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.

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