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.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Welcome to SEC basketball, Missouri

What a difference a season makes. Missouri’s first meeting with SEC football was like a date with a pretty girl who knows she’s pretty and won’t quit talking about herself. Now Missouri meets SEC basketball, which is quieter, less boastful, pushed to the side by the conference’s football obsession.

SEC basketball has massive Rupp Arena in Kentucky, raucous Bud Walton Arena in Arkansas and three national titles in the last seven seasons. But it also has plenty of sparse crowds, dreadful teams and schools that aren’t that committed to winning at basketball.

But while SEC basketball is far less in-your-face than its football counterpart, it offers up its share of drama and storylines to follow as the conference portion of the college basketball season begins.

Missouri (11-2 through Sunday) begins SEC play as a serious contender for the conference title. It’s probably a three-team race among the Tigers, defending national champion Kentucky (9-4 through Sunday) and Florida (10-2).

Kentucky is young but has talent and potential, like most John Calipari teams, and took Louisville to the wire on the road.

Florida would seem to be the favorite, but the Gators kicked away a game at Arizona and suffered a surprising loss against Kansas State. The Gators also have four games against the other two favorites (two vs. Kentucky and two vs. Missouri), while the Missouri and Kentucky only play each other once and thus have just three games against other favorites.

Beyond those three, meh. Nonconference play brought embarrassing scores weekly for the SEC. Vanderbilt lost to Marist, 50-33. Georgia lost to Iona, Mississippi State lost to Loyola-Illinois, and LSU was smoked by Boise State… all in the same weekend.

Tennessee isn’t terrible, but struggles mightily to score at times. Ole Miss (11-2) is getting some buzz as a team that could threaten the top three, in good measure because the Rebels only face Florida and Kentucky once each.

However, Ole Miss gets an early shot at a big dog when they host Missouri on Saturday (7 p.m., Fox Sports Network). After opening SEC play at home against Alabama on Tuesday, this is Missouri’s first SEC road game.

It’s tough to get much of a gauge on Ole Miss, as it played a fairly soft nonconference schedule. Junior guard Marshall Henderson leads Ole Miss in scoring at 18.2 points per game through Sunday. Henderson is making less than 40 percent of his shots, but nearly 86 percent of his free throws. Senior forward Murphy Holloway is averaging a double-double with 15.8 points and 10.9 rebounds per game.

On a Saturday night, with Mizzou ranked and this being the Rebels’ first home conference game, I’d expect the 9,061-seat C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum to be as rocking as it can be. But I still think Missouri has the talent to eventually put Ole Miss away.

Missouri could run the table at home, but faces road challenges at Florida, Arkansas and Kentucky. I’ll call for a 15-3 record in SEC play. Whether that’s enough for Missouri to earn its first regular season conference title since 1994, we’ll see.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Missouri's missed opportunity at UCLA

Putting aside for a paragraph the agonizing conclusion, Missouri’s game at UCLA last Friday was a great December college basketball game. Two good teams battling back and forth, a historic venue with a good crowd atmosphere, venerable Bill Walton on the broadcast; the game was thoroughly entertaining. It sure beats playing directional state game after game. Here’s hoping for more of these games in December.

Tiger fans can generally feel good about the way their team competed on the road against a good UCLA team (10-3). The disappointment is for the lost opportunity. This is a game Missouri (10-2) could have won, even led by nine with just over four minutes remaining, but they let it slip away down the stretch, losing 97-94 in overtime.

Guard Phil Pressey was remarkable in the game, scoring 19 points to go with 19 assists, which shattered the old school record of 13.

But as outstanding as Pressey played, he faltered late as the Tigers lost their lead. Through the first 35 minutes, as Mizzou took an 86-77 lead, Pressey had 19 points on 8-for-18 shooting, with a staggering 17 assists against just one turnover. But in the last five minutes of regulation and the five minutes of overtime, he was 0-for-4 shooting with just two assists, four turnovers and no points.

It’s fair to wonder if Pressey wore down, as he played 44 of the 45 minutes. The idealist in me maintains that college players are in their early 20s, and with plenty of TV timeouts, and they should be able to play most of the game and maintain a reasonably high level.

But the one minute Pressey sat out, Missouri’s offense looked bad. It was fascinating, if a bit concerning, how often the Tiger offense seemed to be Pressey driving, then shooting or dishing to an open player as the defense collapsed. Pressey either made the shot or had the assist for 27 of Missouri’s 38 made field goals against UCLA. Something to keep an eye on going forward.

Missouri did post a 42-32 rebounding edge, although the defense needs to get better. The Tigers lost UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad at some key moments and paid for it. They also struggled to contain the Wear twins, who mix size inside with touch outside.

After a week off, Missouri wraps up the nonconference portion of the schedule with a home game against Bucknell on Saturday (3 p.m. on Mizzou Sports Network, check listings for the channel).

The Bison (12-2 through Sunday) have plenty of road experience this season, as this will be their ninth road game, the conclusion of a four-game road swing. Bucknell’s losses are at Penn State and at Princeton. Senior big man Mike Muscala leads Bucknell with 19.4 points per game, 10.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists, through Sunday.

Bucknell is a solid mid-major team, near and dear to the hearts of Missouri fans after its epic upset of Kansas in the 2005 NCAA Tournament as a 14 seed. The Bison have the fourth-highest RPI rating of Missouri’s nonconference opponents, but in front of a sellout crowd, expect the Tigers to get the win.