Ratliffe's hook shot keeps Tigers afloat

The Big 12 Player of the Week has reflected the trust of his teammates to help the Tigers reach their highest ranking in a decade.
Senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe lays the ball in over a Texas A&M defender in last Monday's game at Mizzou Arena. Ratliffe became the first Tiger this year to be named Big 12 Conference Player of the Week.

It was bad enough having to run up and down a soccer field with 267 pounds of senior teammate Steve Moore on his back. Then Missouri senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe had to get in the pool.

The weekend before conditioning week -- before the Tigers began their historic campaign under coach Frank Haith -- was structured like military training, Ratliffe recalled. For the team's lone starting post player, the most grueling part of it all may have been the swimming part, the part that he was totally incapable of doing.

Luckily, he wasn't alone in the water.

"All the guys were trying to hold me up," he said with a smile. "Without them, I would've probably drowned."

And who knows where his team would be without this week's Big 12 Conference Player of the Week?

Surely the Tigers would've struggled to escape their 89-88 victory over then-No. 3 Baylor on Saturday in Waco, Texas. Ratliffe, undersized to be jumping in opening tip-offs at 6 feet 8 inches, once again faced taller opponents when he met the Bears. Still, he managed a career-high 27 points.

His coach likens his build to a brick wall and, it's true, his muscular presence requires attention. Otherwise, Ratliffe's style of play is rather unassuming, like the low, ever-modest tone of his voice.

Yet it has been his game that has the nation's eyes turning and the experts proclaiming him the difference in the Tigers' rise to prominence.

"We don't have success if we don't have Ricardo's play," Haith said, noting Ratliffe's two points in 14 minutes against Kansas State, when the Tigers were dealt their only loss this season.

Missouri thrives off that quick hook, the first shot Ratliffe developed after the eighth grade when he played guard before abruptly sprouting 4 inches and becoming a center in high school.

"If you do one of those, you'll be hard to guard," his then-coach Arthur Jones told him.

Ratliffe has only failed 36 times to find the bottom of the net all season. At .772 percent, he's on the verge of busting the single-season field goal percentage record of .746.

Haith said much of Ratliffe's ability is "innate," and the way he's able to laterally move and identify vulnerable spots in defenses has been key in his efficiency. He said the biggest challenge for Ratliffe has been mental.

"The biggest improvement with Ricardo is his focus," Haith said. "When tough things happen, I think Ricardo has had the tendency to lose focus in the past. He's gotten to the point where he's able to say, 'Next play.' You can't worry about what's happened in the past."

Ratliffe said the change in attitude is due to trust, something he said he's dealt with his whole life.

In his second year with the program since transferring from Central Florida Community College, Ratliffe said he feels closer with the team. He is also willing to believe in the lessons taught by Haith, someone he respects greatly after observing all the small things, like the way the coach leaves his first-class plane seat to sit with his team.

"I know they (have) my back," Ratliffe said. "I've learned to trust these guys and it's really helped us out. We're really together."

Ratliffe will credit his team for his Player of the Week honor. But en route to Missouri's No. 2 ranking, every one has lifted one another.

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