Sunday, December 23, 2012

After Braggin' Rights win, Tigers head west to face UCLA

For most of last Saturday’s Missouri-Illinois Braggin’ Rights game, Tiger guard Phil Pressey could not get a shot to fall. If you’ve played basketball at any level, you’ve probably been there; when that disobedient ball simply won’t go in the hoop.

But a funny thing happened as those misses piled up: Pressey dominated. Using a combination of effort, determination and his head for the game, Pressey was arguably the most important player on the court. Though he missed his first 15 shots and finished 3-for-19, the junior racked up 11 assists and seven rebounds while playing great defense on Illinois’ Brandon Paul in the second half.

Writ larger, the ability to play winning basketball when the shots aren’t falling is why this Tiger team may be better built for tournament play than last year’s collection of great outside shooters. Missouri (10-1) made less than 40 percent of its shots, including just 5 of 19 three-pointers, but they had a 51-29 edge on rebounds.

It’s still a bit early to know about that, but Saturday’s 82-73 win over the previously unbeaten Illini (12-1) was a huge step forward.

On Friday night, the Missouri basketball team plays its first true road game of the season, against UCLA in the Bruins’ historic Pauley Pavilion (9 p.m. on ESPN2). If you’re only going to play one true road game in the nonconference schedule, there are a lot worse places to play it than Pauley.

UCLA (9-3) is one of the most successful college basketball programs in the nation. The Bruins have won a record 11 NCAA titles, including a run of 10 in 12 seasons under the remarkable Wooden, the “Wizard of Westwood.”

Missouri now gets to experience this heritage firsthand when they go out west for its next-to-last nonconference game before SEC play begins. The players may be more interested in the UCLA dancers wearing that iconic shade of blue, but getting to play at Pauley against UCLA is a great memory for them. Good for them, and good for Missouri scheduling this game.

It’s also another great test for Missouri. UCLA was ranked No. 13 in the preseason poll and has plenty of talent. The Bruins are led in scoring by freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams. Another freshman, Kyle Anderson, is leading the team in rebounds despite being a guard. The Wear twins, Travis and David, provide UCLA with size inside.

One of the most intriguing matchups here may be the point guards. Missouri fans know well what Pressey is capable of, and he will face UCLA’s Larry Drew II, a transfer from North Carolina who is averaging an eye-catching 8.5 assists per game against just 1.6 turnovers per game.

The Bruins have been disappointing in the early going, losing to Georgetown, Cal Poly and San Diego State so far, dropping out of the polls. While that took a bit of luster off of this matchup, UCLA should still compete for the Pac-12 Conference title, and this could still be another win that would bolster Missouri’s NCAA Tournament resume, especially on the road.

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