Despite being 5th in the rankings with one of the most explosive offenses and tenacious defenses in the country, many college basketball fans across the nation still did not take the Missouri Tigers as a serious threat to compete for the Big 12 championship, let alone the national title. But after going to Waco, Texas and defeating the 3rd ranked Baylor Bears 89-88 Saturday afternoon, it is clear to those outside of Columbia and the Big 12 that this team is one of the most dangerous in the land.
Coming into the game, the Tigers’ matchup with Baylor had blowout written all over it. The Bears were coming off of their first loss of the season after starting out 17-0, as they fell to the Kansas Jayhawks by 18 on Monday. As a result, Baylor was sure to be angry as they returned home to the Ferrell Center in Waco, where they had blown out every opponent by an average of more than 20 points. The tall, athletic players down low like Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy were sure to give Ricardo Ratliffe and the Tigers fits all day. As tipoff approached, Mizzou fans couldn’t help but think back to the team’s first Big 12 road game at Kansas State, when the Wildcats (Who were coming off of a loss at Kansas) trounced the Tigers 75-59.
But the Tigers would have none of the pregame talk about their team, and traded blows with the much bigger Bears for 40 minutes. The biggest key for the Tigers at the outset of the contest would be to make it out of the opening 8 to 12 minutes of play within a few points of the Bears and unscathed from foul trouble. Against Kansas State, Ratliffe picked up two early fouls, and the offensive ball movement was at a minimum. But in this game, Mizzou showed aggression right from the opening tip, and weren’t afraid to attack the basket against the bigs of Baylor. When the Tigers went into the half ahead 39-35, it was obvious that they had just as much talent as the Bears; The only question would be whether Mizzou could sustain their efficiency from the first half and keep Baylor off balance for the final 20 minutes of play.
As the second half wore on and the Tiger lead slowly began to increase, it was clear that the Tigers had Baylor in the spot they wanted. The intense ball pressure applied by guards Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon never allowed the Bears to establish a rhythm, and Jones III was a non-factor, scoring just 8 points and 4 rebounds. While those numbers don’t seem horrible, keep in mind that the 6 foot 11 inch center had a massive size advantage over both Ratliffe and backup forward Steve Moore, yet was unable to capitalize on the height differential. And while the Bears featured more depth than the 7-man rotation of Mizzou, the Baylor bench didn’t contribute much of anything to the game. Only one of the five Bears who came off the bench played more than 11 minutes, and those five combined for just three points on 1 for 7 shooting. By the end of the game, it actually looked like the Bears were more tired than the Tigers, and simply could not keep up with Mizzou’s constant pressure.
Ratliffe led the team with a career high 27 points on 11 of 14 shooting, but the big difference maker was Phil Pressey. In a balanced effort of 18 points (6 of 11 from the field), 7 assists, 6 steals, and 5 rebounds, Pressey played the best game of his fairly short career. He picked the perfect times to put the offense in fast break mode, but was also disciplined enough to realize when the Bears recovered defensively, and set up the half-court offense. In addition, Marcus Denmon did not have his best shooting day, but made crisp cuts to the basket and ended up drawing 10 free throws, making 8 of them.
Just like after every Mizzou win so far this season, the same questions of whether the team can maintain their consistent play and stay out of foul trouble will be asked. But as the Tigers get ready to jump to 2nd in the national rankings, it is time for college basketball fans everywhere to realize that the Tigers don’t need to shoot lights out and play a small team in order to win on a consistent basis. In addition, the confidence of this team is sky-high, yet coach Frank Haith has never been one to get too high or too low on his team. Expect the Tigers to take nothing for granted when they travel to Stillwater, Oklahoma Wednesday night and face the Oklahoma State Cowboys, as Mizzou will still be hungry to prove to their remaining doubters that they belong among the nation’s elite.