Sunday, December 9, 2012

An early-season portrait of this Missouri basketball team

With the Missouri basketball team currently working through a slog of nonconference mismatches, it’s a good time to look at the big picture. The Tigers advanced to 8-1 last Saturday with a 68-38 win over Tennessee State. It was close for a while, but eventually drama yielded to the inevitable blowout.

With the big picture in mind, here are three positives we’ve seen so far for this team, and three areas of potential concern to watch.

1. The return of Bowers: Senior forward Laurence Bowers returned this season after missing all of last year with a knee injury. There is uncertainty when a player returns from such a major injury, but Bowers has played very well in the early games. Bowers tied his career high with 23 points against Appalachian State and then broke it with 26 against Southeast Missouri. Bowers has shown his usual athleticism and a soft shooting touch. So far, so good.

2. Rebounding: Last year, with a smaller lineup, Missouri narrowly outrebounded their opponents, 32.0 per game to 31.7. This year, the Tigers should get more of an edge here. Bowers’ athleticism and length help Missouri’s rebounding situation, as does the addition of stout forward Alex Oriakhi. Through nine games, Missouri is outrebounding its opponents by 12 rebounds per game.

3. The SEC is down: Florida is very good. Kentucky is very talented but young and prone to inconsistency. The rest of the league looks to be pretty soft. Missouri should be able to rack up plenty of wins in conference play and maybe contend for the league title.

This leads into the areas of potential concern…

1. The SEC is down: Strength of schedule and wins over quality opponents are key criteria for getting a good seed in the NCAA Tournament. While the SEC is a renowned football beast, playing in the SEC in hoops hurts Missouri’s tournament resume. The Tigers must take advantage of what opportunities they have to score big wins. Their next chance to do so will be in the annual Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois, on Dec. 22 in St. Louis.

2. Missing Ratliffe: Tiger forward Ricardo Ratliffe set a school record by making 69.3 percent of his shots last season as a senior. Phil Pressey’s great passes led to points as Ratliffe kept converting around the rim. Don’t expect Oriakhi to make 70 percent of his shots, but if he can get his shooting percentage up over 50 percent, Pressey is that much more effective.

3. Need for ball-handlers: Especially with senior guard Mike Dixon getting kicked off the team, Pressey needs help as the team’s primary ball-handler. In Missouri’s only loss, Louisville forced the Tigers into 23 turnovers. Louisville is one of the nation’s best defenses, but the game exposed a potential weakness for the Tigers. Finding another ball-handler would allow Pressey to rest without disaster ensuing. Negus Webster-Chan and transfer Jabari Brown could possibly pick up some of the slack here.

Missouri is off for finals week, then returns to action against South Carolina State on Dec. 17 at home.

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