Missouri set to clash with Baylor in top five battle

The winner will hold sole possession of second place in the Big 12 Conference.
Missouri sophomore point guard Phil Pressey goes up for a dunk in a game against Navy earlier this season at Mizzou Arena. No. 5 Missouri enters the game against No. 3 Baylor tied with the Bears for second place in the Big 12 Conference.

The week of basketball hasn’t been different at all for Kim English.

On Thursday, the Missouri men’s basketball team practiced at Mizzou Arena. The senior guard could be seen alone on one half of the court shooting free throws in his typical, delicate way. He took a breath, bent his knees into the form of 'Z's' and his shooting arm into an 'L' before extending, letting the ball up and through the net.

Tomorrow, English and the fifth-ranked Tigers (17-1, 4-1 Big 12 Conference) will tangle with No. 3 Baylor (17-1, 4-1) in a top-five collision. Never has such a matchup occurred inside the conference that wasn’t between Kansas and Texas. Missouri is ranked higher than it has ever been this late in January since 1990.

It’s the kind of game that could lift the program to a ranking it hasn’t seen since ’90, when it was once first in the country, the kind English and his four senior teammates haven’t played during their years in Columbia.

Yet English, known for his preparation and study habits, said he views the test of the Bears like any other.

“My independent preparation on my iPad, when I’m home, on the bus, in here, it’s all the same,” he said. “The process doesn’t change.”

Coach Frank Haith, entering the first top-five meeting of his head coaching career, has carried the philosophy of the next-game approach with him in his debut year with the program. Throughout the season, Haith has shown no signs of looking beyond the next tip-off in his schedule.

After putting down Texas A&M on Monday, Haith said he had not watched Baylor all season.

“I know they’re playing extremely well,” he said Monday, having nothing more to offer.

Soon enough, he would see Baylor was “extremely talented” and “as good as any team in the country,” he said Thursday.

On paper, the clearest difference between the Big 12’s top two scoring teams is size. Perry Jones III, a 6-foot-11-inch sophomore forward capable of scoring in a variety of ways, stretches the floor with freshman Quincy Miller and senior Quincy Acy, who stand 6 feet, 9 inches and 6 feet, 7 inches, respectively. All average double-digits and combine to form the league’s best shot-blocking squad.

“We don’t focus in on the size,” sophomore point guard Phil Pressey said, the pocket-sized commander of Missouri’s offense and a Texas native expecting to see family and friends in the stands. “We know we’re quick, so we try to use that as an advantage. If they’re going be bigger, we have to use what we can to our advantage.”

The Tigers will rely on senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe, the tallest of Missouri's starters at 6 feet, 9 inches, for muscle. Ratliffe, who leads the nation in field goal percentage, said he recognizes the height difference, but trusts all the things assistant coach Ernie Nester has worked with him on during the season.

He also recognizes the amount of hype entering the game.

“It’s probably going to be the most memorable game of my career up to this point,” he said.

English wasn’t able to say if tomorrow would be a fond memory of his college career, but he recalled one.

It was back when he was a freshman playing against Marquette for a place in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. He scored 15 points with 4.5 minutes in the first half. The next time he entered the game was when J.T. Tiller was fouled hard and unable to shoot the game-deciding free throws with the game tied at 79.

English took breaths then, bent his knees and his shooting arm, extended, propelled the ball upwards and drained both of them.

“You remember games after they’re over,” he said. “I didn’t know that my game against Marquette would be one of my most memorable games ever until after.”

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