Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Missouri falls to Auburn in SEC title game

There was a moment at the Georgia Dome Saturday night when James Franklin tossed a pass to a wide open Marcus Murphy in the end zone to give Missouri the lead in the third quarter, and Auburn’s hordes of fans fell silent and Missouri’s corner of the stadium erupted and it seemed like the black-and-gold Tigers just might win the SEC Championship Game.

It was the sixth lead change of the scintillating, back-and-forth game. Unfortunately for No. 5 Missouri (11-2), there would be a seventh and final lead change as No. 3 Auburn (12-1) surged ahead down the stretch for a 59-42 win.

This surprising season produced plenty of memories and successes for Missouri, but the Tigers would come up just short in their push for the school’s first football conference title since 1969.

The defense, so often a strength this year, was simply gashed, giving up 677 yards, including 545 on the ground. Missouri’s defense had often yielded some yards but then was at its best in the red zone. But on Saturday, Auburn entered the red zone seven times and scored a touchdown each time. Auburn running back Tre Mason romped for 304 yards, four yards shy of the school record.

So often Auburn players were running through massive lanes and baffling Missouri with fakes. I remember at least one occasion where a Missouri section of fans cheered an apparent tackle only to realize the real Auburn ballcarrier was still sprinting in the open field.

It was still a remarkable, successful season for Missouri. But this was clearly a missed opportunity to end that conference title drought, and with Ohio State losing later in the night, Missouri’s loss kept it from playing for a national title.

Coach Gary Pinkel fell to 0-3 in conference title games. He’ll be 62 when next season starts and should have more chances, but there are no guarantees, certainly not in the SEC.

Still, the Missouri’s 11 regular-season wins did secure the Tigers a nice bowl destination, against old Big 12 (and Big 8) foe Oklahoma State (10-2). The Cowboys had their own BCS bowl and conference title near miss, losing at home to rival Oklahoma on Saturday.

The Cotton Bowl (6:30 p.m. Jan. 3, FOX), played at the Dallas Cowboys’ massive AT&T Stadium, commonly called Jerry World in homage to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, is a fine consolation prize. It’s a prestigious, historic bowl located in fertile recruiting ground and will be a part of the rotation of bowls hosting College Football Playoff games starting next year.

Missouri fans will recognize Oklahoma State’s high-powered offense, which is 15th in the nation in scoring, at 39.8 points per game.

This season had many parallels with Missouri’s famed 2007 season, with both years seeing the Tigers go 11-1 and then lose the conference title game to keep them out of the national championship game. Missouri capped the 2007 season with a Cotton Bowl win; in January they’ll try to do the same for this season.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Missouri wins the East, faces Auburn for SEC title

As Missouri’s momentous football game last Saturday worked toward its conclusion, the tension grew and hung in the air, like the smoke from the fireworks that lingered over the stadium and wouldn’t fade away into the night.

Missouri (11-1, 7-1 in SEC play) trailed 14-7 at the half, but roared back to take a 21-14 lead into the fourth quarter. To their credit, Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 in SEC) wouldn’t go quietly. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, a polarizing figure off the field but a dynamic player college football will miss, led the Aggies on a 98-yard touchdown drive to tie it up.

With the game tied in the final quarter, the teams combined for four straight punts as the suspense rose higher and higher. Finally, on a Missouri third-and-one from its own 43, Tiger running back Henry Josey, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, burst through the line and sprinted into the open field and the end zone for what would be the game-winning touchdown. Missouri’s “blackout” crowd bounced and waved and surged like black grass in a swirling wind.

Missouri’s 28-21 win clinched the SEC East Division championship in just the Tigers’ second year in the conference. Fans poured onto Faurot Field, celebrating one of the biggest wins in the 88 seasons at the venerable stadium.

This win comes near the end of a resounding season in which Missouri proved it can compete in the powerful SEC. It was a bounce-back year for coach Gary Pinkel, who tied Don Faurot for the most wins in school history, with 101.

There were varying degrees of optimism and apprehension back in August, but nobody saw this, 11-1 and a trip to next Saturday’s SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta (3 p.m. on CBS).

Missouri will be playing for its first football conference title since 1969, in President Richard Nixon’s first term, a year that began with mankind having never walked on the moon. The Tigers are also still in the national championship picture, probably needing a win and then a loss by either Ohio State or Florida State in their respective conference title games.

In this improbable SEC title game, No. 5 Missouri will face No. 3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1 in SEC play). Auburn’s Tigers had a disastrous season last year, falling to 3-9 overall and 0-8 in SEC play just two years removed from a national title. But new coach Gus Malzahn, the offensive coordinator for that national championship team, gave an immediate jolt to the program.

Auburn punched its ticket to the SEC title game Saturday with a play for the ages, returning a missed field goal 109 yards for a game-winning touchdown as time expired to dethrone mighty Alabama.
With the nation’s fifth-ranked rushing attack led by running back Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall, Auburn will be a unique challenge for Missouri’s defense.

This season has been a wonderful surprise for Tiger fans, and it seems fitting to cap it off with surprise matchup for the SEC championship.

Missouri defeats Ole Miss, one win from SEC East title

This column and the ones below it posted today are my Mizzou newspaper columns for the past several weeks. Didn't get them posted, but I usually put them up on here, so here they are in case anyone wants to take a look at them. 

Ole Miss can put on a show. The picturesque college town of Oxford provides a fantastic setting for college football. The school’s famous tailgating area, the Grove, lives up to the hype. Inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, the giant flags waving, the Rebelettes and their sparkling uniforms,  the band playing that catchy “Dixie” tune and the frenzied fans waving red pom-poms create on overload of sights and sounds.

On this stage, the Missouri Tigers (10-1, 6-1 in SEC play) put on a show of their own last Saturday. Missouri scored a touchdown on a Henry Josey run less than three minutes into the game, and the Tigers won the battle along the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense in a 24-10 win.

It was a cold night in Mississippi, and Ole Miss, ranked No. 24 in the AP poll, can be dangerous. But Missouri managed to keep the Rebels (7-4, 3-4 in SEC) at bay. MU estimated at least 8,000 Tiger fans made the trip to Oxford, and the fans in black-and-gold were a noticeable presence during the game.

Quarterback James Franklin, making his first start after suffering an injury against Georgia, played well enough to win, completing 12 of 19 passes while the Tigers’ ground game rolled up 260 rushing yards. Missouri ran out the last 8:08 to seal the game by running the ball 13 straight times before going into the victory formation and taking a knee.

It was another quality win in this remarkable season, one that set up an epic regular-season finale at Faurot Field on Saturday against Texas A&M (6:45 p.m. on ESPN). If Missouri wins, the Tigers will play the winner of Alabama and Auburn’s “Iron Bowl” rivalry game (2:30 p.m. on CBS) in the Dec. 7 SEC Championship Game. With the Tigers at No. 5 in the latest BCS standings, Missouri is a loss by Ohio State or Florida State away from having a clear path to the national championship game.

But the immediate future is a tough test against the Aggies (8-3, 4-3 in SEC). Texas A&M (No. 19 in AP poll, No. 21 Coaches poll) features the thrilling, somewhat polarizing Johnny Manziel, known as “Johnny Football.” Manziel won the Heisman last year, and he’s piling up massive numbers again this year, albeit with a few more interceptions. Manziel can be a maddeningly elusive runner, and he has a tremendous target in receiver Mike Evans.

The Aggies’ offense is scoring 45.6 points per game, sixth in the nation, but the suspect A&M defense is giving up 31.2 points per game, 89th in the nation.

Last week’s loss at LSU likely ended A&M’s BCS bowl hopes and Manziel’s repeat Heisman campaign, so Missouri would appear to have greater motivation here.

A year ago, Missouri ended a tough season with a humbling loss at Texas A&M. Now, the Tigers play the Aggies in an SEC East-clinching game. Whatever happens, Tiger fans will remember this game for a long time.

Missouri needs to win last two for SEC East title

After weeks of growing anticipation and crunching SEC East scenarios, it’s down to this: Missouri has to win its last two games to win the SEC East. Should the Tigers lose, South Carolina, which has wrapped up its SEC schedule with a 6-2 mark, would win the East and represent the division in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.

Last Saturday, with Missouri not having a game, most Tiger fans were rooting for Georgia to beat Auburn and Florida to beat South Carolina, either of which would have meant Missouri just had to win one of its last two games to win the East. Instead, Georgia lost on an unbelievable, fourth-down, tipped-pass touchdown by Auburn, dubbed the “Miracle on the Plains.” Florida, with an offense that resembles a dog trying to play a piano, was unable to hold a fourth-quarter lead at South Carolina.

So the No. 8 Tigers (9-1, 5-1 in SEC play) will have to take care of things themselves, without a safety net. They can move within one game of the SEC title game on Saturday at Mississippi (6:45 p.m. on ESPN).

I’m excited to make the trip down to Oxford for this game. A game at Ole Miss is a spectacle, as much a slice of the SEC as about any venue. The speed limit on campus is 18 MPH in tribute to the uniform number of former quarterback Archie Manning, a legend at Oxford and the father of NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning.

Manning’s heroics aside, Ole Miss has not been a dominant SEC program. The Rebels were on the wrong end of maybe the most storied touchdown in SEC history, Billy Cannon’s punt return touchdown for LSU to beat Ole Miss on Halloween in 1959.

But even if Ole Miss doesn’t have stacks of SEC titles, they have one of the best gameday atmospheres in the conference. A common refrain in Oxford is “we may not win every game, but we never lose a party.” The Grove, the famous tailgating hotspot on campus, is a classic part of the SEC’s lore, with overdressed fans, chandeliers in tents and tailgate food eaten off china plates.

On this stage, Missouri faces a dangerous Ole Miss team (7-3, 3-3 in SEC play). Mississippi’s offense will test Missouri’s strong defense. Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace has 17 touchdown passes and just five interceptions on the season. Mississippi has the SEC’s fifth-most rushing yards per game, led by Jeff Scott and I’Tavius Mathers.

Missouri has the conference’s second-most rushing yards per game, at 235.8. It will be interesting to see how quarterback James Franklin looks coming back from injury, and how much playing time backup Maty Mauk gets.

Both teams have a lot of offensive weapons, which makes it tempting to predict a shootout. But Missouri’s defense has been stout this year, leading the SEC in sacks and turnovers forced. If the Tiger defense plays as well as it has most of the season, Missouri can leave Oxford with the road win and set up a huge finale with Texas A&M.

Missouri keeps rolling heading into bye week

Last Saturday, in Missouri’s tenth game of the year, the Tigers overwhelmed Kentucky (2-7, 0-5 in SEC play) for a 48-17 road win, maintaining their SEC East lead.

After a slow start for Missouri (9-1, 5-1 in SEC) and an early 3-0 lead for Kentucky, the Tigers racked up four straight touchdown drives to take a 28-3 lead and control of the game.

Freshman quarterback Maty Mauk tied a school record with five touchdown passes, and sophomore receiver Dorial Green-Beckham set a school record with four touchdown catches.

Missouri (No. 8 in Coaches poll, No. 9 AP, No. 9 BCS) is at most two wins away from playing in the SEC championship game.

How did we get here? Just last year, Missouri needed a comeback win in its tenth game just to improve to 5-5, and the Tigers would lose their last two games and miss a bowl.

As Missouri heads into a bye week, its a decent time to ask why this year has been so different.

Missouri did have significant injuries last season. The Tigers have not had as many key injuries this year, but they have had some significant ones, and the team has done a better job coping with them.
Mauk has been a better runner and thrown fewer interceptions in relief of injured quarterback James Franklin than Corbin Berkstresser last year. Also, Missouri’s best cornerback, E.J. Gaines, missed games due to injury, but the rest of the defense stepped up. In particular, Missouri’s pass rush has been ferocious, which takes pressure off the defensive backs. Missouri had 27 sacks last season. The Tigers have 34 sacks so far this year, with two regular season games left to play.

Missouri also has a much better running game this season. The Tigers averaged 139 rushing yards per game last year. This year, with a healthier, more experienced offensive line, plus the return of Henry Josey, Missouri is averaging 235.8 rushing yards per game, 16th in the nation.

The talented receiving corps has also had more of an impact, which goes hand-in-hand with the improvement in the other offensive position groups.

The Missouri defense has been much better, despite losing star defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson to the NFL Draft. The Tigers are giving up 20.2 points per game. That number will probably go up some with two upcoming games against dangerous offenses, but it’ll be better than giving up 28.4 points per game last year.

With Missouri off this Saturday, Tiger fans may want to keep an eye on Georgia at Auburn (2:30 p.m. on CBS) and Florida at South Carolina (6 p.m. on ESPN2). If Georgia beats Auburn (and then beats Kentucky next week, a near-certainty) or if Florida beats South Carolina, Missouri would only need to win one of its last two games to win the SEC East.

Tiger fans can surely attest that these calculations certainly beat just figuring whether the team will go to a bowl. What a difference a year can make.

Missouri hammers Tennessee, maintains SEC East lead

Missouri bounced back in a big way from its double overtime loss to South Carolina, hammering Tennessee 31-3 last Saturday and moving one game closer to Atlanta, site of the SEC Championship Game.

First-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones appears to be a solid coach and may one day get the Volunteers back up and running at the level their fans expect, but last Saturday was not that day. Like most of Missouri’s games this season, the Tigers were simply the better team, and it showed.

After a wobbly first couple of offensive drives, Missouri (8-1, 4-1 in SEC play) engineered a 63-yard touchdown drive, starting a stretch that saw Missouri score on four of five drives and take a commanding 24-3 lead into the half.

Missouri rolled up 502 yards of offense, including 339 yards on the ground. The Tiger defense held Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 in SEC play) to just 94 rushing yards on 24 attempts, despite the Volunteers’ talented offensive line, and 334 yards overall.

Add in the three turnovers forced by the Tiger defense, the 39th straight game Missouri has forced a turnover, and you can see how this was a blowout.

Meanwhile, the Missouri offense was turnover free. Freshman quarterback Maty Mauk completed just 12 of his 25 passes and is completing just 48.9 percent for the season (maligned backup Corbin Berkstresser completed 49.7 percent last season), but he has only thrown two interceptions this season and ran for 114 yards against the Volunteers.

After the win, Missouri climbed to No. 9 in the AP and Coaches polls and No. 8 in the BCS standings. The Tigers also maintained their lead in the SEC East.

Regular starting quarterback James Franklin could be back as soon as next week at Kentucky, but Mauk has proven to be an adequate replacement. The Tigers can win with Mauk.

Missouri could probably win with a number of players at quarterback this weekend when it travels to Kentucky on Saturday (11 a.m. on ESPNU).

There is excitement, even hysteria, among Kentucky fans this time of year, but as usual it is for the start of basketball season, where the Wildcats are ranked No. 1.

Kentucky football, however, is riding a 12-game losing streak in SEC play. The Wildcats (2-6, 0-4 in SEC play) have a first-year coach in Mark Stoops and seem to be marginally better than last year, but this is still a game Missouri should win fairly comfortably.

Jalen Whitlow appears to have the quarterback job at the moment, having shared time with Maxwell Smith this season. Whitlow passed for 187 yards and ran for 101 last week, but that was against Alabama State.

Kentucky has had some competitive losses in SEC play this year, losing by seven at South Carolina and by six at Mississippi State, and this one is a road game for the Tigers. But I would still expect for Missouri be able to handle Kentucky and head into its bye week with another win.

Missouri suffers first loss, still leads SEC East

Halloween arrived early for Tiger fans.

Missouri brought a No. 5 ranking, an undefeated record and high hopes into last Saturday’s Homecoming game with No. 20 South Carolina. But on a chilly night at Faurot Field, those Missouri dreams turned into a nightmare as the Tigers could not hold a 17-0 fourth quarter lead, evoking the ghosts of agonizing Missouri defeats from days gone by, losing 27-24 in double overtime.

South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw did not start due a knee sprain, but he entered the game midway through the third quarter, completing 20 of 29 passes and torching Missouri with screen passes.
Missouri (7-1, 3-1 in SEC play) struggled offensively as well down the stretch. Maty Mauk completed just 10 of 25 passes, and the Tigers became very cautious late in regulation.

At so many intervals, one key play could have sealed the win, including a long fourth-and-goal in overtime that saw South Carolina score a touchdown to force a second overtime.

After forcing a Gamecock field goal, Missouri had a short field goal attempt to force a third overtime. But Andrew Baggett missed the 24-yard kick off the left upright, taking the air out of the sellout crowd.
Three randomly selected Missouri fans have made 30-yard field goals to win $1,000 gift cards at games this season. Baggett faced more pressure, and the holder appeared to have the laces facing the kicker, which can cause problems, but this was a kick a Division I kicker usually makes.

Longtime Tiger fans may have grimly noted that the miss came in the north end zone, site of Colorado’s “Fifth Down” win over Missouri in 1990 and where Nebraska had a kicked ball touchdown reception in a 1997 win over the Tigers.

Still, Missouri leads the SEC East standings. South Carolina (6-2, 4-2 in SEC play) now lurks one game back in the loss column, as do Georgia and Florida, but Missouri still controls its destiny. A 4-0 finish guarantees Missouri a spot in the SEC title game, and 3-1 could very well do the trick. Missouri is now ranked No. 10 in the AP and Coaches polls, and a special season is still possible.

That starts with another home game on Saturday against Tennessee (4-4, 1-3 in SEC play). Missouri will be the sixth ranked team the Volunteers have played, and they will probably face another one in Auburn.

Tennessee was hammered by Alabama last week, as Alabama opponents usually are, but the week before Tennessee scored a big win over South Carolina. The Volunteers have been much tougher at home, but they do have some talent, and first-coach Butch Jones seems to have them playing hard.
Tennessee’s quarterback play has been shaky this year, but the Volunteer running game is decent. Tennessee has one of the nation’s better offensive lines, headlined by tackle Tiny Richardson, who is decidedly not tiny.

But Missouri’s defensive line has been pretty good as well, and this clash should be an interesting subplot. Tennessee isn’t a total pushover, but I still expect Missouri to bounce back and get the win at home.

Missouri beats Florida, takes control in SEC East

Friday was a near-perfect college football scene for Missouri fans. Fans packed old Faurot Field, the first sellout of the season. It was a crisp, sunny fall afternoon, with blue skies and those old trees that peek over the south edge of the stadium beginning their annual autumn color change. And, of course, Missouri hammered then-No. 22 Florida 36-17 to advance to 7-0.

This wasn’t just the product of a team getting on a roll or riding a raucous home crowd to a win, although Missouri is a hot team and the Faurot fans were into the game. Missouri (7-0, 3-0 in SEC play) is simply better than Florida (4-3, 3-2 in SEC), and it showed.

The Gators couldn’t cover Missouri’s big, athletic receivers. Freshman Maty Mauk, making his first start in place of the injured James Franklin, came out firing, completing passes of 41 and 20 yards for a two-play, 22-second touchdown drive. Mauk threw an interception, but he had a big rushing touchdown and generally looked like a quarterback Missouri can continuing winning with.

The Missouri defense continued to be a turnover-inducing, quarterback-sacking menace. The Tigers lead the SEC in both turnover differential and sacks.

The win launched the Tigers up to No. 5 in the Associated Press poll and No. 7 in the Coaches poll. Missouri made the jump in part because of how resounding its win was, and in part because half of the top-10 teams in the AP poll lost last weekend, the first time that’s happened since the wild 2007 season.
It’s beginning to feel a lot like 2007 for Tiger fans, when Missouri went 12-2 and finished No. 4 in the final AP poll. Missouri is again contending for its first conference title since 1969, and maybe even more. In the first Bowl Championship Series standings, which determine who plays in the national championship game, Missouri is No. 5.

Thanks to Georgia’s loss at Vanderbilt and South Carolina’s loss at Tennessee on Saturday, Missouri has a two-game lead in the SEC East race, with the Tigers undefeated and Georgia, South Carolina and Florida all having two SEC losses.

That’s a great position, although Missouri still has five SEC games to navigate, starting with its Homecoming game against No. 20 South Carolina on Saturday (6 p.m. on ESPN2).

The Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 in SEC) may be without starting quarterback Connor Shaw due to a knee sprain, but backup Dylan Thompson is among the SEC’s more experienced backups, throwing for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns last year when Shaw was out.

On the ground, Missouri is second and South Carolina is third in the SEC in rushing yards per game.
South Carolina also has a dangerous pass rush led by end Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney’s sack numbers are down this year, perhaps due to increased attention from offensive lines, but he can still be a game-changer.

In short, South Carolina is a stout test for the Tigers. With Tigers leading the SEC East standings, the games are getting bigger each week.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Mamaw and the World Series

My great-grandmother was born Marion Estelle Rolle on Aug. 1, 1913, in Denver, the 37th anniversary of Colorado becoming a state. Her father had been born in Germany before coming to America in search of something better, in search of opportunity.

I sometimes think about how dramatically the world has changed even in my relatively short life so far, from 1987 until 2013, how different most people's day-to-day lives are with technology's rapid progress. But even that pales in comparison to how different the world was into which my great-grandmother was born.

Russia still had a czar, Germany still had a kaiser. Horses still were a common source of transportation, only one Roosevelt had been President, and the Chicago Cubs were within five years of their last World Series title. My great-grandmother loved sports, and the Denver Bears played minor league baseball in town. Like most kids who grew up in America in the 1920s, she was probably well aware of the incomprehensible feats of Babe Ruth.

She would go on to get married and become Marion Carter, but I always knew her as Mamaw, the same thing my mom called her. She passed away when I was a kid, but she left an incredible legacy of love and joy, as well as some indelible memories. I still remember eating Teddy Grahams in the yard outside her brick house, on a set of small white garden chairs, which now sit in my grandparents' yard. I still think of her when I see those little white cast iron chairs or Teddy Grahams. I also remember the swing attached to a tree in her front yard, coloring books at her house and how she liked fireworks. (Native Coloradans seem to have a knack for planning good firework displays.)

She also crosses my mind sometimes when Missouri hits its October near-perfection and the Fall Classic rolls around again. Mamaw loved the World Series. My grandma talks about how Mamaw would watch every inning of it, enjoying America's pastime played at its highest level.

I was thinking the other day about all the World Series moments she might have seen; the epic 1975 Game 6 capped by Carlton Fisk's home run off the foul pole at Fenway Park, a hobbled Kirk Gibson's home run to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, the Royals frantic comeback in the 1985 Series. There were so many Yankees titles, so many Red Sox near-misses, so many big hits and strikeouts and defensive plays and ballparks and names, a heritage not just shared between my great-grandmother and I but among all Americans who have enjoyed baseball through the centuries.

Baseball is an old game. It was old a hundred years ago, with roots stretching back before the Civil War. Even after baseball long ago yielded status as America's favorite sport to football, even as it seems old-fashioned and slow, it still attracts millions, still has that pull. Baseball links generations, even three generations apart.

In the first World Series in Mamaw's lifetime, the 1913 edition, suit-wearing Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia A's to victory over John McGraw's New York Giants. Little did anyone know, she and the A's would both migrate to Missouri. She stayed longer.

Back in 1913, the Red Sox played at a place called Fenway Park, and St. Louis, 850 miles east of Denver, was the only major league city west of the Mississippi River.

Tonight, the Red Sox and Cardinals open the 2013 World Series at Fenway. I plan on watching, just like Mamaw watched all those World Series through the years.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Missouri earns huge win at Georgia, takes SEC East lead

Deep into the Civil War, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman sent a telegram saying he intended to “make Georgia howl!” Sherman went on to do just that, cutting a swath of destruction through Georgia and dealing a crippling blow to the Confederacy.

On Saturday, after Missouri dealt No. 7 Georgia a 41-26 loss in Athens, Tiger offensive lineman Max Copeland said he had been reading about that quote and Gen. Sherman, who happens to be buried in Missouri.

The win resounded across the nation and a proud conference, Missouri’s first big splash in the SEC. It was a crippling blow to Georgia’s national title hopes and one of the biggest wins of Gary Pinkel’s 13-year tenure as Missouri’s head coach. It was a statement win that Missouri can compete in the SEC after a disappointing debut season.

Missouri (6-0, 2-0 in SEC play) got a measure of payback for last year’s loss to Georgia in the Tigers’ first SEC game.

Clinging to a 28-26 lead in the fourth quarter, with quarterback James Franklin knocked out with an injury, Missouri stabilized itself with a 40-yard trick play touchdown, when receiver Bud Sasser caught a backwards pass then heaved the ball into the end zone, into the arms of L’Damian Washington, and into the memories of Tiger fans.

Georgia gained more yards than Missouri, but the Tigers forced four turnovers, including two interceptions and a fumble from Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray.

Yes, Georgia did have some injuries to key offensive players, but this was still Pinkel’s first road win over a top-10 team. It also lifted the Tigers to No. 14 in the AP and Coaches polls and put Missouri in the driver’s seat in the SEC East race. Next up are two massive home games with Florida and South Carolina.

Missouri will be without Franklin for at least a few weeks, and possibly the rest of the regular season due to his shoulder injury. That puts the pressure on freshman backup Maty Mauk, who at least has the benefit of stepping into a very good offense, with plenty of athletic receivers, a deep stable of running backs and an offensive line that is much healthier than last year acting like those arm band flotation devices kids use as they head into the deep end.

The Tiger offense faces one of the nation’s best defenses when Florida (4-2, 3-1 in SEC play) comes to town on Saturday (11:21 a.m., SEC TV, shown on a local channel, check listings).

Florida has held 13 straight SEC opponents to 20 or fewer points.

Florida, ranked No. 22 after a physical loss at LSU last Saturday, is far less dangerous on offense. But the Gators do have a decent ground game with running back Mack Brown, but Matt Jones is out for the season with an injury. Florida also lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the season, but backup Tyler Murphy has actually looked better as the Gators’ new starter.

Half of the season remains, but the next two Saturdays in Columbia will go a long way in determining who wins the SEC East.

Missouri routs Vanderbilt in SEC opener, trip to No. 7 Georgia next

Missouri punter Christian Brinser did indeed make the trip to Nashville for Missouri’s SEC opener, but fans watching on TV didn’t have visual proof of that until the fourth quarter, when Brinser trotted onto the field for his first and only punt of the night.

It’s usually a good night when your punter largely has the game off, and last Saturday’s 51-28 win at Vanderbilt was most definitely a good night for the Tigers. Missouri (5-0, 1-0 in SEC play) scored on a touchdown pass from James Franklin to L’Damian Washington just 1:17 into the game, and the Tigers kept pouring it on from there, burying the Commodores (3-3, 0-3 in SEC play) in an avalanche of scores.

Not counting a quarterback kneel to kill the clock with 21 seconds left in the first half, here are Missouri’s first eight drives, spanning the first three quarters: touchdown, field goal, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown.

That’ll do.

Missouri followed each of Vanderbilt’s four touchdowns with a touchdown of its own, ensuring the Commodores never got any real momentum going.

This was Missouri’s biggest test to date, and the Tigers aced it. The offense rolled up 523 total yards. Franklin threw for 278 yards and rushed for 63 with no turnovers. The Tigers churned out 245 yards on the ground.

The Tiger defense also made some big plays, starting the game with a three-and-out, an interception and another three-and-out to help Missouri jump ahead early.

After the win, Missouri is now No. 25 in the AP poll, the first time Missouri has been ranked since the second week of the 2011 season.

Next comes a huge game this Saturday (11 a.m. on ESPN) at No. 7 Georgia, widely considered the favorite to win the SEC East title. Last week, Georgia gutted out an overtime win on the road against a feisty Tennessee team.

However, Georgia running back Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley suffered season-ending ACL tears in the game. Georgia’s other outstanding running back, Todd Gurley, didn’t play due to an ankle sprain and is an unknown for the Missouri game.

Obviously, whether Gurley can play or not will have a huge impact on the game. Either way, Georgia still has senior quarterback Aaron Murray, who became the SEC’s all-time leader in passing yards last week.

Georgia (4-1, 3-0) has a prolific offense, at least before all the injuries hit. But the Bulldogs’ defense has struggled against good offenses.

Missouri is a solid underdog here. That said, I could see Missouri winning, and that says a lot about how good the Tigers have looked so far. Missouri has a lot to gain and little to lose on Saturday, a chance to go from impressing the SEC to shocking it, a chance to grab control of the SEC East race and earn Pinkel’s first road win over a top-10 team.

In any event, Missouri heads to Georgia’s massive Sanford Stadium, “Between the Hedges,” playing some very good football.

Missouri opens SEC play at Vanderbilt

It’s finally here. Missouri (4-0) is the only team in the Southeastern Conference that hasn’t played a conference game yet, but on Saturday they take the plunge at Vanderbilt, playing their eight conference games over the next nine Saturdays.

The Tigers have built some momentum and cautious fan optimism while opening the season with four wins against a very manageable nonconference schedule.

The last of those came last Saturday with a 41-19 win over Arkansas State (2-3) at Faurot Field. The Red Wolves gave the Tigers trouble for a while, taking a 16-14 lead in the third quarter.

But Missouri responded to the adversity, as it did when Toledo and Indiana rallied to make those games close. After a Missouri three-and-out immediately after Arkansas State took its second-half lead, the Tiger offense churned out touchdown drives of 94 yards, 87 yards and 67 yards to put the game away.

That response was nice, although playing close into the second half with a team that lost 31-7 to Memphis isn’t ideal. In any event, the Tigers have navigated through the four nonconference games without any losses.

The competition gets tougher now as the Tigers get into the teeth of their schedule. The front half of conference play looks tougher than the back half, with road games at Vanderbilt and Georgia and home contests against Florida and South Carolina meaning things will get tougher in a hurry.

Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt (6:30 p.m. on Comcast Sports Southeast, game will be shown on a local channel in different Missouri markets, check listings) is an intriguing way to begin SEC play for the Tigers. Third year Vandy head coach James Franklin, no relation to Missouri’s quarterback of the same name, has been building up the Commodore program, winning six games and going to a bowl in his first season then winning nine games last year, Vanderbilt’s first nine-win season since 1915.

19-15 was also the score of Vanderbilt’s win in Columbia last fall, a game in which Missouri lost its James Franklin to a knee injury early in the contest. (Coaches are generally safe from such things.)

Vanderbilt is 3-2 this year but 0-2 in SEC play, including a spectacular 39-35 loss at home to Ole Miss on college football’s opening night. The Commodores’ best player is senior receiver Jordan Matthews, who threw up on the field during the aforementioned loss to Ole Miss but then re-entered the game to make a huge catch on a do-or-die fourth down. He has 40 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns this year. It would make sense to see Missouri’s best cornerback, E.J. Gaines, cover Matthews, but all of Missouri’s secondary will have to be on guard.

Saturday’s game is a crucial one for both schools as they struggle to climb up in the SEC East Division. It also feels like about a tossup game, adding to the suspense. Either way, should be a good one under the lights in Nashville.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Missouri heads to Indiana for first road game

If you love college football shootouts, find a comfortable chair and settle in for Saturday’s Missouri-Indiana football game. The Hoosiers have a high-scoring offense and a shaky defense, meaning the final score of the game could more closely resemble a final from the basketball games for which Indiana is known.

Saturday’s game (7 p.m. on the Big Ten Network) should provide an interesting test for Missouri (2-0), as the first road game usually does. The Hoosiers have not been good in recent years, but they improved from one win in 2011 to four wins last year. Now, with 19 starters back from last year, Indiana could be poised for a breakout season.

The Hoosiers have a talented young quarterback in sophomore Nate Sudfeld and one of the best receiver groups in the Big Ten. Of the conference’s top eight returning players by receiving yards, three are Hoosiers, Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes and Shane Wynn. Indiana’s offense is ranked sixth nationally in scoring after three games, at 50.0 points per game.

The Hoosiers have played all home games this year, beating Indiana State, losing to Navy, and beating Bowling Green. In trying to slow down Indiana, Missouri will miss linebacker Andrew Wilson, who will miss the first half after he was penalized for “targeting” a player with a high hit in the second half of the Toledo game. The new rule outlaws targeting defenseless opponents with hits above the shoulders, and players are ejected for it. They cannot play in the first half of the following game if the violation takes place in the second half.

The first half could be a white knuckle affair as Missouri attempts to keep the potent Hoosier offense at bay without its leading tackler from last year. Even if Missouri lets Indiana move the ball, the Tigers can still get the job done by bearing down in the red zone. Indiana struggled to punch the ball in from inside the five-yard line against Bowling Green, and holding teams to field goals instead of touchdowns may be the key to this game.

When the Tigers have the ball, they should be able to run up some points of their own. Avoiding turnovers and, as mentioned, finishing off drives with touchdowns instead of field goals will be crucial.
Indiana has been dismal of late, going a no-adjective-necessary 14-66 in Big Ten play over the last 10 years, including 5-35 over the last five years. Since 1993, the Hoosiers have just one bowl appearance. But ESPN College Gameday analyst Lee Corso used to coach there, so that’s something.

But that history means Indiana fans are hungry, and many think this is their year to get back to a bowl. That, plus the Saturday night setting, plus an SEC opponent coming to town should make for a great atmosphere. Missouri carries that SEC patch, which doubles as a target for other teams looking to make a statement.

I expect a competitive game with plenty of momentum shifts, but in the end I think Missouri’s edge defensively should get the Tigers the win.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tigers defeat Toledo heading into bye week

Missouri’s 38-23 win over Toledo last Saturday began to provide more of a look at what kind of team the Tigers will be this year. More, anyway, than the easy win against Murray State to open the season.

Assuming one kept the sweat out of the eyes on another steamy gameday at Faurot, what did we see?

Missouri (2-0) struggled to run the ball for much of the game against a fairly middling Toledo defense, and the game remained in doubt until well into the fourth quarter. Russell Hansbrough had just 31 yards on 10 carries, and Henry Josey had just 26 yards on nine carries.

But the Tigers got quarterback James Franklin more involved in the ground game in the second half, often running the option, including on a key 4th-and-3 conversion in the fourth quarter to help put the game away.

Franklin also dished out a jarring hit to a Toledo defender near the sideline. It prompted cheers from the fans who stayed at Faurot Field through the heat, but the Missouri coaches would surely like to see fewer big collisions involving their quarterback.

Indeed, Franklin’s health is crucially important to the Tiger offense, and he provided the spark on Saturday. Missouri probably doesn’t want him to carry the ball 17 times every game, as he did against Toledo, but the situation called for it as the Rockets closed to within 24-23.

But to offset the ground game struggles, Missouri’s receivers made some big plays. It was the position group where the Tigers’ talent advantages were most obvious.

Toledo actually outgained Missouri, 387 yards to 384. But Missouri used three interceptions, one of which was returned 70 yards by Markus Golden for a touchdown, to keep Toledo at bay. Missouri may not have a rugged defense that churns out three-and-outs, but the Tigers might find success in making other teams take several plays to drive the field. More plays means more chances for offenses to derail themselves with a turnover or key penalty, and that happened plenty of times to Toledo.

In any event, it’s still mid-September and we’re just beginning to learn about this team. The Tigers have a bye this week before a road game at Indiana on Sept. 21. Indiana has been bad for a while, with one bowl appearance in the last 20 years, but some writers and analysts think the Hoosiers could be better this year.

Indiana scored 73 in a rout of Indiana State to open the season, but then lost 41-35 at home last Saturday. They host Bowling Green at 11 a.m. Saturday on ESPNU if any fans want to get a look at the Hoosiers.

It will be nice to have the extra week to prepare for what will be a pivotal early-season game. With four manageable nonconference games before the SEC grind, the schedule is set up to generate some early momentum. But to do that the Tigers will have to get this first road win of the season.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Missouri rolls Murray State, tougher test awaits in Toledo

Missouri running back Henry Josey, who missed all of 2012 after a devastating knee injury late in the 2011 season, had the moment of the night in Missouri’s season opening 58-14 win over Murray State last Saturday at Faurot Field.

Josey got a nice ovation during pregame introductions, and then in the third quarter he raced 68 yards for a touchdown, toward the north end zone and along the east sideline, running right over the spot where his knee was injured.

After diving into the end zone, the rebuilt Josey raised his arms skyward in front of the rebuilt rock M, mobbed by teammates and cheered by the crowd.

There were some tense moments early in the game. Murray State, from Division I’s lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision, scored first and led 14-13 after the first quarter.

Missouri’s defense seemed powerless to stop the Racers’ passing attack early on, even getting bamboozled on a receiver pass back to quarterback Maikhai Miller, who spun away from Kony Ealy and high-stepped into the end zone. On a weekend full of FCS teams beating Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Missouri fans may have been sweating a bit, and not just from the sweltering, near-100-degree heat.

But Missouri took charge from there, outscoring the Racers 45-0 over the final three quarters for the 58-14 win. The Tiger pass defense got much better, even picking off three of Miller’s passes in the game, including two picks by E.J. Gaines and one by Braylon Webb.

Missouri’s offense did what it does against FCS teams through the years, rolling up 694 yards of offense. The Tigers averaged 8.0 yards per carry on the ground, and Russell Hansbrough and Josey each had over 100 yards rushing.

Missouri will get a tougher test this Saturday when they take on the Toledo Rockets (2:30 p.m. on ESPNU). Gary Pinkel coached Toledo for 10 seasons before becoming the head coach at Missouri.
Toledo opened its season with a 24-6 loss at No. 10 Florida. That’s a respectable effort, especially given that the Rockets converted just one of their 13 third downs for a first down against the stout Gator defense.

Florida can make a lot of teams look bad, but Toledo is still a team to be taken seriously. The Rockets went 9-4 last season and return 13 starters, including nine on offense. Senior quarterback Terrance Owens has some scrambling ability, and Toledo returns its top five receivers from last year.

Senior running back David Fluellen ran for 1,498 yards last season, and is a threat behind Toledo’s veteran offensive line.

Toledo’s defense took more of a hit from graduation and is more of a mystery. Kick and punt returner Bernard Reedy had four return touchdowns, and kicker Jeremiah Detmer made his last 17 field goals last year, giving Toledo a very good special teams unit.

While Toledo will provide more of a challenge than Murray State, Missouri should still be able to handle the Rockets. I could see this one being close for a while, but then Missouri pulling away late, maybe winning be a couple of touchdowns.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Welcome back, college football

It’s back.

On Saturday, black-and-gold clad fans will fill the old bowl at the southern end of campus, Truman the Tiger will spin his tail, and Marching Mizzou will play those old familiar tunes. The Missouri Tigers will dash out onto the turf and begin the 2013 season, their 88th fall at old Faurot Field.

The schedule is set up to build momentum early in the season. Last season, the Tigers faced SEC heavyweights Georgia and South Carolina before the calendar turned to October. This year, Missouri’s September is much more manageable: Murray State, Toledo, a bye week, at Indiana and Arkansas State.

The opener with Murray State (6 p.m. Saturday, pay-per-view TV) should be a chance for the Tigers to work out any kinks and notch a fairly comfortable win. The Racers, from Murray, Ky., are in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA), a cut below Missouri’s Football Bowl Subdivision, which is allowed to award more full-ride scholarships.

When playing the big FBS schools, FCS teams usually offer about as much resistance as I do when a family member offers me yet another piece of pie on Thanksgiving. Last year Murray State lost 69-3 to a strong Florida State team. The Racers went 5-6 last season.

But Murray State will no doubt bring their best effort for their game with an SEC team. The Racers do have a decent passing offense, and they throw the ball a lot.

Ole Miss transfer Maikhail Miller will likely start at quarterback for Murray State. He has some scrambling ability, and a reliable target in senior receiver Walter Powell, an FCS All-American last year.

Again, Missouri should win comfortably. Under coach Gary Pinkel, Missouri is 9-0 against FCS teams, with an average score of 50-7. But this is still the first chance for Tiger fans to get a look at what their team will be like. Here are three areas in particular to watch:

Henry Josey’s return

Josey makes his return after suffering a major knee injury late in 2011 at Faurot Field. He should have plenty of gaps to run through against the Racers. But it won’t be all smooth sailing against SEC foes, so seeing Josey hit the openings with that same old burst and break a tackle or two would be encouraging.

Pass defense

Murray State’s passing tendencies should provide a decent test for the Missouri secondary. The SEC has become a league with several good quarterbacks, so this unit, anchored by senior cornerback E.J. Gaines, needs to hold its own this fall.

Maty Mauk

Not stoking a quarterback controversy here; perish the thought. Senior James Franklin is the starter, but backup freshman Mauk is the future. Assuming the Tigers can build up a lead, Mauk should get a decent chunk of playing time, giving fans a glimpse of 2014.

Plenty of bigger tests await this season, but kicking things off with what should be a big win under the lights of Faurot Field is a good way to get things started.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Missouri hopes for improvement in SEC Year 2

“Welcome to the SEC!”

Missouri fans heard this phrase over and over after the move to the Southeastern Conference, from SEC commissioner Mike Slive, from Alabama’s and Georgia’s hordes that descended on Columbia for games last fall, from Kentucky fans counting down the days until basketball season.

It was a gesture of welcome and hospitality, but it also felt like something of a taunt at times as Missouri stumbled to a 5-7 record, its first losing season since 2004.

A tough schedule, an inability to overcome injuries and faltering late in some close games all contributed to the tempest of a season, one that began with soaring fan enthusiasm. It’s one thing to lose to Georgia and hear its fans chant, “SEC! SEC!” at Faurot Field; it’s quite another to suffer that fate at the hands of Vanderbilt.

Since about nine minutes into last season’s final indignity, a blowout loss at Texas A&M, Missouri fans have been thinking about next year. Here are three keys to making Year 2 better:

Replacing Richardson

Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson created a stir and a niche joke market by saying Georgia played “Old Man Football.” But more noteworthy, he was Missouri’s best player last year. Richardson was an anchor on the defensive line, but he’s gone to the NFL now, and Missouri must find a way to replace him.

That burden will primarily fall on junior tackles Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent.

In SEC games, Missouri was 11th among the conference’s 14 teams in both points and yards allowed per game, so the Tigers can’t afford a drop-off defensively.

Wide receiver potential

Offensively, Missouri was also 11th in points scored and yards per game in SEC play. One of the quickest ways to jump start the offense this year will be improvement among the receivers.

Seniors Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington return. Dorial Green-Beckham, for all his freshman struggles, led the team in receiving touchdowns last season, with five. He could take a big step forward this year. Also, keep an eye on Darius White, a once highly touted recruit who transferred to Missouri from Texas.

Quarterback play

Of course, the receivers’ impact is contingent on Missouri getting much better quarterback play. After a solid sophomore season, James Franklin had his share of struggles and injuries in 2012.

If healthy, he can outperform his numbers last season. By extension, a healthier, more experienced offensive line should provide at least somewhat better protection.

It’s August, and there are a lot of questions about this team. It looks to me like a team that will go 6-6, but anything from 4-8 to 8-4 wouldn’t shock me.

This is a big year for the program, and for coach Gary Pinkel. The athletic department is pumping money into football, evidenced by the ongoing construction at Faurot Field. At minimum, this team needs to get back to a bowl game.

Missouri does have four manageable nonconference games to hopefully generate some momentum before embarking on the second season of SEC play, one Missouri hopes will have more wins and fewer “Welcome to the SEC!” moments.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A day at Wimbledon

The shuttle bus weaved through the tight streets of the Wimbledon neighborhood, past a golf course and gift shops and charming little rows of connected houses, with bright flowers in front in defiance of summer days with forecasted highs only in the low 60s. After a few minutes, the bus crested a hill and the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club stretched out before us, beneath the hulking green and white monolith of Centre Court and a classically British gray sky. The bus passengers greeted the sight of the most famous venue in tennis with a gasps and murmurs. There it is.

I expected the sights at Wimbledon to be breathtaking, and that first glimpse of towering Centre Court and the grounds beneath was indeed unforgettable. But after walking down the sidewalk by the high stone wall, and through the gate, it was the sound that caught me off guard.

Tennis balls popped off racquets relentlessly, crisply. Anybody can get thisclose on the outer courts, close enough to hear the soft footfalls of the players and ball boys and girls. Even when densely packed, the crowds were quiet, almost reverential. Most restaurants are louder than these gatherings around the outer courts, except for the bursts of applause after points were won.

My senses sufficiently overwhelmed, my sister and I headed into Centre Court for the day's matches. It was a dream lineup, featuring Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Andy Murray. I was gawking and taking pictures all along the way, and as we walked up the stairs to our seats I apologized for my dawdling, but adding we had plenty of time. A white-haired usher in the walkway by the entrance to our seats heard our exchange, smiled and said, "You've got all the time in the world."

We breathlessly took our seats in the old cathedral, its grass pristine and green and ready for another year. Centre Court is all that is Britain, old and proud and dripping with history, complete with a Royal Box of seats. It was damaged during Nazi Germany's bombing blitz of London. It was a roof to ward off the seemingly omnipresent British rain. Into this arena walked the great Roger Federer, once again opening play here as the defending men's singles champion.

Roger Federer

Time was on my mind when I dreamed up this trip to Wimbledon. Federer is one of my favorite athletes ever, and I wanted to see him play in person. I had thought about trying to catch him at the U.S. Open, but then, dreaming just a little more, decided to go see him on Centre Court, sight of so many of his and tennis' most memorable moments.

Federer has won 17 singles titles at tennis' big four Grand Slam tournaments, three more than any player ever. He has won four Australian Opens, one French Open, and five U.S. Opens, so his resume has plenty of diversity, but he has won Wimbledon seven times, tying Pete Sampras and Bill Renshaw for the most. The English invented tennis, on lawns. Wimbledon is the home and soul of tennis, timeless and beautiful.

Federer won five straight Wimbledons on the hallowed lawns from 2003 to 2007, beating Rafael Nadal in the final of the last two of those. He played three straight five-set Wimbledon finals from 2007 to 2009, beating Nadal in '07, losing to him in '08, then beating Andy Roddick in a marathon 16-14 fifth set in 2009 to break Sampras' record for most Grand Slam singles titles. Roddick held serve 37 consecutive times, but Federer won the second and third sets via tiebreakers and then finally broke Roddick on his 38th service game. When Roddick mishit a forehand and the long battle in the sun was over, Federer uncorked a classic celebration, the opposite of the now-typical collapsing to the ground reaction, leaping in the air again and again, shouting.

There are a lot of reasons I became a Federer fan. I appreciate greatness; I've enjoyed so many moments watching him play on the big stages; he seems like a genuinely good person and sportsman, even if he's not immune to the intensity and emotions of a heated tennis match. But another big part is that he's an artist on the court. In an era where all the best players simply stand around the baseline and hammer away until the point is over, Federer hits drop shots, he comes to the net, he darts and crafts and glides out there. He has power and a great serve, sure, but that's not all he has.

And so I and the rest of Federer's legion of fans were delirious last summer when, after back-to-back quarterfinal defeats, he beat Novak Djokovic to return to the Wimbledon final, against Britain's hope, Andy Murray. The locals desperately wanted Murray to end Britain's Wimbledon drought, which dated to 1936, but it's a measure of how beloved Federer is that he had plenty of support that day. Murray took the first set, but then Fed roared back to win the next three sets and his seventh Wimbledon title. This excerpt from a Sports Illustrated article by Bruce Jenkins summed up the Centre Court feelings for Murray and Federer:

With Federer holding a 3-2 lead in the third set, Murray tried desperately to hold. A 10-deuce game raged on for 20 minutes, several chances blown each way. Finally, Federer unleashed an inside-out forehand that Murray could only stab with the backhand. That set ended with a Federer ace flying past Murray's backhand, and a sense of reverence filled the historic arena. Murray was their man, but Federer was their god. 

It's a bitter reminder in sports, but our favorite athletes don't play forever. There have been plenty of premature attempts to declare Fed done, but eventually the day will come when he is done. He'll turn 32 in August, pretty old for a top-shelf tennis player. Seeing him play on Centre Court was the reason for my trip, the reason the trip needed to be now, not in that ambiguous "someday" file folder of the mind.

I saw just what I wanted to see, Federer at his best, smooth and brilliant and dominating. The crowd roared when he and his Romanian opponent, Victor Hanescu, walked out on Centre Court to renew the action on Centre Court once again. There was no PA system announcement, no playing of the national anthem; the players just came out and the crowd cheered and the tennis started.

It was the purest sporting event I've been to. No billboards or advertisements, no blaring PA system, just the game, at its highest level. With a few notable exceptions, like the crack of the bat of a big hit in football, we don't hear many sounds of the game in modern, big-time sports. There's just too much accompanying noise.

But on that pristine lawn of Centre Court, the crowd is respectfully quiet right before and during points, so quiet you can hear the chop-chopping of feet scurrying across the grass surface, the crisp pop of the ball, the players talking to themselves. At one point, Federer hit a serve that was called out. After a beat, amid the silence of 15,000 fans, he said, "Challenge." You could hear it like he was sitting in your row.  Later, Federer hit one of those heavy backspin shots that float along, and it buzzed closer and closer to the baseline. "Get in, get in," a Federer fan whispered in the row behind me.

It got in. Federer rolled to a straight-set win in just a little over an hour. I was enraptured by all the sights and sounds and history. It all happened so fast. I soaked it in as much as I could, a classic self-aware great moment. It was over too soon, but I'm so glad that it was.

Maria Sharapova

In 2004, Maria was 17 and so was I. She was young and pretty and winning Wimbledon that year. She helped get me hooked on tennis. She hasn't been dominant, but she has spent time as the world No. 1 and has won all four of the tennis Grand Slam tournaments. She is tenacious, competitive, ruthless.

She is also noisy. Her shrieks when she hits the ball filled Centre Court, growing louder in the big moments. At a Grand Slam Tennis Tours welcome dinner the night before, former Wimbledon singles finalist and doubles champion Fred Stolle said Maria's matches sound "like a honeymoon night."

She played a big server, Kristina Mladenovic, and the first set went to a tiebreaker. Maria pulled it out, then won the second set much more comfortably. At one point, the sun made a brief appearance, prompting cheers from the crowd.

Accomplished as her career has been, Maria was not the most famous woman in the stadium. Sitting in the Royal Box were Pippa Middleton, sister of Kate, the future Queen of England, and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. I naturally zoomed in for some pseudo-stalkerish photos of Pippa.

We spent the lulls in action on Pippa Watch, and at one point my sister observed, "She's talking to her brother." "So are you," I returned without missing a beat.

The next day, during out walk around central London, we walked by the front of Westminster Abbey, where Pippa's bridesmaid dress launched her to fame two years ago at the Royal Wedding. These are the visual souvenirs of Britishness from a trip to London: Pippa, Westminster Abbey and a Scottish tennis player of destiny.

Andy Murray

Murray took the court to the roar of an adoring home country crowd. Murray was last on this court during Wimbledon for that final loss to Federer, after which he wept and said, "I'm getting closer," winning any British tennis hearts he hadn't already secured. He went on to win Olympic gold at Centre Court and then the U.S. Open last September, Britain's first male Grand Slam title since Fred Perry in 1936. Perry's '36 Wimbledon triumph was still Britain's last by a male when this Wimbledon started.

Murray's a likable guy, and the British were a likable people. They are funny, they are friendly, and those accents...

They don't like Andy Murray; they love him. If I had a ten-pound bill, complete with Elizabeth's picture on it, for every time I heard one of them yell, "Come on, Ahn-dee!" I'd be going back to Wimbledon next year. There are size limits to how big of a flag you're supposed to be able to bring onto the grounds, but I spotted more than a few British Union Jacks in the crowd.

Nadal lost on Court One during Murray's match. The crowd buzzed as the scores kept getting updated, then cheered when it went final. The next day, at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, a mounted police officer giving warnings about pickpocketers spotted tourists from Spain. "What happened to Nadal?" he asked with a smile. Knowing there was a language barrier, he simply said "Murray" and gave a thumbs up, then "Nadal" and gave a thumbs down. He repeated the gesture for effect.

In his opening match, Murray was playing a German, Benjamin Becker. Two different times, someone yelled, "Come on, Boris!" in reference to the infinitely more famous Becker tennis player. Both times, the crowd laughed.

The first set was tense, but Murray prevailed. Then, he cruised to a straight-set win. It's seemingly always tense with Murray at Wimbledon. The BBC aired a Murray documentary the night before the tournament, a welcome oasis in a blur of British channels and TV shows I didn't really understand (so many were just people sitting around a desk talking about stuff, making references I didn't get). In it, Murray's girlfriend, Kim Sears, admitted she didn't really enjoy Wimbledon. Understandable, given the immense pressure her man faced on those grass courts.

But this time would be different. This was Murray's Wimbledon. Murray rallied from two sets down in the quarterfinal, rallied from down a set in the semifinal, and then went on to break through and defeat Novak Djokovic to win the title.

Murray's dream came true this Wimbledon. So did mine.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Missouri bows out early in NCAA Tournament

I usually post my weekly Mizzou columns that I write for the newspapers on here, but forgot this last one. Guess I just wanted to forget the game. But a few weeks late, here it is. 

Missouri’s up-and-down basketball season came to an unceremonious end last Thursday night with an 84-72 loss to Colorado State in the Tigers’ first game in this year’s NCAA Tournament. It was supposed to be a battle of two of the nation’s top five teams in rebounding, with Missouri a slight favorite, but instead it was a beatdown.

Colorado State schooled the Tigers in game-planning and desire, outrebounding Missouri by a staggering 42-19 margin. To see Missouri, a good rebounding team, lose out on rebound after rebound was striking. Missouri had better athletes, but the Rams were just hungrier, more focused.

Just like that Missouri’s tournament was over, almost as quick as it started. The Tigers were merely extras in the Big Dance, and this marked Missouri’s third straight one-and-done performance in the tournament.

The Tigers, who finished the season at 23-11, did not get the ball inside enough. Alex Oriakhi was on fire around the hoop in the closing games of the season, and against Colorado State he made all of his shots, but there were only six of them. Missouri did manage to jack up 23 three-point attempts, making just 7.

Part of that was surely CSU coach Larry Eustachy instructing his players to sag below screens on the perimeter, giving Missouri’s Phil Pressey open jumpers but preventing him from the drive-and-pass approach that works well for him. But a big part of basketball is which team can impose its game plan on the other, and Missouri either couldn’t or wouldn’t get the ball inside more.

It was a perhaps fitting ending to what has felt like a disappointing season. Factoring in losing several key players from last year, the new transfers and the weakness of the SEC, I guessed before the season Missouri would go 24-7 in the regular season. They actually went 22-9, then 23-11 after the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, including plenty of losses that Missouri kicked away late.

This was a team of transfers, and it struggled at times to find its identity and stick with what worked best. Mental lapses and sometimes-awful defense led to losses against lesser teams.

The Tigers did make the NCAA Tournament for a fifth straight year, tying the longest stretch in program history. But the goal should be to win games in the tournament, and coach Frank Haith is now 0-2 in NCAA Tournament games. I don’t think he’s “on the hot seat” by any stretch, but if  it doesn’t work out for him at Missouri, we’ll remember him not getting a single tournament win with his first two Tiger teams.

In any event, next season is a big one for Haith’s program. Whether or not Pressey leaves for the NBA will have a big impact on the team, obviously, although transfer guard Jordan Clarkson could be an outstanding player. Forwards Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers will be missed, but the Tigers’ next recruiting class has some size.

Missouri had its disappointments in SEC Year One, and some memorable wins. But after another early tournament flameout, the stage is set for an important season.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tough path awaits Missouri in NCAA Tournament

Celebrate, college basketball fans, the NCAA Tournament is back. Along with all of the madness and buzzer-beaters, dunks and daggers, the Big Dance brings a fresh start.

Missouri and its fans are probably ready for a fresh start after one more disappointing close loss in the SEC Tournament. This one was a punch in the stomach, a 14-point blown lead against Mississippi.
But now it’s all about the big tournament, a chance to make up for all the season’s tough losses with success when it matters most. However, thanks to how the season played out, Missouri’s road to even the Sweet 16 is rugged.

Missouri, the 9 seed in the Midwest Region, plays 8 seed Colorado State in its first game, on Thursday in Kentucky’s Rupp Arena (approximately 8:20 p.m. on TBS).

Colorado State (25-8, 11-5 in Mountain West Conference play) has a familiar face in coach Larry Eustachy. Eustachy was the coach at Iowa State for five seasons in the late 1990s and early 2000s, winning two Big 12 titles and advancing to the Elite Eight in the 2000 NCAA Tournament.

Eustachy resigned from Iowa State after a scandal stemming from photos of him drinking at a party near the MU campus following a game in Columbia. He later underwent treatment for alcoholism, and is back to doing what he does very well, coaching basketball.

This game features strength vs. strength, as both Missouri and Colorado State are in the top five nationally in rebounds per game. Senior big man Colton Iverson leads the Rams with 14.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Senior forward Pierce Hornung is listed at just 6-foot-5, but he also pulls in more than nine rebounds per game. Senior (see the pattern here?) guard Dorian Green, from a little town named Lawrnece, Kan., can score and has a 2.2 assist to turnover ratio.

Missouri is certainly capable of winning this game, and the Tigers had generally been playing pretty well up until the last 16 minutes against Ole Miss. It should be fascinating to watch this battle for rebounds play out.

Now, the bad news. If Missouri beats CSU, they will almost certainly face No. 1 overall seed Louisville, last seen going on an awe-inspiring 27-3 run against a very good Syracuse team in the Big East Tournament championship. Louisville hammered Missouri by 23 in November in the Bahamas. Louisville has a suffocating defense, and the Cardinals forced the Tigers into 21 turnovers in that game.

Louisville has great guard play in Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, plus length in center Gorgui Dieng. The Cardinals also have a coach, Rick Pitino, who has been to six Final Fours.

Missouri is making its 26th NCAA Tournament appearance, second only to BYU in tournament appearances without a Final Four. The Tigers also have 22 NCAA Tournament wins without a Final Four, tied with Boston College for the most all-time. The road to that grand stage is particularly tough this year, but after two straight first-game losses in the tournament, just winning against CSU would be a nice step.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Missouri heads into its first SEC Tournament

Missouri heads to Nashville this week for its first SEC Tournament. It’s been an up-and-down season for the Tigers, who finished the regular season at 22-9 overall and 11-7 in SEC play, earning the 6 seed in the conference tournament.

Missouri was unbeaten at home, but struggled mightily on the road, even in the weak SEC. The Tigers went 2-7 in SEC road games, 2-8 overall on the road, and the many close losses left fans wondering what could have been in this first SEC season.

Missouri’s last road loss, at Tennessee last Saturday, was like plenty of the others. It was close and Missouri had some bad possessions late, notably yet another horrible Phil Pressey missed three-pointer, this one an air ball that prompted an eruption of wrath from coach Frank Haith.

This road loss was unique in that the Tigers, a pretty good rebounding team, got beat soundly on the glass by the hungry Volunteers, a team fighting for its NCAA Tournament life. Behold, the power of a desperate home team.

Now Missouri heads back to Tennessee, this time to the Music City, for the conference tournament. It’s a jolt from the tradition and familiar faces of the Big 12 Tournament, but with multiple teams jockeying for NCAA Tournament position and plenty of flawed-but-capable teams, this SEC Tourney could be fun.

But just so you feel at home, Missouri will likely open against fellow ex-Big 12 member Texas A&M, assuming the Aggies get by woeful Auburn Wednesday night. Missouri faces the A&M-Auburn winner at 9 p.m. on Thursday (SEC Network).

Should the Tigers win, they get the rubber match with Mississippi, the three seed, at 9 p.m. on Friday (SEC Network). The Rebels won big at home against the Tigers, who were without senior forward Laurence Bowers; Missouri returned the favor with a big home win over Ole Miss that included a near-fight. This game could have some edge.

Should the Tigers keep advancing, they would play at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the semifinal (ABC), and then the championship is at noon Sunday (ABC).

Frankly, pretty much nothing Missouri would do in Nashville would be a huge surprise. They’ve lost to Texas A&M already this season and have had some flops. But, if the tournament follows the seeding, Missouri would need to beat Texas A&M, Mississippi, Kentucky and Florida to win it. Missouri has wins over two of those teams, and lost close road games to Texas A&M and Kentucky, so winning the whole thing isn’t impossible.

But being a six seed makes the road tougher. Missouri would need to win four games in four days. The Tigers won two of their last four Big 12 Tournaments, but each required just three wins in three days thanks to byes. Missouri twice played four games in four days in the Big 12 Tournament, but ran out of gas both times, losing the championship game.

If I had to guess, I’d say the Tigers play deep into the weekend, at least to Saturday’s semifinals. But with the ups and downs this team has shown, maybe write that in pencil.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Does Missouri have a Tournament run in it?

Missouri had a nice week, picking up a road win over South Carolina and a home win against an LSU team that had been playing better lately.

With these wins, Missouri (21-8, 10-6 in SEC play through Sunday) began this week having won five of its last seven games. The only two losses were the agonizing last-minute loss at Arkansas and the very respectable overtime loss at Kentucky.

This raises the question, is Missouri improving at the right time to make a run in the NCAA Tournament?

The case for Missouri making a March Madness run would have to start with rebounding, especially offensive rebounding. LSU jumped ahead of Missouri last Saturday with some hot shooting. But Missouri kept grinding away on the glass, getting second-chance points and points in the paint, eventually reeling in LSU.

Tom Izzo’s Michigan State teams are annual March stalwarts, often outperforming their seed with great rebounding. It’s as though the Spartans’ honor is on the line every time a missed shot bounces off the rim, up for grabs. For Missouri, second nationally in rebounds per game, dominating the glass could help spring an NCAA Tournament upset. Senior Alex Oriakhi leads the charge, with double-digit rebounds in five of the last seven games.

Beyond that, Tiger fans have seen how good the “good” Phil Pressey can be. Phil has had some bad moments late in close games, but when he’s playing well, he is a game changer.

But there is also certainly a case against these Tigers making a March run. The NCAA Tournament will not be played at Mizzou Arena, and the Tigers’ body of work away from home isn’t great. The Tigers still have some defensive lapses. (LSU was wide open for plenty of those threes it buried against Missouri last Saturday.)

Also, it’s tough to make a run without winning some close game in the NCAA Tournament, and Missouri has struggled in close games this season. The Tigers have won some close games, notably the Florida game, but Missouri’s possessions late in close games have been more misses than hits. Too often, Pressey dribbles a bunch then fires up a tough shot. Getting good ball movement is crucial in these situations, and Missouri probably won’t go far without it.

So what happens? Tournament matchups will no doubt be a big factor, and every seed Missouri can improve helps its chances.

Missouri has a chance to do that with its season-finale at Tennessee on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPN).

Tennessee (17-11, 9-7 in SEC through Sunday) had won six straight games to move into the NCAA Tournament discussion, although the Volunteers then suffered a loss at Georgia last Saturday. Tennessee plays good defense but struggles to score at times, ranking 203rd in the nation at 66.4 points per game at the start of the week.

The top four teams in the 14-team SEC Tournament get a “double-bye” into the quarterfinals. This game could well determine if Missouri, which is tied for fourth entering the final week, gets a double-bye. So the stakes are high for this one, but in March, they get noticeably higher each week.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Missouri plays better at Kentucky, but road struggles continue

Last Saturday was the latest chapter in the maddening story of Missouri’s road struggles, a 90-83 overtime loss at Kentucky, which dropped Missouri to 1-7 on the road this season.

Missouri’s lone road win was by more than 40 points at wretched Mississippi State, but last Saturday lowly Vanderbilt also won by over 40 at Mississippi State. There goes the beat-Mississippi-State-by-more-than-40 neighborhood.

Like the Arkansas road loss a week before, Missouri (19-8, 8-6 in SEC play through Sunday) looked pretty decent against Kentucky (19-8, 10-4 in SEC), much better than in earlier road stumbles. The Tigers took a 13-point lead in the first half.

Alex Oriahki had a remarkable game, with 16 points and 15 rebounds. Laurence Bowers continued to improve from his post-injury lull, scoring 13 on just nine shots. Then there’s Phil Pressey, who had 27 points, 10 assists and just four turnovers.

But that fourth turnover was massive, when Pressey started to take a contested shot, then threw the ball away in midair. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Pressey had a mostly outstanding game, only to see it slip away with some bad shots and mistakes late. He’s symbolic of this Tiger team in that way.

It’s tough to get on Phil after such a remarkable game, and with him asked to carry the ballhandling role mostly by himself. But the endings to many road games have been rough.

Missouri’s seven road losses include two in overtime, two by two points and one by three points. Whether it’s coach Frank Haith’s fault, the players’, or a mix of the two, the team has struggled in close, late-game situations. While improved defensively, the Tigers still struggle to get the stops needed to slow the home team’s momentum.

Missouri has just two road games left after Kentucky, four games overall, so the narrative that this team struggles on the road is largely set. But the Tigers still have the more important matters of the SEC standings and NCAA Tournament seed to determine.

Missouri began the week in a three-way tie for fifth with Arkansas and Tennessee in the SEC, one game behind Mississippi in fourth, the last spot that gets a double bye in the SEC Tournament.

Missouri’s come-from-behind 63-60 win over Florida last week helped the NCAA picture immensely and kept the Tigers out of the dreaded “bubble” range of teams on the brink of missing the tournament. The last four games are winnable, but right now Missouri seems stuck in the 8-9 seed range, which would mean a matchup with a 1 seed in the round of 32.

Missouri should cruise to a win on Saturday against LSU at Mizzou Arena (3 p.m., SEC Network). Johnny O’Bryant III and Anthony Hickey gave Missouri fits in the LSU win in Baton Rouge earlier this season, but with Missouri having all its players healthy and playing much better, expect this to be a fairly comfortable win for the black-and-gold Tigers.

After tough Arkansas loss, Missouri faces storied Kentucky

With March approaching and the games getting bigger by the week, Missouri can’t afford to linger over the pain of last Saturday’s 73-71 loss at Arkansas.

But oh, the agony. Before 19,004 fans, plenty of them for Missouri, the Tigers led 9-0 before falling behind by eight in the second half. With some key Tigers in foul trouble and Bud Walton Arena thundering, Missouri’s chances of winning seemed remote. But the Tigers put together an admirable rally, taking a lead into the final minutes before it all slipped away.

A combination of botched Missouri possessions late, a key missed free throw by Jabari Brown and, sure, some tough calls going against the Tigers resulted in a bitter defeat that’s sure to stoke what may be a budding rivalry.

To have that comeback not end up in a win, to lose an NCAA Tournament resume-boosting win in such fashion and to the Tigers’ former coach, Mike Anderson, is understandably brutal. Let’s just say Tiger fans will have this one in the back of their minds when Arkansas (16-9, 7-5 in SEC play through Sunday) comes to Columbia on March 5.

The Tigers (18-7, 7-5 in SEC play through Sunday) have now avoided falling far behind for back-to-back road games, after racking up double-digit deficits in each of its first four conference road games, all losses.

That will be key on Saturday, when Missouri takes to the road yet again for a big one, at Kentucky (8 p.m. on ESPN). ESPN’s College Gameday preview show will broadcast from Kentucky’s massive, 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, and with both teams needing quality wins for NCAA Tournament position, this should be a fun one.

Kentucky has arguably the strongest tradition of any college basketball program. The Wildcats have the most total wins, most NCAA Tournament appearances and most NCAA Tournament wins in college basketball. Kentucky has 15 Final Four appearances and eight NCAA championships, including the 2012 title. Big Blue has also dominated SEC basketball through the decades, racking up 47 regular season conference titles.

This year’s Kentucky team (17-8, 8-4 in SEC through Sunday) has a lot of young talent, but is scrambling just to make the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats lost Nerlens Noel, who was averaging 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game, for the season in a loss at Florida. In their first game without him, they were hammered 88-58 at Tennessee.

But, lest you feel too sorry for the SEC’s Goliath, the Wildcats still have the services of freshmen Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin and sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. Poythress in particular will need to step up to fill the Noel void inside, especially on defense.

Missouri’s Alex Oriakhi may have some opportunities inside with Noel out, but Missouri’s guards may also benefit by being able to slash to the hoop without him there to knock away their shots.

Missouri has the usual x-factors for this game, including avoiding defensive lapses and getting more of Phil Pressey’s brilliant playmaking and less of his turnovers.

It’s tough to pick against a desperate, talented home team, but either way this should be a fun one.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ar-kin-saw, Ar-kin-saw...

When I was a junior in college, during the 2007-08 basketball season, I traveled with two friends down to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to watch Missouri play the Razorbacks.

It was on a Wednesday night, but when you’re in college, every night is a weekend. It was quite a trip, and the memories remain vivid. Bud Walton Arena was big and hot. Someone trotted around the court with an “Arkansas Fans Are Standing” sign. The crowd did that eerie “call the hogs” cheer.

It was a close game. Missouri’s Stefhon Hannah was hot in the first half, but cooled off in the second. Missouri fought to within three with just a few seconds to go. The Tigers had an in-bounds play that achieved train-wreck status, ending in forward Darryl Butterfield awkwardly heaving a potential game-tying shot at the rim. It missed.

On Saturday the Tigers (18-6, 7-4 in SEC play) travel again to Arkansas (15-9, 6-5 in SEC), this time for an SEC game (3 p.m. on ESPN). I plan to be there again, and I keep thinking about all that has changed since then.

At the time, Missouri had the No. 1 college football team in the country; now it’s coming off a losing season. That Missouri basketball team wasn’t especially good and is most remembered for the Club Athena fiasco; this year’s team is well positioned for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Biggest of all, Mike Anderson coached the Tigers in that last meeting, but he left Missouri to coach Arkansas, where he was an assistant for several years under Nolan Richardson.

That last tidbit adds some spice to Saturday’s game, as Missouri still has two players whom Anderson coached. I don’t begrudge Anderson for going back to a familiar place where he was a part of great success, and he did a good job building Missouri back up from the crater that was the end of Quin Snyder’s tenure.

But I like there being a little edge for this game. I’m a big proponent of sportsmanship, but I’m ready to see Missouri’s love-fest with other SEC teams pass. Last Saturday, Missouri showed that edge and intensity in a 98-79 win over Ole Miss (18-6, 7-4 in SEC).

The Tigers now need to show they can take that kind of performance on the road. Missouri lost its first four SEC road games and five road games overall, including last Thursday’s painful loss at middling-at-best Texas A&M.

Arkansas is also great at home (13-1 at Bud Walton this season) and poor on the road. Last week they shattered Florida’s aura of SEC invincibility with a big win in Fayetteville, they went on the road and lost to lowly Vanderbilt. B.J. Young leads the Hogs in scoring, and big man Hunter Mickelson is an intriguing player with some shooting touch.

Given both teams’ home-road splits, Arkansas would seem to have the edge. But if the Tigers can show some intensity and maturity, and avoid another big early deficit on the road, they have a shot. Easier said than done, but it would be big win if they can get it.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Missouri has chance to exact revenge on Ole Miss Saturday

After a fairly weak home nonconference schedule and then a slog of home conference games against bad SEC teams, Missouri fans get a welcome change on Saturday when Mississippi comes to Mizzou Arena for a nationally televised game (noon on CBS).

With Missouri (16-5, 5-3 in SEC play through Sunday) starting the week fifth in the SEC standings and Ole Miss (17-4, 6-2 in SEC) tied for second, the game has big implications for the race to finish second in the conference behind juggernaut Florida. There is also a revenge factor, after Ole Miss rolled Missouri in early January in Oxford.

But most of all, and it’s a bit hard to believe I’m saying this, Missouri needs a win like this to still feel good about its NCAA Tournament positioning, after a ghastly loss last week at LSU, which was in last place in the SEC at the time. Missouri recovered to an extent by smashing Auburn at Mizzou Arena last Saturday.

But the LSU loss was a stain on the Tigers’ tournament resume, and it’s now fair to assume every road game, no matter how bad the opponent, is a threat for Missouri. I think the Tigers will find a way to win a couple of road games at some point (they have six remaining, starting with Texas A&M at 8 p.m. Thursday), but with those road woes in mind, piling up wins at home is crucial. Also, with the SEC not being a very good basketball league this season, chances to get quality wins are less frequent.

Ole Miss lost some of the shine off its hot early start when the SEC’s heavyweight programs, Kentucky and Florida, re-established some order by beating the Rebels last week. Still, Ole Miss would be a quality win. Missouri’s best wins to date are neutral site contests against Virginia Commonwealth and Illinois, which is getting hammered in the rugged Big Ten.

Mississippi’s most recognizable player is guard Marshall Henderson, who seems willing to engage in verbal jousting with opponents, referees and even his own fans. Henderson’s emotions can be a bit much sometimes, but his passion does bring some flavor to a conference needing it in basketball, and he can get hot shooting.

Henderson leads the team in scoring, at nearly 20 points per game, although the Rebels are hardly a one-man band. Senior forward Murphy Holloway began the week averaging a double-double at 14.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Guard Jarvis Summers and forward Reginald Buckner are solid supporting players.

Missouri is 80-4 at Mizzou Arena over the last five seasons, since the start of the 2008-09 season. The Arena can have lulls at times, especially against the less intense home schedule so far this season. But at big moments, such as the surprisingly close home game with South Carolina or when the Tigers are on a run, Mizzou Arena shows it teeth and can give the Tigers a huge boost.

I could see the game with Ole Miss going either way, but if Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross are making their threes, Missouri will be tough to beat.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

After Auburn on Saturday, schedule gets tougher for Mizzou

Missouri is nearing the end of a welcome four-game stretch against very beatable competition, an anti-Murderers’ Row of South Carolina, Vanderbilt, LSU and Auburn. The Tigers are hoping to go four-for-four here and generate some momentum before the schedule regains some teeth.

Missouri (15-4, 4-2 in SEC play through Sunday) knocked out the first two wins last week in very different fashion. South Carolina, coached by Frank Martin, who was last seen by Tiger fans leading K-State to a win in Mizzou Arena last season, refused to back down. With some dreadful shooting by the Tigers, South Carolina nearly pulled an unthinkable upset, but Missouri rallied from a 41-28 second half deficit to get the 71-65 win.

The Vanderbilt game was much more aesthetically pleasing. Before a capacity crowd at Mizzou Arena, the Tigers were as hot as they were cold against South Carolina, using a remarkable 32-2 run in the first half to bury Vanderbilt en route to an 81-59 win.

On the heels of Wednesday’s game at LSU, Missouri returns home for a game with Auburn (12:30 p.m. on SEC Network, to be broadcast on a local channel, check listings). Auburn’s Tigers began SEC play with two wins, by five against LSU and by three at South Carolina, but the then lost four straight, including a near-upset of Ole Miss on Saturday. The Tigers (8-11, 2-4 in SEC through Sunday) are one of a whopping seven SEC teams, half of the conference, sitting at 2-4 in conference play to start the week.

Guard Frankie Sullivan leads Auburn in scoring, although he is making just 29 percent of his three-pointers through Sunday. Senior center Rob Chubb provides some scoring and rebounding inside. He can be a wild card, as he only had one point against Ole Miss, but still reeled in 10 rebounds.

Simply put, Missouri could play poorly against Auburn for long stretches, as it did against South Carolina, and still get the win. But after the Auburn game, that won’t be the case for a couple of weeks.

After Auburn, five of Missouri’s next seven games are on the road, and the two home games are, oh by the way, against two ranked teams that thumped Missouri in their own gyms, Ole Miss and Florida.
This stretch isn’t as tough as, say, what those brave squads in the rugged Big Ten have to deal with this season, but it’s plenty challenging. Here’s the rundown: at Texas A&M, Ole Miss, at Mississippi State, at Arkansas, Florida, at Kentucky and at South Carolina.

Missouri’s struggles have primarily come on the road, so this stretch of games could be tough on the Tigers.

But it could also be a great opportunity to pick up some quality wins and make a statement as March draws closer. Particularly if leading scorer Laurence Bowers comes back at full strength after missing multiple games due to injury, Missouri still has a chance to get a higher NCAA Tournament seed and have a great first season in the SEC if they can play well during this stretch.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Revisiting Missouri's expectations after bad Florida loss

This was a beatdown, the type of “Welcome to the SEC” moment we thought would be in the domain of football, not basketball. Missouri was hammered 83-52 at Florida last Saturday, the second straight Saturday spoiled by the Tigers getting shellacked on the road.

Florida (14-2, 4-0 in SEC play through Sunday raced to an 11-0 lead as its worked-up crowd roared and Missouri (13-4, 2-2 in SEC play) again began a road game with a prolonged scoring drought. It took the Tigers nearly three and a half minutes to score, and for the second road game in a row Missouri failed to accumulate 10 points in the game’s first 10 minutes.

Florida’s high-energy defense forced 21 Tiger turnovers. Missouri shot just 32.7 percent, while Florida scorched the nets with a 59.3 percent shooting clip.

Jabari Brown had 16 points for the Tigers, but he just, ahem, required 18 shots to reach that total. Phil Pressey, hyped before in this column and capable of great things, was a mess, making just one of his seven shots while racking up 10 turnovers.

Now, I don’t want to be too bleak here, because playing a top-10 team on the road is tough and Missouri was playing without injured forward Laurence Bowers. Plus, Florida was no doubt riled up for a national TV game against a rare ranked SEC opponent.

Still, Bowers wouldn’t have made up a 31-point difference, and this was just an awful game any way you look at it. Missouri looked unprepared for Florida’s pressure and intensity, and the Tigers seemed to have little fight once the Gators landed the early haymakers.

So what remains for this team and this season after the smoldering ruins of this embarrassing loss? This team still has potential, but it’s probably fair to lower expectations for now. Fans had hoped for a Final Four contender, which is still possible, but the team’s play likely has them barreling toward the neighborhood of a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would probably mean an upset would be needed just to get to the Sweet Sixteen.

Two weeks ago, I predicted Missouri would go 15-3 in SEC play. With the SEC down, I didn’t see that as too optimistic. But in the cold light of reality and Missouri’s 0-3 record in true road games, let’s scramble the numbers and call 13-5 a reasonable goal.

Following Florida, Missouri embarks on a run of four games against bad teams (South Carolina, Vanderbilt, at LSU, Auburn). A 4-0 run is likely, even if beating these teams won’t boost the Tournament resume much. But winning these and getting Bowers healthy could give the Tigers some positive momentum heading into a stretch of tougher games that follow.

The game with Vanderbilt (4 p.m. Saturday on ESPNU) is one the Tigers should win comfortably, even if the Commodores (7-9, 1-3 in SEC through Sunday) pushed Kentucky and Ole Miss to the brink at home before losing both of those games in maddening fashion. Guard Kendren Johnson, Vandy’s leading scorer, is a good player, but Missouri should have far more offensive firepower than the Commodores, especially at Mizzou Arena.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Mizzou's first SEC road game a dud, big one with Florida Saturday

The hints that Missouri’s first SEC road game would be a debacle came early, with a flurry of missed shots and turnovers leading to a preposterous six-and-a-half minute scoring drought to begin the game for the Tigers.

Mississippi (13-2, 2-0 in SEC play through Sunday) led 31-22 at the half, stretched the lead in the second, and eventually won 64-49. Missouri (12-3, 1-1 in SEC) failed to score 50 points in a game for the first time since 2005 against Iowa State, as the Quin Snyder era unraveled.

This game was a throwback to the later Quin days, just a sloppy mess. Missouri had nearly as many turnovers (19) as field goals made (21). The Tigers missed 16 of the 18 three-pointers they shot. Star point guard Phil Pressey had as many turnovers as assists, five each. At one point, Ole Miss’ lead ballooned to 18, the Rebels didn’t score for nearly four minutes, and Missouri was only able to trim the lead to 14.

Ole Miss is a respectable team that got a huge boost from a worked-up home crowd, but the Rebels aren’t this good. They were able to smoke Missouri despite shooting 27.8 percent on threes and less than 40 percent overall.

To be fair, Missouri was missing senior forward Laurence Bowers, out at least two games due to a knee sprain. He surely would’ve helped the situation, but this one was pretty far off the rails.

If Missouri is to compete for the conference title, it needs Bowers back sooner rather than later. After Wednesday’s home game against dreadful Georgia comes a big one, at top-10 Florida on Saturday (1 p.m. on ESPN).

Guards Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario lead Florida in scoring. Both begin the week making 84 percent or more of their free throws. Patric Young can be trouble inside. It would be nice to see Missouri feed the ball into Alex Oriakhi inside to challenge Young and maybe get him in foul trouble. Working the post could also give Missouri’s shooters more space. Oriakhi only having four field goal attempts against Mississippi feels like basketball malpractice.

Florida is probably the team Missouri will have to outduel for the conference title, so this one is big. Florida (12-2, 2-0 in SEC through Sunday) won each of its first two SEC games by more than 20 points, and the Tigers can’t expect the Gators to pick up many conference losses unless Missouri deals them. A Thursday trip to Texas A&M could be a tougher challenge for Florida heading into Saturday’s game with Missouri.

The game is also another test of these Tigers as we wade deeper into conference play, with all the new experiences of this new conference home.

A victory here would be Missouri’s best win by far. At Florida and with Bowers’ situation up in the air, the Gators should pick up the win here. But for Missouri, competing hard and playing much better than that Ole Miss disaster would be an encouraging step forward.