Monday, February 27, 2012

Missouri must regroup quickly after Border War

As fans, we like to look at where our teams are and what lies ahead. It’s that mystery, that anything-can-happen dynamic that helps make our sports so compelling. We love to talk about the state of our team and what we think will happen next. That’s a lot of what I try to do in this column.

But a game like last Saturday, the electrifying swan song for the Border War, that’s something we linger over. One of the great atmospheres in the storied history of old Allen Fieldhouse. Such high stakes. Missouri soaring to a 19-point lead, playing as good of basketball as any team has played this year. The pride of the Kansas basketball program in full bloom as the Jayhawks stormed back and the crowd got louder and louder and louder. Overtime. The remarkable Marcus Denmon nearly willing Missouri to the win yet again. Kansas winning 87-86 in the final frantic seconds.

Hopefully some day these teams will work out an annual nonconference game. But it won’t be like this again. A December nonconference tilt would be a lot of fun, but it can’t replicate the annual showdowns in Columbia AND Lawrence for Big 12 supremacy.

As the last scheduled basketball Border War game, it was indeed a weighty game. I felt drained at the end having just watched the spectacle. The Missouri players must have been far more drained from the effort and emotion of that day. But they can’t linger over that game.

Which leads us back to that first paragraph, what’s next for Missouri (25-4, 12-4 in Big 12 play through Sunday). Saturday felt like the climactic scene of a movie. But now is not time to roll the credits. It is time for March.

After the Wednesday Senior Day game against rising Iowa State, Missouri closes its regular-season schedule with a road game at last-place Texas Tech. Iowa State’s Royce White is playmaker who can cause problems inside, and the Cyclones could technically still finish second in the Big 12.

Under first-year coach Billy Gillispie, Tech has struggled, winning just one conference game so far. But that one conference win was at home, and Tech did push Texas to overtime last Saturday, as well as hanging with Iowa State for a while in the game before that.

Following the regular season, of course, is Missouri’s last Big 12 Tournament, appropriately in Kansas City.

These last two weeks of basketball before the NCAA Tournament are something of a closing argument, a last chance for teams to improve their tournament seeds – or slide down the seed lines. Missouri can still get a great seed, but it’s crucial that they put the bitter Kansas loss behind them. The Tigers can be proud of how well they played in a beyond-tough road environment, but losing a 19-point lead to your biggest rival can weigh on a team.

I still think Missouri is in line for a No. 2 seed, but late season stumbles could drop that as far as a No. 4.

In any event, this has been a remarkable season for Missouri. Last Saturday was huge, but the crucible of March draws neigh. This team’s legacy waits to be authored.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Plenty at stake for Missouri-Kansas on Saturday

Kansas’ Phog Allen Fieldhouse has seen plenty of huge games since it opened in 1955. When the No. 3 Missouri Tigers come rolling into Lawrence for their game Saturday (3 p.m. on CBS), it will be one the biggest in the old building’s history.

Missouri (25-2, 12-2 in Big 12 play through Sunday) will battle Kansas in a game fraught with storylines, drama, atmosphere. March and its NCAA Tournament are the ultimate in college basketball, and both teams could make deep runs regardless of who wins. But Saturday’s Border War game on national TV is about as good as college basketball’s regular season gets. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what’s on the line in Saturday’s game.

The rivalry

As we know, the rivalry traces its roots back to the Civil War, and the schools’ athletic teams have been playing for over a century.

Kansas has the decided edge in the all-time basketball series, leading 171-95. But Missouri won a thrilling 74-71 game in Columbia earlier this year, and to sweep the last regular season matchups before Missouri heads to the Southeastern Conference would give the Tigers a measure of pride.

It would also halt Missouri’s maddening inability to win in Allen Fieldhouse, where they’ve been battling the Jayhawks since Wilt Chamberlain wore the blue and white. The Tigers last won there in coach Norm Stewart’s final season, in 1999, losing 12 straight in Lawrence since then.

(Missouri is 14-42 against Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse. Stewart was 11-21 in the Phog, all other Tiger coaches are 3-21 there. Before Stewart: 3-9, Stewart: 11-21, post-Stewart: 0-12.)

NCAA Tournament seeding

Currently, most projections have Missouri as a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament and Kansas as a No. 2 seed. Both are outstanding seeds that could make a trip to the Final Four much easier. But there is an extra level of intrigue as to which team gets a No. 1 seed, because that team would almost surely get to play its Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games in St. Louis, giving either a decided homecourt advantage. For the team that gets a No. 2 seed? See you in Arizona, most likely. Send me a picture of a cactus.

Missouri has the better overall record, but Kansas played a stronger nonconference schedule, and strength of schedule counts plenty with the tournament selection committee. Saturday is a great opportunity for either team.

The Big 12 title

Kansas fans will (understandably) tell you over and over that they’ve won 54 conference titles in their basketball program’s storied history, including at least a share of seven straight Big 12 titles. Missouri last won a conference title in 1994, in the old Big Eight. Missouri would love to take that league title as a parting gift en route to the SEC. On behalf of the Big 12, Kansas would love to stop that.

With both teams 12-2 in Big 12 play through Sunday, this game will likely decide the conference title race. Each team has a few other challenging games left, but the fate of the conference championship rests on Saturday’s showdown.

Tigers and Jayhawks in old Allen Fieldhouse with the stakes about as high as can be. Kansas has just one loss there in last five years. The Jayhawks have national player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson and an outstanding coach in Bill Self. But this is a special Missouri team that has outpaced expectations all season. Saturday can’t arrive soon enough.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Tigers. Final Four. It could happen.

The words are now being spoken across the Show-Me State, from Kansas City to St. Louis, and from the farms of northern Missouri to the farms of the Bootheel. The national college basketball media has joined the chorus, and the words were certainly on the minds of the sellout crowd at Mizzou Arena last Saturday as Steve Moore crammed home a thunderous dunk and Missouri shot Baylor out of the gym en route to a 72-57 win.

Legitimate Final Four contender.

These are indeed heady times to be a Missouri basketball fan. The program has never made it to the Final Four, despite 24 NCAA Tournament appearances.

But maybe, just maybe, this team that seemed to have so many shortcomings could reach college basketball’s grandest stage.

The question for much of the season has been how can Missouri guard bigger teams, and the taller Baylor Bears outrebounded the Tigers 35-22 Saturday. But now we’re seeing that there’s an equally important question: How can other teams handle Missouri’s speed and deep stable of guards? Yes, Kim English has to guard bigger players most games. But those bigger, slower players also have to guard him.

Basketball analysts usually cite experience and guard play as the keys to March success, and Missouri has those in spades. In addition, Missouri’s mental toughness cannot be discounted. The Tigers only use seven players, but they all know what their strengths and limitations. They scrap and hustle and dig just a little deeper when they need it.

Anything can happen in the NCAA Tournament, but Missouri is positioning itself for a No. 1 or 2 seed, which would make the path easier.

But first comes the conclusion of an intriguing Big 12 title race. Missouri (23-2, 10-2 in Big 12 play through Sunday) entered the week tied with Kansas atop the league standings. The rivals are working toward a titanic Feb. 25 clash that could decide the conference title, but each still faces tough road tests.

Missouri has one of these on Saturday at Texas A&M (1 p.m. on ESPN). Texas A&M (12-12, 3-9 in Big 12 play through Sunday) has been a disappointment after being picked as co-favorites to win the conference by Big 12 coaches. This is partly due to injuries, but also because the Aggies struggle to score. Texas A&M is 298th in the nation in scoring, at 61.8 points per game. Missouri, in stark contrast, is 7th nationally with 80.2 points per game.

So why am I calling this a tough road test? Because Reed Arena is a tough place to play. With apologies to Jack Kerouac, life on the road is hard in the Big 12, even if the opponent isn’t as good. In six Big 12 road games, Missouri is a solid 4-2, but all four wins are by seven points or less.

It will be another tough road test, especially if Aggie point guard Dash Harris is back from injury, but Missouri has played well enough to be confident about this game.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Border War win solidifies Missouri as Big 12 contender

Last Saturday’s Missouri-Kansas clash was one of the most hyped games in the Border War’s storied history, and yet somehow, the actual game lived up to, even exceeded, the pregame buildup as Missouri rallied for an epic 74-71 win.

Missouri (21-2, 8-2 in Big 12 play) pulled out all the stops for the last scheduled Kansas game in Columbia, at least until tensions surrounding conference realignment cool a bit. Missouri shot off fireworks from atop the massive scoreboard hanging above center court before the game, and all night long Mizzou Arena was as loud as it’s ever been. Longtime broadcaster Mike Kelly favorably compared the atmosphere to even those madcap environments in the old Hearnes Center.

The first half featured a preposterous 13 lead changes as these ancient rivals traded punches. In the scintillating second half, Kansas roared back to take the lead, going up 71-63 with a little over two minutes to play.

But on this grand stage, with Tiger fans beginning to get desperate, Missouri dug deep for one last great push. Devastating turnovers and two missed free throws by Kansas’ Tyshawn Taylor, along with huge shots by Missouri, including two sublime three-pointers by Marcus Denmon, keyed the Tigers’ 11-0 run to close out the game.

Denmon busted out of a weeks-long shooting slump to pour in 29 points on 10-of-16 shooting. Mike Dixon has 15 points on four-of-five shooting. Kim English threw up at halftime but still played a crucial role for Missouri at both ends.

With Ricardo Ratliffe battling foul trouble, backup forward Steve Moore, a crowd favorite, stood tall against Kansas’ mighty Thomas Robinson, a national player of the year candidate. Robinson was great, with 25 points and 13 rebounds, but Moore made him earn every inch. One of the enduring images in a night full of them was Moore racing back down the court after a Tiger offensive possession, running with the frantic zeal of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner, making even the most logical person wonder if giving 110 percent is actually possible.

As Tiger fans left the Arena with goosebumps and ringing ears, they have a team in the thick of what looks to be a fantastic conference title race. At the start of this week, Missouri, Kansas and Baylor were in a three-way tie for first in the Big 12 with 8-2 conference records. Kansas travels to Baylor for a big game Wednesday (6 p.m. on ESPN2). Missouri has beaten the other two, but still has a daunting Feb. 25 game at Kansas and Saturday’s home game with Baylor (12:30 p.m. on Big 12 network, will be broadcast on a local channel). The Baylor game comes after Monday's quick turnaround game at Oklahoma (6 p.m. on ESPNU).

Missouri beat then-No. 3 Baylor 89-88 on Jan. 21 in Waco. Missouri outrebounded the long and athletic Bears that day. I’d expect Baylor big men Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy to again present matchup challenges, putting pressure on Ratliffe, Moore and English. But if the Mizzou Arena crowd is even close to what it was last Saturday, the Tigers will get a huge lift. If the guards keep shooting this well, Saturday should be more fun for the Tigers.