Thursday, January 9, 2014

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.

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