One step at a time

Comeback victories like the one Missouri had against Indiana on Sunday often provide the impetus for change. Now knowing what they need to do to be successful, the Tigers face a monumental challenge: toppling Illinois, the consensus No. 1 team in the land, and grabbing Braggin' Rights on Wednesday night in St. Louis.

There are plenty of positives one can draw out of Missouri's comeback 56-53 win against Indiana on Sunday. Missouri played its most inspired basketball of the year in the second half, charging back to steal away a win it probably didn't deserve. The Tigers shot a ridiculous 83 percent in those final 20 minutes; even though they took just 12 shots, that's a mind-boggling number, especially for the Indiana coaching staff.

Most important, the players finally realized that a complete commitment to the defensive end yields results offensively. Coach Quin Snyder has emphasized that since practice opened in October, and the Tigers have repeatedly said it themselves after losses. On Sunday, as Missouri stifled a dazed and confused Hoosier squad, it bore fruit for the first time.

Perspective is needed here. On Sunday, Indiana lost its fifth game in a row. The Hoosiers struggled to beat Indiana State and have yet to win on the road. Guard Bracey Wright, the Hoosiers' most talented and experienced offensive threat, was woozy after a wayward Spencer Laurie elbow broke his nose in the first half.

So what does it all mean? Can the win fire the Tigers up for their matchup with Illinois or was it a flash in the pan?

"We're gonna see," sophomore forward Linas Kleiza said. "I hope it's a confidence builder. We've got the No. 1 team in the country, and I think the best team in the country by far, coming up on Wednesday."

Kleiza drove the offense to a win by, appropriately enough, driving the ball to the basket. Kleiza is capable offensively both inside and outside, but he prefers to play on the perimeter. With Kleiza taking the ball to the hoop and drawing contact, the Missouri offense was the most dangerous it had been all season.

In the first half, it was just the opposite. The Tigers relied on their jump shot and nearly let Indiana jump out to an insurmountable lead before they got back in the game late. Missouri won't have that luxury against Illinois.

"If you do that, you're done," Snyder said of the Tigers' slow start. "The game's over. You're not going to win, and you're not going to have a chance. They will run you out of the gym in the first 10 minutes of the game."

With the Illini's status as the top-ranked team in the land, the Tigers are well aware of what lies in wait for them inside Savvis Center.

"They've seen them blitz teams, good teams," Snyder said.

Few around the program would suggest the Tigers belong in that category right now, so it will take something special for them to earn a win. Even with the ramifications of the rivalry, it seems improbable that Missouri can compete with Illinois. Vegas seems to agree; Missouri will enter the game as a huge underdog, with Illinois as much as a 17-point favorite.

"For us to have an opportunity to be in that game or to win that game, we've got to be unbelievably hungry," Snyder said. "And we've got to probably be close to perfect."

That's what the Tigers were in the second half against the Hoosiers, but they have yet to shown they can turn in that kind of effort consistently. Sunday's win may be a stepping stone to that, but it will take an inspired effort to keep pace with the Illini. Senior swingman Jason Conley called the win "huge" in the momentum department.

"According to me, we haven't gotten a really good win yet, like this," Conley said. "Knowing we can go out and play a team like Indiana -- everybody's heard of them -- that helps in the confidence of the guys in this room."

Any energy the Tigers carried out of that game could be dispelled by a shellacking from Illinois. Statistically, that seems practical; Illinois betters the Tigers in every facet of the game, including size, depth and experience. The electric atmosphere that surrounds the game could keep the contest relatively close, but only if the Tigers play their best basketball of the young season.

We'll know soon if Missouri has the leadership and desire to be a high-level Big 12 team this season. The Tigers need a positive outcome Wednesday, whether it's a win or just a moral victory.

"The time is now," Conley said. "There's no more time to wait."


Black & Gold Illustrated Top Stories