GETTING INSIDE :Tigers look to overcome late-season slide
Missouri enters the NCAA Tournament as one of the coldest teams, falling in four of its last five games while leaving at least one player questioning the Tigers' resolve. An 86-71 loss against Texas A&M in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament not only disgusted the partisan Kansas City crowd as it left the arena early, but prompted junior guard Kim English to offer a harsh assessment. "I just didn't expect us to go out like this," English said. "For the first time in however many games, I thought we quit. We quit. And I say 'we' because I'm on the team. I don't think I did, but we ... we quit. I'm a part of that." The Tigers advanced to the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed and drew Cincinnati (25-8), which was rocked 89-51 by Notre Dame in the most lopsided quarterfinal game in the history of the Big East tournament.
Missouri and Cincy were grouped in the West Regional and play on March 17 in Washington D.C. Missouri coach Mike Anderson, of course, disagreed with English, preferring to say his team simply "came up short." Nonetheless, the Tigers (23-10) enter the NCAA Tournament with some issues to solve and one of them now could be unity following English's critique. "I don't know what Kim meant, but I don't feel that anyone out there quit," said junior guard Marcus Denmon. "Everyone was giving it their all until the clock says zero-zero."
Unfortunately for Missouri, giving everything has not equated into victories down the stretch. The Tigers thrive on forcing turnovers with an active defense that often pressure over the entire court, then turns those miscues into transition baskets. In defeat, however, Missouri often is unable to generate as many easy breakouts. That leaves the Tigers to score in their half-court offense, where patience sometimes runs thin and shot selection is poor.
In addition, a sleek front line built to run the floor often gives up too many rebounds and too many easy baskets underneath. On the plus side, the system Anderson learned under Nolan Richardson and has implemented over five years at Missouri, is unusual and can be difficult to prepare for, and adjust to, in the NCAA Tournament. But the Tigers need everyone on the same page to get everything they can out of their frenzied style.
NOTES, QUOTES --Missouri carried a respectable RPI of 36 going into Selection Sunday, largely because all of the Tigers' defeats had come against teams in the top 100 of the RPI.
By reaching the NCAA Tournament, Missouri managed something rather historic considering only one Big 12 team (Texas A&M in 2008) had previously advanced after going 8-8 in league play. --The lack of production Missouri sometimes receives from its frontcourt was most evident in the 86-71 quarterfinal loss against Texas A&M at the Big 12 Tournament.
The four forwards the Tigers inserted into the game, starters Ricardo Ratliffe and Laurence Bowers, and backups Steve Moore and Justin Safford, combined for 23 points and 13 rebounds. Ratliffe produced 19 points and nine boards in an overtime loss at A&M during the regular season.
COACH: Mike Anderson, fifth year at Missouri, third postseason appearance
KEYS TO VICTORY: Making their third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance enables Missouri to draw on past success after going 4-2 the past two seasons, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2009. Bothering opponents with relentless defensive pressure is the Tigers' MO and can lead to easy transition baskets if they convert turnovers. A lengthy rotation of aggressive guards fuels that pressure and keeps legs fresh.
Without it, however, Missouri often shows little patience or structure in the half-court and can struggle if it shoots poorly. G Marcus Denmon is the most dangerous offensive threat and needs the ball if the Tigers must create offense. F Laurence Bowers improved offensively late in the season, but can wither inside if he doesn't get additional frontcourt help.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Now you're going to play somebody that is not in the family, that's not familiar with us. Everyone in the league is familiar with everyone else. That's why you're seeing teams almost upset other teams (in conference tournaments). But I have faith in these guys, and I know they're trying." -- Missouri coach Mike Anderson.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL GAME PREVIEW: vs. Cincinnati, March 17, NCAA Tournament second round KEY MATCHUPS: One of 11 Big East teams to be awarded bids, the Bearcats were an at-large pick after getting throttled 89-51 in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament.
The NCAA appearance is the first since 2005 for Cincinnati, which features a balanced attack led by F Yancey Gates, who paces the team in scoring (11.8) and rebounds (6.8). Cincinnati surged into Big East play, going undefeated in nonconference games, though the only tests were against Dayton and Xavier. The Bearcats are stingy defensively and also capable of scoring behind the arc behind a number of shooters, including G Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick and Dion Dixon.
SCOUTING REPORT: Handling the basketball against Missouri is key. The Tigers thrive off turnovers and are active over 94 feet of the floor, particularly with a vast array of scrappy guards. The defensive pressure is unusual in this era and can fluster opponents who don't often play against similar styles.
Overcoming Missouri's pressure, however, can lead to easy baskets, either in transition or in half-court sets. The Tigers also struggle in the half-court and are often impatient, though G Marcus Denmon is a dangerous threat who can get hot from outside. F Laurence Bowers also played well down the stretch with a nice touch along the baseline. Bowers is part of an undersized front line that can be bullied underneath. Pounding the glass for second-chance opportunities is another possibility against the Tigers, who posted no wins against the top 20 in the RPI.
PLAYER NOTES --G Marcus Denmon, the Tigers' leading scorer with a 21-point average, netted 22 points on 6-of-11 shooting in the quarterfinal loss to Texas A&M in the Big 12 tournament. The remainder of the Missouri team went 13-for-45. Denmon averaged 3.5 steals in the Tigers' two league tournament games. --F Laurence Bowers averaged 16.8 points and 8.0 rebounds over the last five regular-season games, but was limited to 17 points in two Big 12 Tournament games. He was 6-for-15 in those games. --G Mike Dixon scored 17 points in a first-round victory against Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament, but followed with just two points in 14 minutes as a starter against Texas A&M. G Phil Pressey is a sub the Tigers also use at the point, but is wildly unpredictable. The freshman made just 2 of 9 shots and scored nine points against A&M, with six steals, five assists and four turnovers.