Entering the season, we knew Missouri was going to be good. The question was how good.
Well, the answer is very good. But for a brain fart or two at Sprint Center, the Tigers would be undefeated right now.
They haven't played the greatest schedule, but it's far from the worst. They've been tested.
Initially, I thought their halfcourt defense was weaker than last season, but it's really been shored up during this latest eight-game winning streak.
And the Tigers' halfcourt offense is better than last year, while the transition offense and defense remain constants for Mike Anderson's "Fastest 40 Minutes" system.
Any questions about whether his school of thought is a gimmick that can't produce championships and tournament runs long since have been laid to rest.
Now we get to sit back and see how Missouri will impact what promises to be a dynamic conference race in 2011, the last year with 12 teams.
My preview is after the jump, and they're understandably excited over at the eastern branch of the Unholy Alliance, Rock M Nation.
The Story So Far
At this point last season, Missouri had three head-scratching losses to Oral Roberts, Richmond and Vanderbilt.
Well, two of those three had to visit Columbia this season, so the Tigers claimed some righteous payback.
Granted, they had to go to overtime to beat RPI No. 15 Vanderbilt, but they earned the win. It currently stands as the best signature win of any team I've previewed yet. Beating Oral Roberts doesn't carry that same stature, of course, but it was a must-win game and they won it handily.
Missouri's other signature win came earlier this week against Old Dominion, which checks in at No. 22 in the RPI.
Add to that quality wins over Illinois and Presbyterian, as well as an overtime loss to RPI No. 2 Georgetown that is the sole blemish on their record, and the Tigers might have the best tournament profile of any Big 12 team thus far.
The other wins are against triple-digit RPI teams and all but three of them came within the comfy confines of Mizzou Arena, where the Tigers have won more than 50 consecutive non-conference games, a streak that predates even Mike Anderson's arrival in Columbia.
The four non-home wins came in Cancun against La Salle and Wyoming, in St. Louis against Illinois, and at Oregon.
Current Missouri RPI: 32
Current Missouri SOS: 147
Note: All stats for current players are updated through the most recent game this season, unless otherwise noted.
101-47 (35-29) at Missouri
Keith Ramsey (26.9 minutes per game | 6.4 points per game | 5.9 rebounds per game)
Zaire Taylor (27.3 minutes per game | 8.1 points per game | 3.1 rebounds per game)
J.T. Tiller (23.9 minutes per game | 8.9 points per game | 3.1 rebounds per game)
- Miguel Paul (12.1 minutes per game | 3.5 points per game | 0.7 rebound per game)
- Tyler Stone (3.6 minutes per game | 1.8 points per game | 0.8 rebound per game)
- John Underwood (2.5* minutes per game | 1.3* point per game | 0.3* rebound per game)
*2010 stats (Underwood left the team in December for personal reasons)
#21 Laurence Bowers
25.6 minutes per game | 11.7 points per game | 5.7 rebounds per game
FANTASY OWNER: TB
#12 Marcus Denmon
29.7 minutes per game | 17.6 points per game | 3.9 rebounds per game
FANTASY OWNER: Panjandrum
#11 Mike Dixon Jr.
24.8 minutes per game | 11.0 points per game | 2.6 rebounds per game
#24 Kim English
26.7 minutes per game | 10.4 points per game | 2.9 rebounds per game
#32 Steve Moore
11.5 minutes per game | 2.4 points per game | 2.1 rebounds per game
#23 Justin Safford
18.1 minutes per game | 7.4 points per game | 4.2 rebounds per game
#25 Jarrett Sutton
2.6 minutes per game | 0.9 point per game | 0.5 rebound per game
#15 Kadeem Green
16.0* points per game | 12.0* rebounds per game
at United Faith (N.C.) High School in 2009-10
#2 Ricky Kreklow
11.6 minutes per game | 3.1 points per game | 1.5 rebounds per game
#3 Matt Pressey
18.4 minutes per game | 7.5 points per game | 1.7 rebounds per game
#1 Phil Pressey
20.5 minutes per game | 5.2 points per game | 2.5 rebounds per game
#10 Ricardo Ratliffe
25.4 minutes per game | 12.2 points per game | 7.1 rebounds per game
FANTASY OWNER: Panjandrum
My thanks to the Missouri sports information department for the photos.
So, who are those men in the dapper suits? (A nice upgrade from last year's jersey-clad pics, I might add.)
Seniors J.T. Tiller, Zaire "Big Shot" Taylor and Keith Ramsey are gone, but sliding in from the bench to fill their roles are point guard Mike Dixon Jr., shooting guard Marcus Denmon and power forward Laurence Bowers.
Each has stepped up his game and his production from last season, especially Denmon, who is an early candidate for Big 12 Player of the Year honors after leading the Tigers in scoring with 17.6 points per game, five more than the Tiger nearest to him on the overall charts.
That would be newcomer Ricardo Ratliffe, a Curtis Kelly-sized JUCO big man out of Central Florida Community College who was a two-time NJCAA All-American (an honor only ever shared by 12 other players).
He's averaging 12.2 points per game and leads the team in rebounding. Although Ratliffe came off the bench in five games, I expect him to be a full-time starter in conference play.
Meanwhile, Dixon suffered a setback when he was suspended for breaking a team rule, opening the door to freshman Phil Pressey to take his starting job.
Before that, though, Dixon was performing admirably, and Pressey's recent broken finger has left the position available for Dixon to reclaim it. He's been coming off the bench since his suspension ended against Illinois, but I expect him to regain starting status by the time we play the Tigers.
The fifth starter, Kim "Kimmeh" English, is a returning starter who was the biggest returning name due to his prolific scoring as a freshman and sophomore. Thus, he was picked as a first-team All-Big 12 player by most media outlets before the season began.
But that was before everyone saw what Denmon was capable of. English's scoring is down nearly five points per game from last season, but what some might see as a negative, I see as a sign of team balance in scoring, which will make the Tigers harder to defend. You can't devote attention to English and leave Denmon open, or vice versa.
The major difference between Missouri and Texas Tech, which also has five starters averaging double figures, is that Missouri gets contributions from its bench. There's part-time starter Justin Safford, the team's only senior, who is a hard-working defensive specialist, but also pours in 7.4 points per game.
That's barely eclipsed by the 7.5 points contributed by Pressey's older brother, Matt Pressey, a JUCO transfer who has started the last few games and really is starting to come on. Another freshman contributor has been Ricky Kreklow, a Columbia native who's averaging almost 12 minutes off the bench.
Reserve big man Steve Moore continues to be something of a disappointment, however. Expected to take step forward in Ramsey's absence, he's still contributing only two points and two rebounds a game. That makes it difficult if Bowers and Ratliffe have foul trouble, because it leaves Safford as the team's only real post scorer.
That's where Mizzou is missing, a hotshot recruit first identified as a high-major prospect by Frank Martin's coaching staff. Mitchell was unable to become academically eligible, and although some are hoping he can make grades in time to arrive for the spring semester, I wouldn't hold my breath.
Freshman big man Kadeem Green hasn't played yet this season and probably will redshirt. Walk-on Jarrett Sutton plays sparingly off the bench. Sophomore John Underwood left the team in December for personal reasons.
Projected Big 12 Starting Lineup
|Michael Dixon Jr.||Marcus Denmon||Kim English||Laurence Bowers||Ricardo Ratliffe|
Projected Top Big 12 Reserves
|Phil Pressey||Matt Pressey||Ricky Kreklow||Justin Safford||Steve Moore|
The Final Verdict
Despite playing a physical, demanding and uptempo style with a 10-man rotation, Missouri maintains pretty high energy throughout most of its games. But Anderson does a pretty good of spreading the minutes around to manage foul trouble and keep fresh bodies in the game.
Earlier in the season, the Tigers were a little more up-and-down in their consistency (see: Georgetown, Oregon).
But things seem to have smoother out lately. Missouri fans find themselves wondering "What if?" regarding the lost opportunity against Georgetown, but there will be plenty more such opportunities ahead of them in Big 12 play.
Missouri's explosive, balanced offense and tenacious defensive philosophy make it a favorite to finish in the top four of the conference and secure a first-round bye. The Tigers' schedule is identical to K-State's, which means home games against Oklahoma and Texas Tech give those teams a slight leg up on the competition.
If things break well, Missouri could even find itself in position to secure a conference championship. That will require beating both KU and K-State at home, in my opinion, while hoping those two beat up on each other.
I don't think the Tigers are a favorite, but they're certainly going to be a factor in who does win the Big 12. Being picked fifth was too low for a team that's been in the Top 10 for almost the entire season.
Big 12 preseason prediction: 5th
My predicted finish: 3rd
Best-case scenario: 1st
Against K-State?: Loss in Manhattan, win in Columbia