Monday, March 21, 2011

Tigers stumble to season's end, questions lie ahead

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.

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