Monday, March 7, 2011

Missouri looks to rebound in postseason play

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.

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