Contest against #21 Illinois offers Mizzou shot at legitimacy, respect

Through 11 games the Missouri Tigers Men’s Basketball team is 10-1, with their only loss coming against a stout Georgetown Hoyas team.

The team looks great on paper. Marcus Denmon, as you know if you read this blog or anything else written by this author about the men’s squad, has played outstanding basketball to this point and has the stats to prove it. As a team, the Tigers rank sixth in the nation with almost 86 points per game, eighth in assists with 18.4, and 32nd in field goal percentage with a very respectable 48 percent.

However, against ranked opponents the Tigers remain winless thanks to a late, stupid foul by point guard Michael Dixon, and three missed free throws by Dixon and big man Laurence Bowers after intentional hacks by the Hoyas. I guess those Georgetown boys could shoot, too–47 percent from deep and 57 percent shooting from the field usually bodes well for the team in question.

Unlike in years past, head coach Mike Anderson’s swarming defense has emerged as the Achilles heel. Against Vanderbilt, a good team treading water just outside the top 25, the Tigers barely scraped by with a win while allowing Vanderilt to hit 31 of 59 shots from the floor–more than 50 percent. Sharpshooting guard John Jenkins was left open constantly and capitalized by putting five of 10 three-point shots in the basket en route to a game high 23 points. Forward Rod Odom had similar success off the bench hitting two crucial threes. The team’s other prominent snipers struggled to find the basket despite finding themselves too wide open behind the arc on an unsettling number of possessions.

The fact is teams with reliable perimeter shooting shellack a Missouri defense suddenly slim on stoppers with the graduation of JT Tiller and Zaire Taylor. Against the strongest five teams on their schedule so far, the Tigers ceded 40 percent from deep and 53 percent of the opponents’ shots taken inside the arc.

Quality opponents average 1.05 points per possession. In the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs have held their opponents to a paltry 1.02 points per–but NCAA ball demands stingier defense than that, because of the obvious diffusion of talent between hundreds of teams as opposed to 30 with their pick of the best collegiate players.

#21 Illinois averages 77 points per game on 48 percent shooting. Missouri must hold them below that average and tightens up around the three-point-line on the likes of guards Demetri McCamey (51 percent from three) and D.J. Richardson (46 percent) and 7-foot-1-inch center Mike Tisdale (39 percent).

Size may also present a problem. Illinois has two centers standing seven feet tall, Tisdale and freshman Meyers Leonard. I do believe Ricardo Ratliffe can outrebound anyone on the Fighting Illini if he plays his best basketball. At only 6-foot-nine, he weighs in at 240 to Tisdale’s 250 and that means Ratliffe’s physicality will come into play.

“Ricardo, he’s taking gradual steps each and every game. It seems like to me that the more physical the game is, the more it really plays in his favor,” coach Anderson said after Missouri’s victory over Vanderbilt.

In the game, Ratliffe faced off against a surging, not-quite-a-seven-footer Festus Ezili. Ratliffe had 14 points and nine boards; Ezili had nine board and 16 points, but missed six free throws.

Keep an eye on these guys. As my friends alway say, it’s Respect, Excellence, Discovery, Responsibility, and Disappointment. Let’s see if Mizzou can treat a should-win as a must-win and run away with it.

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