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.