Robinson and the Morris twins.
Mike Dixon added 10 points (on 1-of-9 shooting), but Missouri got little else from the others. Kim English, a likeable, hardworking player, had a painful three-point, four-turnover performance. Safford’s struggles tough to watch, as he missed all three shots, including an air-balled 15-footer. He was once a solid perimeter role player, but an ACL injury and a need for him to play in the post have taken away his effectiveness.
But the key in the postseason will be Ricardo Ratliffe. At his best, he can keep Missouri’s opponents honest inside and be a solid scorer and rebounder. But in recent weeks he has faded. During the three-game losing streak, he is averaging 4.0 points and 2.7 rebounds per game and hasn’t made it to the free-throw line once. He has had some fine games this year, and on Sunday was named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, but Missouri needs him to compete.
Missouri opens with Texas Tech on Wednesday night. A win means a game with Texas A&M, and another win would likely mean a semifinal matchup with Texas. Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and CBS Sports all have the Tigers as an 8 seed as of Monday, but a couple wins in the Big 12 Tournament could lift them to a 7, which would avoid the second-round matchup with a No. 1 seed. Fortunately for the Tigers, a good March can erase all your disappointments.