Monday, December 26, 2011

Tigers cap season with big bowl win

It was a resounding win, even if it came in the rain before a sparse crowd. Missouri’s dominating 41-24 win over North Carolina in the Independence Bowl both capped a late-season turnaround to salvage the season and also gave the Tigers momentum heading into an offseason that will include plenty of SEC-mania and discussions over how the Tigers will fare in their new conference home.

The bowl win was more business-like than exhilarating. The Tigers (8-5) were solid favorites, but unlike their last two bowls, they backed that up with a win. Missouri is a better team, and the Tar Heels (7-6), playing with an interim coach who is about to leave for an assistant job at Ohio State, seemed terrifically bored with the idea of played a glorified scrimmage the day after Christmas before a mostly empty stadium in Shreveport, La.

After a North Carolina touchdown on the opening drive, Missouri buried the Tar Heels with this sequence: Missouri touchdown (7-7), North Carolina punt, Missouri touchdown (14-7), North Carolina punt, Missouri field goal (17-7), North Carolina fumble, Missouri touchdown (24-7), North Carolina interception, Missouri touchdown (31-7). Ballgame.

The story of the day may have been Missouri mascot Truman the Tiger dropping the Independence Bowl trophy on the morning of the game, shattering its crystal top. But it’s also noteworthy that Missouri quarterback James Franklin ran for 142 yards, along with 132 yards passing.

Franklin went 8-5 in his first year as a starter, the same as Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert, his quarterback predecessors at Missouri. (Those two had 8-4 regular seasons followed by bowl game losses.) In Year 2 as starters, Daniel went 12-2 and led Missouri to a No. 1 ranking at one point, and Gabbert led the Tigers to a 10-3 mark. It’s maybe unfair to put such expectations on Franklin for next year, especially since the SEC hasn’t released its schedules at the time I write this, but Franklin’s progression is obviously a huge storyline for next year.

As for how Franklin progresses, we’ll see. But his maturation will be key in answering the big question for next year’s Tigers…

Can Missouri win the SEC East Division in its first year in the conference? Georgia is probably the favorite, as the Bulldogs won the East this season and quarterback Aaron Murray said “there’s no chance” he would leave school early to enter the 2012 NFL Draft. There are persisting reports that Missouri will get Georgia in Columbia, to open its SEC schedule, which would help the Tigers immensely.

South Carolina should have another strong defense, and head coach Steve Spurrier is a talented offensive mind who should at least field a respectable offense. Florida and Tennessee struggled with several young offensive players this season, but both are daunting programs if they get rolling. Vanderbilt and Kentucky can’t be viewed as contenders until they actually prove they can be.

The very early answer: Missouri can compete for this division right away. But for now, Tiger fans can simply enjoy the bowl victory and the four straight wins to finish the season, the first time Missouri has done that since 1965.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tigers show mettle heading into conference play

Over the course of a season, all teams face adversity. Every team has nights when they are out-of-rhythm, when the opponent seemingly can’t miss, when opposing fans are roaring and things are just difficult. How a team responds to this tells a lot about the team and how they’ll fare over the course of the season.

Last Thursday’s Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois was one of those nights for Missouri. The Tigers were on fire in the first half, and took a 15-point lead early in the second half.

However, Illinois stormed back to briefly take the lead with a few minutes to play. Part of the rally was improved play by the Illini, but Missouri also allowed the comeback, forcing some quick, lower-quality shots. Missouri couldn’t seem to get much to go right, and Illinois’ half of the neutral-site crowd was at full throat.

But Missouri dug deep, made some plays around the rim, and pulled out the 78-74 win.

It was the kind of win that should look good on Missouri’s NCAA Tournament resume all season long.

It also lifted Missouri to 12-0 heading into a weeklong stretch with no games. It is Missouri’s best start in a generation, since a 19-0 start in the 1981-82 season.

After one more nonconference game, at Old Dominion on Dec. 30 (6 p.m. on ESPNU), Missouri embarks on its rugged 18-game conference schedule, expanded from a 16-game Big 12 slate in previous seasons. The Tigers have shown they’re capable of contending for the regular season conference title, which they haven’t won since the 1993-94 season.

Based on nonconference play, the other leading contenders for the Big 12 title are probably Kansas and Baylor.

Any discussion of the Big 12 contenders must start with the Jayhawks, who have won at least a share of seven straight Big 12 regular season titles. Kansas has showed some flaws early, particularly in turnovers committed by guard Tyshawn Taylor, but the Jayhawks have played the toughest nonconference schedule among the Big 12 teams, facing Kentucky, Duke, Ohio State and some other solid teams.

Baylor is an enigma. The Bears are super-talented, led by Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy. But they were supposedly pretty talented last year, too, and didn’t come close to winning the league title. Also, Baylor has played an extremely weak nonconference schedule, recently playing some team (or someone?) named Paul Quinn. So Baylor is ranked in the top 10, but untested. Once conference play starts in early January, we’ll find out quickly what the Bears have.

Also keep an eye on Kansas State. The Wildcats have finished in the top four in the Big 12 every year under Frank Martin. Coach Lon Kruger has Oklahoma playing well in his first season in Norman. On the flip side, Texas A&M was viewed as a contender in the preseason, but the Aggies have had some stumbles so far, including a home loss to Rice.

These Big 12 challenges await, but Tiger fans have to be feeling good about their team heading into 2012.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Appreciating the Missouri-Illinois rivalry

Missouri rolled overmatched William & Mary on Sunday, one last big win over a weaker home nonconference opponent. Missouri’s 94-56 win came against a team that struggles to score, but it moved Missouri to 11-0 and set the stage for a big game with Illinois on Thursday in St. Louis (8 p.m. on ESPN2).

Illinois is having a pretty good start to the season, as the Illini were undefeated until losing last Saturday to UNLV in Chicago. Despite that setback, this neutral-site game is still the kind that will carry some weight when the NCAA Selection Committee begins handing out seeds for the NCAA Tournament in March.

The Tigers’ annual matchup with Illinois, dubbed the Braggin’ Rights Game, has been played each December in St. Louis since 1983. (The Tigers and Illini also played there in 1980 and 1981.)

It’s an interesting rivalry between the two schools. Speaking from the Missouri side, this rivalry has nowhere near the animosity of the epic rivalry with Kansas, but it certainly gets the juices flowing for their annual, pre-Christmas matchup. The arena is usually always about a 50-50 split of fans from each school, making for a pretty passionate atmosphere.

Especially with the impending end (perhaps temporarily) of Missouri’s heated rivalry with Kansas, Tiger fans are possibly appreciating this rivalry with Illinois a bit more. No, Missouri hasn’t been playing Illinois for a hundred years, but the Tigers and Illini do have a solid 30-year history of some intense and thrilling games.

In 1988, No. 5 Illinois won 87-84 over No. 10 Missouri. The following year, No. 5 Illinois topped No. 4 Missouri 101-93. In 1993, Missouri prevailed 108-107 in triple overtime. Illinois won nine straight from 2000 through 2008, then Missouri broke through with an emotional win in 2009. Missouri then won again in 2010, the Tigers’ first win in the series in which both teams were ranked. Illinois had won the first six meetings in which both teams were ranked. Overall, Illinois leads the series 20-10.

This year’s Braggin’ Rights Game should be a good test for both teams. Missouri has played three neutral-site games so far, but Thursday’s game against Illinois will probably have more fans of the other team than any of Missouri’s games to date, so it will be a nice chance for the Tigers to get used to playing in a hostile atmosphere. Or at least a half-hostile atmosphere.

Illinois has struggled to score at times early in the season. Illinois’ leading scorer is D.J. Richardson, but Meyers Leonard may be the X-factor in this game. Leonard leads the Illini in rebounding and is second in scoring, currently making over 60 percent of his shots. He was big in Illinois’ nice win over Gonzaga earlier this season, but then he was a virtual non-factor in the loss to UNLV.

Missouri can get points from a number of sources, with three players, Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Mike Dixon, who have each scored at least 30 points in a game this year. Both teams are capable, but we’ll see if Missouri can keep rolling.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Haith and the Tigers rolling early

Do you remember when Missouri hired Frank Haith to be its men’s basketball coach?

Most people, myself included, were pretty skeptical of the move, which seemed like a second (or third) choice after Missouri couldn’t lure Matt Painter away from Purdue.

Haith went 129-101 in seven seasons at Miami, but his teams had been 43-69 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, and they only made the NCAA Tournament one time in his tenure at Miami.

Sure, Miami is a pretty poor basketball program and a tough place to win, but after Duke and North Carolina at the top, the ACC had plenty of coaching turnover and mediocrity in Haith’s time at Miami. Throw in explosive scandal allegations that surfaced in August about Miami athletics that at least somewhat involved Haith, and there was doubt about the hire.

Fast forward to now. What a difference winning makes. Missouri, 9-0 through Sunday and ranked in the top 10, is one of just nine remaining unbeaten Division I teams. Haith has the senior-laden Tigers playing outstanding basketball at both ends of the court.

Last year, under coach Mike Anderson, the Tigers were all about pressure and forcing turnovers. Naturally, when the gambles didn’t pay off, Missouri would get burned for easy layups. That’s just a by-product of Anderson’s system, but it happened far too often late last season.

This year, Haith’s Tigers appear to making opponents earn their buckets a bit more, playing sound halfcourt defense.

It’s early in the season, but you can see Haith has Missouri’s key contributors playing well. Senior Marcus Denmon is making 53 percent of his shots, including 49.2 percent of his three-pointers. (If he makes his next three, he’ll have made exactly 50 percent.) Fellow seniors Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore have been improved inside.

Another senior, Kim English, often under extra scrutiny due to his charismatic personality, has been having a great early season. Last year was a struggle for English, as he made only 36.6 percent of his shots. This year he’s making 56.3 percent of his shots and looking very comfortable in the offense. He’s also shown skill at drawing charges, which helps compensate for the team’s overall lack of size.

Sophomore guard Phil Pressey has been a dynamic playmaker, setting up his teammates with great passing, often after breaking down defenses with some dribbling. Pressey averaged 3.9 assists last year; this season he’s at 5.7 per game, with slightly fewer turnovers per game.

Again, it’s early, both this for this team and for Haith’s career at Missouri. They do have quality wins, including routs of Notre Dame (with the now-injured Tim Abromaitis) and California in Kansas City and a win over Villanova in New York City.

But the big tests remain, including the neutral-site rivalry game with Illinois on Dec. 22 (8 p.m. on ESPN2), the first true road game, at Old Dominion, and the 18-game conference schedule.

But the very early returns have been good, so Tiger fans can be optimistic about this season, and their first-year coach.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pujols and storybooks

"You want the hero to stay and complete the storybook."

-Bernie Miklasz, in today's Bernie's Bytes

I'm a fan of Bernie. I don't read all of his stuff (he's far to prolific at producing content), but when I do, it's usually pretty good. He certainly knows his stuff. The line above got me thinking. I think it describes the sentimental and reasonable disappointment fans have with Albert Pujols leaving the Cardinals to sign with the Angels very well. But...

Pujols leaving now means his career in St. Louis is more like an actual storybook plot arc. Think about it, kids' storybooks usually end right after the climax (in this case, the heart-stopping, improbable pennant race, playoffs and seven-game World Series victory). The Very Hungry Caterpillar becomes a beautiful butterfly and the book ends. In virtually every Disney movie, the guy and girl get together... and they live happily ever after. Roll the credits. Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol" ends right after Scrooge's life-altering experience. In that sense, the Pujols-as-a-Cardinal book ends with him at or near his fearsome peak, as a champion, with every season one to be proud of.

But we know in reality, life goes on. Whether it's in a year or five years or more, Pujols will decline, as virtually all players do. But that's not supposed to be part of the storybook. We don't read about the Hungry Caterpillar slogging his way through a challenging season, hitting .260 as the fans uncomfortably debate if he should be benched or replaced with the Full Caterpillar.

So yes, Cardinals fans won't have to see the fading years of Pujols' career, won't have to uneasily avert their eyes when he strikes out on a pitch he would have once hit. In a Cardinal uniform, Pujols will forever be sealed in time as the best player in the game for those days, now over.

So why are Cardinals fans upset?

Because they loved him. Because he belonged in St. Louis, and his leaving IS a part of his St. Louis story. The storybook couples don't grow old in most stories, but they sure don't leave each other on the last page.

Sure, they could just trade him in for a newer model, say a shiny 2011 Prince Fielder, like politicians do with their wives. But the fans wanted to grow old with him, watch him use his otherworldly skills to stay in his prime longer than most, to win more, to hit milestones.

Ah, the milestones. I mean, Derek Jeter HAD to get his 3,000th hit as a Yankee, right? Jeter's a rare example of an icon playing with one team for his whole career, and he's also an example of how painful it can be for a beloved player to age under the microscope. He struggled in 2010 and the early part of 2011.

And then, that glorious summer day that he got the 3,00th hit. Jeter smacked five hits that day, including a home run for No. 3,000. Yankee Stadium shook. Jeter took off after that, ended up hitting .297 after the slow start. Suddenly, everyone was reminded many players are useful up until the day the retire. (And given the state of American League shortstops at the plate, .297 looks pretty good.)

Moments like that are what Cardinals fans have been robbed of. An aging athlete putting on a throwback performance is one of sport's greatest thrills. So are those long, goosebump-inducing standing ovations when the beloved icon reaches a milestone or breaks a hallowed past legend's franchise record. And a longtime sports hero digging deep to come up big in the crucible of the playoffs.

The Cards still have Yadier Molina, payroll flexibility and every bit of their rich history. But the Albert Pujols Cardinal storybook is out of pages, and for my money, that's a shame.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tigers to face North Carolina in Independence Bowl

After much anticipation, Missouri will play North Carolina on Dec. 26 (4 p.m. on ESPN2) in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.

The Big 12 Conference no longer has a tie-in deal with the Independence Bowl, but the league had one more bowl eligible team (eight) than bowl tie-ins (seven). There were concerns among some Missouri fans that the Big 12 might give the Tigers a less-than-desirable bowl destination given Missouri’s pending move to the Southeastern Conference. However, Missouri officials said that Big 12 officials were actually helpful in securing a bowl location for the Tigers. Missouri finished fifth in the Big 12, but the bowls aren’t obligated to select teams in the order they finished, lending to the madness of the bowl selection process.

It’s understandable if Missouri fans don’t get too excited about the team’s third trip to the Independence Bowl in nine years. The players surely aren’t thrilled about spending Christmas in Shreveport, and this matchup of 7-5 teams is certainly less-than-scintillating. But it’s still a game for Tiger fans to enjoy during the holidays.

North Carolina had some preseason controversy when coach Butch Davis was fired 38 days before the season began amid an NCAA investigation of academic misconduct and improper benefits for players. Defensive coordinator Everett Withers became the interim head coach and led the Tar Heels to a 7-5 season. However, North Carolina lost four of its last six games, finishing 3-5 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, tied for fourth in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

North Carolina is certainly known for its basketball tradition, but it has had mild football success lately; a bowl win would give the Heels a fourth straight 8-5 season.

Defensively, North Carolina has some talent on its defensive line that could challenge Missouri’s solid running game. Sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner directs the Tar Heels’ offense with a 68.8 completion percentage and 23 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions. Running Back Giovani Bernard ran for 1,222 yards with a healthy 5.4 yards per carry, and senior receiver Dwight Jones has been a very reliable target, with 79 catches for 1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns.

With no common opponents, it’s tough to gauge how this game will go. In general I’m underwhelmed by ACC football teams, but Missouri has had its inconsistencies this year. With the Big 12’s stronger national reputation and Missouri’s three-game win streak, I’d expect Missouri to be a slight favorite in this game.

Missouri is 12-16 alltime in bowl games, including 3-4 under Pinkel. This is Missouri’s seventh straight year in a bowl, but making a bowl is nowhere near the accomplishment it once was; 58.3 percent of Division I-A teams and eight of 10 Big 12 teams made a bowl.

So in some ways this is just another so-so game on the bloated slate of 35 bowl games. But it’s also a chance for Missouri to win at least eight games for the sixth straight year, avoid losing six games for the first time since 2004, and recover from two straight tough bowl losses. Also, a four-game winning streak to close the season would be nice as the Tigers prepare to move to the wild world of SEC football next season.

What a 16-team playoff would look like this year

Just in case anyone was curious, here is what a 16-team college football playoff would look like this year, taking the 11 conference champions and five at-large teams. Seeding based on BCS standings. For conference champions not in the BCS top 25, I used their rank in the "also receiving votes" portion of the Coaches Poll, which is a third of the BCS formula.

16 Louisiana Tech

8 Kansas State
9 Wisconsin

4 Stanford
13 West Virginia

5 Oregon
12 Southern Miss

6 Arkansas
11 Texas Christian

3 Oklahoma State
14 Northern Illinois

7 Boise State
10 Clemson

2 Alabama
15 Arkansas State