Just like every season, Mizzou fans circled the February 4th matchup with Kansas at Mizzou Arena as soon as the 2011-12 schedule was released in early October. Each contest with the despised Jayhawks is an intense, fierce battle that almost always goes down to the wire. Coming into this year, the Tigers were looking to avenge last year’s dissapointing loss to KU at home, the only loss at Mizzou Arena all season for the Tigers. But last year’s defeat resulted not only in a loss, but also began a freefall that lasted for the rest of the season, culminating an early first round exit at the NCAA Tournament. Of course, there were issues with the team long before the Jayhawks came to Columbia, but this rivalry has a make-or-break effect to it, and last year, the loss broke the Tigers for good.
But since then, a multitude of events occurred that have taken this rivalry to a completely different level. First, Mizzou announced its program-changing move to the SEC. While most fans were excited about the move, many were concerned as to whether the Tigers and Jayhawks would ever meet again. And in the couple of months since the announcement, there hasn’t been much of any evidence to suggest that these two teams will ever meet again (Besides the possibility of in the NCAA Tournament, of course.) As a result, the rivalry has transitioned from being a make-or-break game for the Tigers that simply results in bragging rights for the next year into a rivalry-defining set of games. Obviously, the Jayhawks will end up winning the overall rivalry based on wins and losses, but if the Tigers can win Saturday night, and then again in Lawrence later this season, they will be able to carry the bragging rights until KU finally agrees to square off again.
However, almost all fans weren’t thinking at all about sweeping the series, which would of course include a road win at Allen Fieldhouse, something the Tigers haven’t done in decades. As a result, the game to be focused on would be the one Saturday evening, where the Tigers would at least have a chance to end their series at Mizzou Arena with a win. But then the next step of events occurred that has forced fans to take the rivalry on in a whole new way: The unexpected 20-2 start by the Tigers under new head coach Frank Haith, who fans berated upon arrival for his mediocre success at Miami (FL) and swirling rumors of his possible involvement in a illegal recruitment scandal. Haith immediately got his players to buy into his system, and with a motivated, senior-driven team, this resulted in success many couldn’t have imagined coming. Despite dissapointing road losses to Kansas State and Oklahoma State, the Tigers have passed every other test with flying colors, highlighted by gritty road wins over Baylor and Texas. At 4th in the nation, the Tigers are now ranked higher than the Jayhawks, and are expected to win at home. Instead of having just a shot of winning one of the two games like in past years, Mizzou should win at least one game, and should have a chance at a second. These are unprecedented waters for Tiger fans to be in, and by throwing in the fact that College Gameday will be in the house for the nation’s premier game of the weekend, the impact of this game has skyrocketed.
For how well the Tigers have played this year, they haven’t has played as sharply in recent contests. Obviously the Oklahoma State loss was an example of this, but in their next game, a home matchup with lowly Texas Tech that was expected to be a blowout, the Tigers struggled to put away the Red Raiders until late in the game. Then in Austin against Texas, Mizzou let a big second half leave slip within minutes, only to survive by a point in the end. But while the win over the Longhorns was ugly, it was important win, and reinvigorated any lost confidence that the Tigers may have suffered over the last week.
In order to hold serve at home and beat the Jayhawks, the ability of Ricardo Ratliffe to stay out of foul trouble will be more imperative than ever, as Kansas features national player of the year candidate in Thomas Robinson. A 6 foot 10 forward, Robinson can do just about anything on the court, and has averaged nearly 18 points and 12 rebounds per game. Due to the limited size of Mizzou, Ratliffe and other big man Steve Moore must be aggressive, but must be able to hold back from committing silly fouls. Another great matchup to key on will be between senior guard Tyshawn Taylor of Kansas and the guard combination of Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon Jr. for the Tigers. Taylor is KU’s primary senior leader, and averages nearly 17 points and 5 assists per game. If the Mizzou defense can stay aggressive and bottle up Taylor and Robinson while staying out of foul trouble, the game is theirs. Since Mizzou-Kansas games never seem to play out like they should, however, viewers should be ready for anything to happen. But if the Tigers bring out the same kind of style that has gotten them to this point, like maintaining steady ball movement and consistently applying defensive pressure, they will be able to take one big step towards possible permanent bragging rights over Kansas.