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.

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