If you thought the matchup between the Missouri Tigers and Kansas Jayhawks on Feb. 4, a dramatic 74-71 Tiger victory, was big, today’s game will make you think again. After Mizzou’s first home loss of the season, a disappointing 78-68 loss to Kansas State, the Jayhawks hold a one game lead in the Big 12 standings. If Kansas wins, they all but seal the deal on their eighth consecutive Big 12 title. If Missouri wins, however, they will own the season sweep and, more importantly, conference tiebreakers against the Jayhawks, giving them the inside track to the crown. Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, this will be the last regular season matchup between the two teams as conference rivals, with Missouri leaving for the SEC next year.
The Tigers were able to take the first game against their bitter rival in dramatic fashion at Mizzou Arena earlier this month. In front of the College Gameday crew and a national TV audience, Mizzou found themselves down eight with two minutes to play. But senior guard Marcus Denmon (17.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG) went on a run that will put his name in Missouri lore, scoring nine points in just over a minute to put the Tigers ahead for good. This time, however, the Tigers will have to leave the friendly confines of Columbia and go deep into enemy territory, the famed Phog Allen Fieldhouse. The Tigers have struggled historically in Lawrence, with their last victory across the border coming in 1999, but they will have to reverse that trend to put themselves back into contention for the Big 12 title.
It’s tough to speak lightly of Kansas in the state of Missouri, and vice versa. There aren’t many rivalries that started because people from their respective states invaded and burned cities in the other to the ground. But that’s what makes the Border War so special. Duke-North Carolina gets all the coverage as one of the most storied basketball rivalries, but there may not be a rivalry that matches the hatred shared between Missouri and Kansas. We know the kinds of things that are being said here in Columbia, but fans in Lawrence feel the same way. Owen from Rock Chalk Talk, a KU blog, writes,
"This rivalry runs deep. It runs deep enough that fans hate everything about the opponent. Black and gold might as well be the most evil color combination in existence as far as Kansas fans are concerned and the University of Missouri might as well be the Chernobyl exclusion zone. It’s a bitter rivalry and this has been a bitter breakup."
The breakup he refers to is Missouri’s departure to the SEC, which has put the rivalry on life support. This is the last scheduled meeting between the two teams on the hardwood, and despite Missouri’s efforts to keep the rivalry alive, Kansas has refused to oblige, at least for the time being. KU claims the rivalry should remain within the Big 12, even though there are plenty of examples of non-conference rivals playing each other every year. But regardless, the rivalry will likely not be as intense as it is now, with conference bragging rights on the line. Owen writes,
"The Tigers have yet to win any Big 12 title to speak of and they would consider it the ultimate coup to win their first, break the Jayhawks streak and head off to the SEC. Sure there would still be some emotion involved if these teams play early in the year or in the NCAA tournament, but squaring off for league supremacy is what makes this rivalry matter most on the basketball court."
Obviously, there is a lot of hate spewing from both fanbases, which is to be expected in one of the fiercest and most intense rivalries in the country. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what the fans say, it comes down to what happens on the court. A few things have changed since the two teams last squared off, most notably the emergence of Kansas junior center Jeff Withey (9.6 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.4 BPG). The seven-footer was held scoreless against Missouri, but has been on a tear in the last five games, averaging 16.2 points and 10.2 rebounds, along with 5.4 blocks. It’s unlikely he’ll score zero again this time, but Missouri will need to limit his touches and production to have a chance.
For the rest of the team, it remains the same as the first meeting between the two. Senior guard Tyshawn Taylor (16.5 PPG, 5.0 APG) is the leader on the perimeter, while junior forward Thomas Robinson (17.4 PPG, 11.9 RPG) has been dominant inside all year. Robinson went for 25 points and 13 boards in the first Border War game, while Taylor dropped 21 points. Those numbers seem gaudy, but each was only really effective for a half. Taylor had 17 of his 21 points in the first half, and committed costly turnovers and missed two free throws at the end of the game. Robinson, meanwhile, scored only six points in the first half, but took over the game in the second when Taylor went quiet. The two stars only giving one good half proved to be a winning formula for the Tigers, but they will have to be more careful playing on the road. Robinson and Taylor will get their points one way or another, so it is important for Missouri to limit role players like Withey and junior guard Elijah Johnson (9.1 PPG, 3.6 APG) from adding to what Robinson and Taylor bring to the table.
On the Missouri side of the ball, sophomore guard Phil Pressey (9.9 PPG, 6.0 APG) will be the key to the game. Pressey will be charged with the role of floor general, dictating the pace on offense and finding open teammates for baskets. If Pressey can play an efficient game and not turn the ball over, Missouri’s offense is among the best of the country. Ball movement has been the core of Missouri’s offense, which shoots the ball much better coming off a pass than off the dribble. Sharpshooting seniors Denmon and Kim English (14.0 PPG, 4.1 RPG) will have to drain some outside shots to keep Mizzou in the ballgame. Senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe (13.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG) was limited to six points and four rebounds in the first meeting. If Ratliffe can establish himself in the post against Kansas’ bigs, it will be a huge relief of pressure from Mizzou’s guards.
Defensively, the matchups are very interesting. Senior guard Matt Pressey (6.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG) is Missouri’s best defender, and he will have to combine with his younger brother and junior guard Michael Dixon (12.9 PPG, 3.1 APG) coming off the bench to force Kansas’ guards, especially Taylor, into turning the ball over. English, at 6’6”, has been playing an undersized power forward position all year defensively, and saw time against both Robinson and Withey last game, both players who tower over English. He has held his own against bigger competition this season, but this will likely be his biggest test yet. Senior forward Steve Moore (3.2 PPG, 2.8 RPG) is usually only good for a couple baskets a game, but his defense makes him important here. He guarded Robinson well one-on-one, and will have to combine with Ratliffe to try and control Robinson without getting into foul trouble. If either one picks up cheap fouls, Missouri will be in trouble.
On the flip side, Missouri’s four guard lineup has given other teams fits this season, and Kansas is no exception. English may struggle guarding big men inside, but bigs like Robinson or Withey cannot stay with English on the perimeter, where he has been lethal all year. The Tigers will have to exploit this matchup and English will need to be productive scoring the ball, as well as defending. The transition game is also important for both teams. Missouri gets a lot of points by beating opponents down the floor, especially after a made basket, and scoring before the defense has time to set. Kansas is also quick with the ball, and have plenty of athletic players that can sky above the rim, giving what is sure to be an already raucous crowd more reason to get loud. The Tigers will have to limit these opportunities and not let them turn into runs for KU. If Kansas gets on a run and creates separation, it will be difficult to come from behind in one of the most hostile environments in the country.
This will be the most hotly anticipated game of the weekend for sure, and has the makings to be one of the best games of the season. The crowd will be hostile, but Missouri has the advantage of experience working for them. Every member of the team has played at Allen Fieldhouse at least once, and three players (Moore, English, Denmon) will be playing there for their fourth and final time. Though they have never won in that building, they know that it will be loud and what to expect from the Jayhawk faithful. In the end, it will come down to execution. If Missouri can hit shots, get out in transition, and keep Taylor or Robinson from dominating the game, they will have a chance to get the season sweep. There is no fiercer rivalry than the Border War, and it seems that Kansas and Missouri are saving their best for last.