Coach Mike Anderson's Tigers turned into a different team last week, leaving me with only one question: Where has this been all year?
Missouri men's basketball has taken a decidedly more aggressive stance in its past three games, driving into the lane and attacking the basket through interior passing. Last week, this column stated the Tigers have surpassed preseason expectations despite their up-and-down nature and continued reliance on perimeter shooting. At several points throughout the season, I questioned whether the team practiced defense, defense, defense and just took the offense for granted.
Well, no longer. Now whenever the Tigers exhibit a passive half-court offense, Anderson calls a timeout and issues a (stern) reminder that shots closer to the basket have a higher percentage chance of scoring.
Of the three games, the one against Texas on Feb. 17 offers the most insight into how far this team can go. With their bigger inside presence, above-average guards and lack of fear to play a fast-paced game, the Longhorns are the prototypical, higher-seeded team Missouri will face in the NCAA Tournament (yes, provided they get there -- but they will). Sure, Texas had not been playing as well heading into Mizzou Arena, but it was still ranked No. 15 in the country and harvested Nebraska 91-51 in its previous game.
At the Black Out Game, Missouri turned the home crowd's energy into aggression on the court, using its speed to create open looks beneath the rim.
Because the brand of basketball the Tigers play is so different from what teams are accustomed to, they develop a mental advantage as well as a physical one. Missouri dictated the flow of last week's game against Texas, neutralizing 290-pound senior center Dexter Pittman.
Pittman was clearly winded, and even when he had the opportunity to score, he traveled and ended up with zero field-goal attempts in the box score. On the other end of the spectrum, Texas junior guard Dogus Balbay clearly wanted nothing to do with the Tigers, passing up every open shot he was presented and committing four turnovers.
As much as sophomore guard Kim English grabbed the spotlight for the game, the Tigers kept their poise thanks to the effort of senior forward Keith Ramsey. Ramsey's offensive rebounds and tip-ins (made possible from interior shooting) never allowed Texas to close the gap. In short, he looked like he wanted it more than the Longhorn players. This definitely could not be said after the Texas A&M game Feb. 3.
The Tigers' greatest strength is their ability to share the ball and find the hot hand. According to the blog, Rock M Nation, Missouri's most productive players in the Texas game when factoring in all the major statistics (points, rebounds, assists, etc.) were English, Ramsey, and freshman guard Mike Dixon, in that order. Against Nebraska on Saturday, it was sophomore guard Marcus Denmon, senior guard Zaire Taylor and sophomore forward Lawrence Bowers, respectively. This tells me as long as someone steps up on a given night, the supporting staff will produce enough to make up for a teammate's off night.
Provided the Tigers keep up the intensity, defeating Colorado at home Wednesday and Iowa State on the road March 2, is it really such a stretch to see them splitting with Kansas State and Kansas in the other two remaining games of the regular season? Combine that with a win in the Big 12 Tournament, the Tigers rise into a No. 5-6 seed, making me feel vastly better than a 7-8 seed.
Of course, this depends on the Tigers staying on the attack. If they can, maybe this campus will have something more to cheer about come March than temperatures above the freezing mark.