Time to cast aside the caution and reserve. Time to fold up lower expectations and put them back in the bottom drawer. Time to get excited. Tiger fans, you have quite a basketball team.
I know I am usually the reserved guy. This season, I kept the lid on my occasional bursts of wild optimism, waiting as the Tigers beat mostly weaker teams, mostly at home. But now the Tigers’ list of good wins is growing, and last Saturday’s exhilarating 89-88 win at then-No. 3 Baylor was a great win.
Missouri (18-1, 5-1 in Big 12 play through Sunday) grabbed that paradigm-shifting win with effort, determination and physical and mental toughness, withstanding a late rally by the very talented Bears.
Many Tigers had fine performances, but I played the post in high school, so naturally I was most impressed with forward Ricardo Ratliffe’s 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Ratliffe’s virtuoso performance came against Baylor’s long and talented stable of forwards. With his quick release and soft touch, it’s also part of Ratliffe’s assault on the NCAA’s single-season field goal percentage record. Ratliffe is shooting 77.2 percent through Sunday; the Division I record is 74.6 percent.
This team has me hooked. They fell flat into disappointment status at the end of last season. Their coach made an abrupt and awkward departure to Arkansas. The new coaching hire, Frank Haith, was mostly blasted (sheepishly raising my own hand). Perhaps the team’s most athletic player, Laurence Bowers, was lost due to injury before the season started. With an in-season transfer, these Tigers have seven basketball scholarship players. They brought in a football player just to have enough depth to practice properly.
But here they are, winning, scrambling up the rankings like a sherpa climbing Everest.
March can be cruel, crushing a great season in a matter of hours, minutes or even seconds. But for now, Tiger fans, soak this in. Enjoy the ride. There is a lot of season left, two-thirds of the conference games, but here’s hoping this so-far remarkable team keeps working this hard. Here’s hoping for some more special moments.
In any event, the Tigers have found themselves in the conference title race. Missouri finished tied for second in the Big 12 in Norm Stewart’s last season, 1998-99; the Tigers haven’t finished in the top two in the league since the legendary coach’s departure. With the huge win at Baylor, that’s definitely in play.
The last time Missouri beat a top-five team on the road was 1994… also the last year the Missouri basketball team won a regular-season conference title.
Standing in the way will be Kansas, naturally. The Tigers and Jayhawks will play a massive game Feb. 4 in Columbia. But first Missouri must keep it going. After Wednesday night’s game at Oklahoma State, Missouri hosts Texas Tech Saturday (12:30 p.m., Big 12 Network, check listings for local channel). Tech is not too good this season, and I think Missouri will roll in this one. Expect the excitement about this Tiger team to keep building across the Show-Me State.