Sunday, January 26, 2014

Missouri may want to try four-guard lineup

Missouri got a win it had to have last Saturday, defeating Alabama 68-47 at Mizzou Arena. It was a nice recovery from another bad loss, this one at Vanderbilt Thursday. That 78-75 loss is another mark against the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament resume and raised more questions about how good this team really is. But Missouri did all they could do after such a setback; they went out and played hard in their next game, against Alabama.

Missouri (14-3, 2-2 in SEC play through Sunday) showed more energy and hunger than it has in weeks. It was especially evident on defense, where Missouri held Alabama (8-9, 2-2 in SEC) to 29.2 percent shooting and 25 percent on three-pointers.

The crowd at Mizzou Arena, the biggest of the season, also seemed louder and more energized than it has been most games this year.

With guard Jordan Clarkson forced to sit out with foul trouble for a big chunk of the first half, that defense and some hot shooting by Jabari Brown kept the Tigers in the game, taking a one-point lead into halftime. Then with Clarkson back in the second half and playing iron-fisted defense, Missouri pulled away, holding the Crimson Tide to 17 second-half points.

Johnathan Williams III pulled down 14 rebounds, continuing to prove he is Missouri’s best big-man option.

As this team gets deeper in conference play, coach Frank Haith may take a look at what he has and decide to channel his first team at Missouri, going small but fast by playing four guards and just one forward. Backup Wes Clark showed poise at point guard in extended minutes against Alabama, so start him there along with Clarkson, Brown, Earnest Ross and Williams in the post.

Only sub if a player gets into foul trouble or collapses from exhaustion like a marathon runner at the finish line. Depth is nice, but so is having your best players play as many minutes as possible.

Maybe this wouldn’t work, but with Missouri on the bubble, it might be time to try something different. Haith has shown he can coach a four-guard lineup. This team isn’t as talented as the 2011-12 team that won 30 games, but they could give its blueprint a try.

Whoever starts, Missouri will have another must-win game on Saturday at home against last-place South Carolina (3 p.m. on SEC TV, check listings for local channel). The Gamecocks (7-10, 0-4 in SEC through Sunday) don’t have a lot of firepower, ranking outside the top 200 nationally in points per game and field goal percentage. They do have an interesting freshman guard in Sindarius Thornwell, who is averaging 12.0 points per game to begin the week.

South Carolina coach Frank Martin, formerly the coach at Kansas State, does own one of the two wins against Frank Haith in Mizzou Arena, but this is a game Missouri should win comfortably.

Missouri needs all the wins it can get heading into its toughest four-game stretch of the season, which comes after the South Carolina game.

Missouri has rough start to SEC play

Missouri got off to a rough start in conference play, losing in overtime to Georgia last week before clinging on for a 70-68 win at Auburn.

Neither of those opponents are especially good, but the Georgia loss at Mizzou Arena was particularly damaging, putting the Tigers a step back as soon as SEC play started and ending what had been the nation’s longest home winning streak. Georgia was ranked outside the top 200 in the Ratings Percentage Index, which is one of the criteria used by the selection committee for the NCAA Tournament. Coach Frank Haith said his team was “too cool” after that loss. Even though several SEC games will be against teams who aren’t very good teams, Missouri can’t afford to coast, even against the Georgias of the world.

As Missouri (13-2, 1-1 in SEC play) wade deeper into its 18-game conference schedule, we still don’t know how good the Tigers are. The Tigers have some good pieces; Jordan Clarkson can take over a game, Jabari Brown can be a very good shooter, Earnest Ross and Johnathan Williams III are athletes who can contribute in a lot of ways. But the Tigers seem to lose their edge sometimes against lesser opponents. We don’t know Missouri is a bad team, but the Tigers haven’t show much against quality competition yet.

There are some tougher games ahead, although plenty of winnable ones remain in a fairly down SEC. After a road game at Vanderbilt Thursday night (6 p.m. on ESPN2), Missouri hosts Alabama at Mizzou Arena on Saturday (1 p.m. on ESPN).

Alabama (7-8, 1-1 in SEC play through Sunday) opened SEC play with a five-point win over Vanderbilt before losing 66-58 at Georgia last Saturday. The Crimson Tide are led by senior guard Trevor Releford, who is scoring 18.2 points per game while dishing out 2.8 assists per game. Releford, from Kansas City, scored 26 points in the Tide’s loss at Mizzou Arena last season.

On paper, Missouri should win this game. Even with the Georgia loss, Missouri is 41-2 at Mizzou Arena under Haith. That loss was an early handicap, but Missouri can still win its first regular season conference title since 1994, provided it doesn’t have more stumbles against inferior teams.

Kentucky and Florida are the teams to beat in the SEC this season, and Missouri only plays them one each. Those games come in a tough four-game stretch starting later this month. From Jan. 28 through Feb. 8, Missouri plays at Arkansas, home against Kentucky, at Florida and at Mississippi. Winning even two of those four games would be big for the Tigers.

But Missouri has a few more games to get to playing better basketball before that tough stretch, including Saturday’s home game with Alabama. The Tide can be scrappy, keeping it close in games with Duke and unbeaten Wichita State earlier this season. But Missouri needs to win this type of game if it’s going to hang in the SEC race and make the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Missouri wins Cotton Bowl, caps 12-2 season

The fourth quarter of the Cotton Bowl provided a thrilling finale to Missouri’s thrilling season.

With a field goal early in the quarter, No. 13 Oklahoma State (10-3) had erased the Tigers’ 17-7 halftime lead. No. 8 Missouri (12-2) answered with a touchdown, which Oklahoma State promptly matched. Andrew Baggett followed with a clutch 46-yard field goal to put Missouri back on top, but then the Cowboys took a 31-27 lead, their first of the game, just 85 seconds later.

What had been a game largely controlled by the defenses for three quarters became a shootout. Missouri raced down the field, and Henry Josey broke free for a 16-yard touchdown run to put the Tigers back on top with 3:08 left in the game. Missouri needed one more big play from its defense. Did they ever get it.

As Oklahoma State drove into field goal range, senior Michael Sam, an all-American defensive end, knocked the ball away from Cowboy quarterback Clint Chelf. Shane Ray ran it back 73 yards for a touchdown with 55 seconds left to seal the 41-31 win for the Tigers.

The Tiger sideline erupted, as did fans in attendance and those watching on TV across the chilly Show-Me State.

Another senior, quarterback James Franklin, struggled to get the offense going for much of his last game as a Tiger. But coach Gary Pinkel stuck with him, exuding the loyalty bordering on stubbornness that he has shown throughout his 13 seasons at Missouri. It’s largely worked for Pinkel, who became Missouri football’s winningest coach with the Cotton Bowl win, and it worked in that eventful fourth quarter as Franklin got in a rhythm and directed three scoring drives down the stretch.

The backup quarterback, Maty Mauk, was impressive in his cameos, getting to lead one drive in each half, tossing a touchdown pass on his first-half drive. It was a glimpse of the future and a 2014 season that could hold a lot of promise for the Tigers.

Missouri loses Sam and Kony Ealy, who declared for the NFL draft, along the defensive line, and will have other key players to replace. But the SEC East has a lot of teams rebuilding or replacing huge contributors, and Missouri’s two West opponents, Arkansas and post-Johnny Manziel Texas A&M, look manageable.

But first, a word for this freshly minted 2013 season. The Tigers showed they could compete in the SEC, and in hindsight that seems obvious they could do so. After all, Missouri faced some great programs through the decades in the Big Eight and Big 12. This program has a lot going for it. I don’t know if Pinkel will ever get that brass ring of a conference title, but he has done a lot of good things with Missouri, now highlighted by two 12-2 season and Cotton Bowl wins, 2013 joining 2007 in the memories of Tiger fans.

Above all, it was a fun season, a needed dose of big games, memorable plays and joy after the struggle of 2012. There’s plenty to savor about Missouri’s just-completed season, and plenty to get excited about for 2014.

Missouri meets familiar opponent in Cotton Bowl

Below are a few columns I didn't get posted the week I wrote them for the newspapers. I make it a New Year's resolution to get them posted each week this year. 

Some bowl matchups can be less than appealing. Fans surely appreciate one more chance to see their team play, but with a bloated schedule of bowls, sometimes the games are matchups of mediocre teams playing before half-empty stadiums, often rusty after three or four weeks off and sometimes working with an interim head coach.

Fortunately for Missouri, that’s not the case for the Tigers this year. No. 8 Missouri (11-2) has a gem of a bowl game, against No. 13 Oklahoma State (10-2) in the Cotton Bowl. The teams have a long history, plenty of talent will be on the field, and the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium will have a big crowd for the 78th Cotton Bowl (7 p.m. Friday on FOX).

Missouri’s last big bowl game was the 2008 Cotton Bowl, after the memorable 2007 season. It’s another trip to Dallas, but a lot has changed since that season. Missouri has, of course, since moved to the SEC. The Tigers wear different uniforms. The game itself has changed venues, from the old Cotton Bowl stadium on the Texas State Fairgrounds to the Cowboys’ massive stadium, nicknamed “Jerry World” in honor of owner Jerry Jones, who spared no expense in building the football palace.

As a fringe benefit, the only bowl game FOX airs is the Cotton Bowl, so FOX has been airing ads for the game featuring Mizzou to its NFL audiences for weeks.

With 11 wins and an appearance in the SEC title game, this season will be remembered as a success regardless of what happens in Dallas. Still, this is a big game for the Tigers. Losing back-to-back big games to end this season could stunt some of the momentum Missouri had built up.

Also, a win would tie 2007 for the most wins in school history. A win would also give Tiger coach Gary Pinkel 102 wins at Missouri, the most by a coach in program history. Pinkel is currently tied with Don Faurot. (Faurot was old fashioned, racking up all 101 wins with himself in the stadium; Missouri credits a win to Pinkel when he was suspended and watching the Tigers beat Texas Tech from a condo at the Lake of the Ozarks.)

Pinkel is 4-4 in bowl games, and Missouri is 13-16 all-time in bowl games.

Missouri’s 30th bowl game is against an opponent they know well. Missouri and Oklahoma State have played 51 times (Missouri leads the all-time series 28-23), and the two were in the Big Eight and Big 12 together for decades.

On paper, these teams are pretty even. The Cowboys score 39.8 points per game; Missouri is a 39.0. Oklahoma State’s defense holds opponents to an average of 20.0 points per game; Missouri’s defense is at 22.5.

Missouri has more balance on offense, with 256.5 passing yards per game to 236.5 yards rushing. Oklahoma State is a little more passing-based, piloted by senior quarterback Clint Chelf. The ability of Missouri’s defensive line to get pressure on Chelf will be a key subplot in the game. This should be a close one, and a fitting end to the season for these two teams.

Tigers get first road test at NC State

Last Saturday was another thrilling Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis, with 15 lead changes and six ties before a big crowd split just about half and half between Illini and Tiger fans. This time, Illinois (10-2) pulled out a 65-64 win, ending a run of four straight Missouri victories in the series and taking a 21-12 lead in the all-time Braggin’ Rights series.

Late in the game, Missouri coach Frank Haith drew up a nice play, working his team’s strengths, with Jordan Clarkson driving into the lane and then, after the defense collapsed on him, kicked it out to an open Jabari Brown, who buried a three to put the Tigers (10-1) ahead. However, two Tracy Abrams free throws with 4.6 seconds left, after Illinois twice almost lost the ball on its final possession, put the Illini ahead for good.

Clarkson, a junior transfer, has shown to be Missouri’s best player this season, and he was outstanding against Illinois, with 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting, eight assists and six rebounds.

To succeed this season, Missouri probably needs all of its “Big Three” offensive players to contribute, with Brown and Earnest Ross supporting Clarkson. Against Illinois, Brown had an off shooting night and Ross took some ill-advised threes. Missouri’s 14 turnovers were also a key factor in the loss.

Still, a one-point loss to a solid opponent in a rivalry game that could’ve gone either way is no reason for doom and gloom. It was just a missed chance for a quality win, and chances for those will be fairly rare during SEC play, as the conference appears to be having another malaise of a hoops season.

One thing to keep an eye on, however, is Missouri’s fairly thin rotation. The Tigers used only seven players against Illinois, and Missouri got only eight points, two rebounds and no assists from its bench. Again, no cause for alarm yet, but something to watch this season.

Missouri has another chance for a decent win in its first road game on Saturday at North Carolina State (7 p.m. on ESPN2).

North Carolina State (9-2) suffered early-season losses to Cincinnati and North Carolina Central, but have won seven straight, including a win at Tennessee on Dec. 18. Sophomore forward T.J. Warren will provide a good test for the Tigers inside, averaging 23.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Also keep an eye on BeeJay Anya, who provided energy off the bench in the Wolfpack’s wins over East Carolina and Tennessee, blocking five shots in each game.

Road games were a problem for Missouri last year, even against lesser opponents. The Tigers went 2-8 in true road games last year. Life on the road is tough in college basketball, but teams that get good seeds in the NCAA Tournament find ways to win their share of road games. Saturday will be our first chance to see if this year’s team might be different.

Missouri 10-0 heading into Braggin' Rights game

In beating Western Michigan 66-60 on Sunday night, the No. 24 Missouri Tigers improved to 10-0 on the season and also extended the nation’s longest home winning streak to 25 games.

It was a sometimes ragged game before a not quite half-full Mizzou Arena, but the Tigers made some big plays each time Western Michigan (5-4) got close. Missouri held the Broncos to just 30 percent shooting.

But even if it wasn’t a pretty win, it added to the Tigers’ growing momentum early in the season. Heading into the season, most analysts thought Missouri was on the bubble for making the NCAA Tournament, and that they would have to scramble to earn a sixth straight berth in the Big Dance. 
That may end up being the case, but the early returns have been encouraging. Missouri has beaten mostly weaker opponents, with the notable exception of the home win over then-No. 18 UCLA on Dec. 7, a win that should bolster Missouri’s tournament resume all season long.

Transfer guard Jordan Clarkson has been as good or even better than my high expectations, averaging 20.2 points per game on 51.5 percent shooting so far. Freshman Johnathan Williams III, who as a 6-foot-9 forward out of Memphis may remind Tiger fans of Laurence Bowers, is leading the team in rebounding at 8.6 per game.

On Saturday, the Tigers face Illinois (9-2) in the annual “Braggin’ Rights” game in St. Louis (4:30 p.m. on ESPN2). It’s something of a rivalry game. I say something because when Illinois plays its other basketball games, a lot of Missouri fans either don’t care or root for the Illini to help Missouri’s strength of schedule. That was, well, not quite the case with Kansas. Still isn’t.

But I do enjoy this game, usually nestled right before Christmas. There is still an element of rivalry there with the proximity and playing every year. It’s also a great atmosphere, with the half-and-half crowd taking turns exploding as the Tigers and Illini race up and down the court. It’s also a good game oasis in what’s often a sea of scheduled blowouts this time of year. It’s a good indicator for both teams of what they have and how good they are.

Illinois has played a fairly soft schedule so far, but it’s getting tougher in a hurry. The Illini lost 71-64 at No. 15 Oregon, certainly a respectable result. Rayvonte Rice leads Illinois in scoring with 17.7 points per game. Senior Jon Ekey, from Independence, Mo., leads Illinois in rebounding. The Illini are probably an NCAA Tournament bubble team. This is a big game for them, as it is for the Tigers.

Illinois leads the all-time Braggin’ Rights series 20-12, but Missouri has won the last four meetings. In the last three, both teams were ranked. Neither teams have played a ton of quality teams yet, so it’s hard to know what will happen. But based on what we’ve seen so far, I think the Tigers should make it five straight over the Illini.