Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A fight involving Tigers and Bears (but not Mike Anderson)

The Missouri Tigers face a huge challenge this Saturday when they travel to Waco to take on the No. 3 Baylor Bears (1 p.m. on ESPN). Pulling out a road win with Perry Jones and Co. on the court and Baylor's intimidating inflatable bear mascot stalking the sidelines is no easy task.

After Missouri lost by 16 in its first big road test, at Kansas State on Jan. 7, the Tigers have bounced back with some workmanlike wins. Missouri held off Iowa State and its Hilton Magic on the road, and then held on in impressive fashion against the hot shooting of Texas’ J’Covan Brown. Missouri then added a home win over flailing Texas A&M to get the Tigers firmly back on the winning track.

In some ways, Missouri (17-1, 4-1 in Big 12 play) is still seeking its signature win. The neutral site wins over Illinois in St. Louis and California in Kansas City (heavily pro-Missouri crowd) were solid, but a road win at Baylor would be easily the Tigers best win to date, and one of the best wins possible on Missouri’s remaining schedule.

Baylor might have the most total talent of any team in the Big 12. The guards can shoot, and the Bears have a lot of length. Forwards Quincy Acy and Perry Jones are dangerous scorers and rebounders. In Baylor’s 106-65 demolition of Oklahoma State last Saturday, the Bears outrebounded the Cowboys 44-22. Baylor also has long-range shooting touch, as the team made 15 of 29 three-pointers against OSU. Of course, Baylor looked like the underachieving Bears of old on Monday in Kansas' vaunted Allen Fieldhouse, but almost all teams look bad in the Phog.

Guard Pierre Jackson probably won’t start for Baylor, but he’ll still log a starter’s amount of minutes. I think Jackson’s matchup with Missouri guard Phil Pressey could be pivotal on Saturday. Both can score, but both are very valuable as playmakers, dishing out assists. Against Texas last Saturday, Pressey was masterful, posting 18 points, 10 assists and no turnovers, also keying a decisive Missouri run when Texas had cut the Tigers’ lead to five points late in the second half. That’s a special game, but if Pressey plays anything like that on Saturday, Missouri has a great chance to pull the upset.

Also, as always, the play of Missouri’s thin group of forwards will be key. Senior Kim English, really a guard who has adapted to guarding opposing forwards due to circumstances, has been skilled at drawing charges. It’s often tough to get semi-judgment calls like charges on the road, but if English can do that, it can keep Baylor’s star forwards in check. Also, keeping Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore out of foul trouble will be especially important, given the Bears’ length.

Baylor is definitely the favorite, and there is no shame in losing at Waco this season. But this game is intriguing in that it measures Missouri against one of the two best teams in the Big 12 so far (Kansas being the other), and simply for its potential as a huge NCAA Tournament resume-building win. Simply put, Missouri has little to lose on Saturday and a ton to gain should they knock off the Bears. A win would also establish Missouri as the primary challenger to Kansas for the Big 12 title.

Either way, the game in Waco kicks off a stretch of three out of four games being on the road for Missouri, and it should provide a great test for the Tigers.

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