Sunday, January 8, 2012

After humbling loss, Tigers must take care of home games

Missouri came back to earth somewhat last Saturday in its first Big 12 conference road game. After reeling off 14 straight wins to start the season, most in blowout fashion, Missouri (14-1, 1-1 in Big 12 play) lost 75-59 at Kansas State.

It was a humbling loss, as the Wildcats simply overwhelmed the Tigers with their physicality. Playing against the best defense it’s faced this year, Missouri made just 32.7 percent of its shots. Kansas State muscled its way to a 36-22 rebounding advantage. Missouri’s Kim English is often guarded by bigger players who can’t keep up with him, given the Tigers’ guard-heavy lineup. But K-State’s Jamar Samuels is big and still athletic enough to stick with English, keeping the Tiger senior from making a field goal until well into the second half.

Still, it’s important to keep the loss in perspective. This game was a shot of reality after the hot start against generally weaker competition. It was also a good reminder of the stark contrast between playing at home and playing on the road in the Big 12. Last year Kansas also lost by 16 at Kansas State, and the Jayhawks still won the conference title. Missouri may very well beat Kansas State when they play in Columbia, but it wasn’t close in the Wildcats’ “Octagon of Doom,” where Missouri hasn’t won since 2004. In a particularly irksome development, the Tigers have now lost 15 straight games in the state of Kansas.

In the first 15 years of the Big 12, there have been 1,440 conference games. The home team is 957-483, a winning percentage of 66.5 percent. Last year, the home team won 69.8 percent of Big 12 games (67-29). Missouri went 7-1 in Big 12 home games and 1-7 in Big 12 road games. In an environment where the home team wins right about two out of three every season, like clockwork, it’s clear that road wins are going to be rare and should be cherished.

Likewise, teams must hold serve at home as much as possible. After Wednesday’s game at Iowa State, Missouri plays two home games in three days, against Texas on Saturday (noon on ESPN2) and Texas A&M on Monday (4:30 p.m. on ESPN).

Both teams are capable opponents, but teams Missouri should beat in Mizzou Arena. Texas is led by guard J’Covan Brown, and freshman guard Myck Kabongo has shown flashes of fine play. But I don’t see the Longhorns out-guarding Missouri in the Tigers’ house.

In a baffling development, Texas A&M was picked to win the Big 12, in a tie with Kansas, in the preseason coaches poll. But the Aggies struggled in conference play and then lost their first two conference games, including a 24-point beatdown at home courtesy of Iowa State. Through Sunday, Texas A&M hasn’t beaten a Division I team since Dec. 10. Forward Khris Middleton can be trouble, but the Aggies will need big improvement to threaten the Tigers.

Given the inhospitable nature of Big 12 road games, it will be crucial for Missouri to pull off this Texas two-step.

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