Undefeated Missouri has room to improve

The Tigers are 2-0 but have struggled at times under Frank Haith’s new system.

Seniors Steve Moore and Ricardo Ratliffe block the shot of former Missouri Tiger Tyler Stone Friday night at Mizzou Arena. Moore and Ratliffe combined for 77 blocks last season and will play a vital role in controlling the paint this season with the Tigers smaller lineup.

Two games into the young 2011-12 season, Missouri is 2-0 despite having played less-than-stellar basketball.

As is the case with the majority of early-season matchups, neither of MU’s first two contests have been marquee games, but that does not mean they are to be taken lightly.

The college basketball season is barely a week old, yet a slew of highly-ranked teams have fallen to non-BCS conference opponents. Vanderbilt, UCLA and Duke have all either lost or barely escaped losses to unranked teams.

Haith has deployed the same starting lineup of guards Phil and Matt Pressey, Marcus Denmon, Kim English and forward Ricardo Ratliffe for both regular season games thus far, as well as all three of the team’s exhibition contests.

Trailing late in the first-half Friday night to Southeast Missouri State University, the Tigers had a late surge to lead by two at the half en route to an 83-68 victory.

Coach Frank Haith made rebounding a focal point at the break against SEMO, as the Tigers were out-rebounded 17-13 in the first-half. Senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe, the team’s returning leader in rebounds, had just one board in the first 20 minutes of action and was challenged by MU’s first-year coach.

“I knew I only had one rebound, so I was just waiting for him to come up to me and say something,” Ratliffe said. “I was thinking about it the whole time walking to the locker room.”

While Missouri as a team outscored SEMO 45-32 in the second-half, the 6-foot-8-inch senior from Hampton, Va. hauled in seven second-half rebounds.

“I wanted it a lot more in the second half,” a smirking Ratliffe added after the game.

MU’s strong play in the latter half of action carried over to the first 20 minutes of Monday night’s 81-63 victory over Mercer.

It was junior guard Michael Dixon coming off the bench that set the pace the way for Missouri in the first half.

Dixon led all scorers with 12 first-half points and three rebounds.

A starter in 17 games last season, Dixon is adjusting to his role as a “facilitator”, a role he defined himself after not taking kindly to being labeled as a “sparkplug” by a reporter.

“I’ll do whatever I need to do for this team to win whether that’s coming off the bench or starting, but I’m not too high on being a sparkplug,” he said.

Unlike Friday, it was the second half of action where the outcome of the match was briefly in question at Mizzou Arena.

After a sloppy stretch by MU, Mercer narrowed the gap to 10 points with just over five minutes to play.

“In the second half we let up defensively,” Haith said following Monday’s victory. “When we get a lead like we had, we’ve got to not take plays off, and I thought that’s what we did tonight when we got a substantial lead.”

The Tigers closed the game on a 15-7 run to improve to 2-0 on the young season.

“We’re going to get challenged every single night,” English said. “We understand that, we don’t want anyone to lay down for us, we’re going to expect the challenge and stand up to the challenge.”

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