Even though the No. 8 Missouri Tigers (26-4, 13-4 Big 12) are officially locked into the number two seed in the upcoming Big 12 Tournament, they still have one more game to finish up what has been an exciting regular season. The Tigers moved into a tie with the 1989-90 team for the school record for regular season wins with their 78-72 senior night victory over Iowa State on Feb. 29. They have an excellent opportunity to hold the record for themselves when they head to Lubbock to face the Texas Tech Red Raiders (8-21, 1-16 Big 12).
The Red Raiders currently reside in the Big 12 basement, having lost five straight and only defeating Oklahoma on Feb. 11 in Big 12 play. Their struggles have come primarily on the offensive end, where they rank among the worst teams in the nation. They are 326th in scoring average at just under 60 points a game and have only one player averaging double digit points per game. Tech has not scored over 60 points in regulation (they recently lost to Texas 71-67 in overtime) since their 65-47 victory over Oklahoma, and have eclipsed the mark only two other times during Big 12 play, both in double-digit losses.
Texas Tech isn’t necessarily a team that built to win this year, and it has been glaringly obvious. First year coach Billy Gillispie has nine underclassmen, including six freshmen, on his roster and only one senior. Their struggles stem from a lack of experience, a new system being put in place, and simply not a whole lot of talent. Their one standout player is freshman forward Jordan Tolbert (11.6 PPG, 5.8 RPG). Tolbert is a low-post presence and lit up the scoreboard for 20+ points for four straight games in mid-December, but has been inconsistent in the Big 12 season. Tolbert will likely be a building block for Gillispie as he hopes to take his team out of the cellar.
While Missouri’s senior night celebrated Mizzou’s winningest class of players in school history, Texas Tech’s senior day figures to be a less emotional affair. Given that this is the last game of the regular season, the Red Raiders will honor their lone senior, forward Robert Lewandowski (6.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG). His numbers aren’t eye-popping, but he averages about 24 minutes per game, and has been a solid glue guy and the most veteran player on a very young team. In an article by Nick Kosmider of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, coach Gillispie said what Lewandowski means to his team;
"“I would hate to think about this year if he hadn’t basically agreed to do just anything we asked him to do,” said Gillispie, fighting back tears as he reflected on his year as Lewandowski’s coach. “He’s just fantastic. I’ve never seen anything like it. We’ll remember Lew for a long time, and we owe him a lot. You can tell I get emotional, because he just means a lot. As far as wins and losses, he probably hasn’t gotten what he deserves.”"
Senior day always provides a special atmosphere and gives a team all the more reason to go out and send their senior class out victorious in their final home game. Unfortunately for Lewandowski and Texas Tech, they will face Missouri, which has been in the top 10 most of the season and has looked like one of the elite teams in the country. But they have had their struggles of late, losing two straight before rallying to beat Iowa State at home, and Tech played the Tigers surprisingly close in their first meeting in Columbia. The Red Raiders were able to slow down the pace of the game, which favors their style of play, and held Mizzou to their second lowest point total of the season and their lowest out of any victory. They scratched out a 63-50 victory, despite only shooting 39.6 percent from the field on Jan. 28. Senior forward Kim English (13.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG) led the way with 19 first half points, finishing with 22 total, along with sophomore guard Phil Pressey (9.9 PPG, 6.1 APG) who had 12 assists.
Texas Tech is far and away the worst team in the Big 12 and simply won’t have the firepower to match Missouri offensively. However, judging from the first matchup between the teams, Mizzou needs to be cautious, as they always do when they travel on the road. Missouri technically has nothing to gain or lose in this game as far as the standings go, but a win would set the regular season record for victories in program history, and give one final momentum boost heading into postseason play. This isn’t exactly a must-win game, but it is important nonetheless and Missouri cannot afford to overlook Tech in their final regular season game.
Missouri will have to control the tempo of the game and not let Tech slow the game down to suit their style, as they did in Columbia in January. Pressey and junior guard Michael Dixon (13.3 PPG, 3.2 APG) will be important in controlling this aspect of the game. Dixon has been a top producer off the bench, averaging 17.1 PPG in his last nine games dating back to Jan. 30 at Texas, and will have to continue to do so. Senior guard Marcus Denmon (18.0 PPG, 5.1 RPG) is always a threat to score, and has averaged 20.1 PPG in his last eight games, while senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe (13.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG) can be a force inside if he establishes himself offensively. Playing on the road is always tough in the Big 12, but this is likely to be the most winnable game the Tigers have played in a while. If Missouri can get out to a hot start, bury the Red Raiders early and keep up the pressure until the game is decided, they shouldn’t have much problem notching their 27th win on the year.