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Missouri Preview: A Tiger-Sized Challenge

If I seemed confident about K-State stealing a win in Lincoln Wednesday night, I could hardly be more concerned about Missouri's visit to Bramlage tomorrow.

Sure, the Tigers' 1-5 road record and six-game losing streak in Manhattan are all good signs, and it wouldn't be the first time if K-State puts its metaphorical foot down against a higher ranked Missouri team. But something about the way the Tigers match up with the Wildcats and need a quality road win is making me feel a little bit like I did when the Chiefs were the higher seed on Wild Card Weekend.

Actually, that's a little harsh. I feel like K-State has a chance. But you get the point.

Although the Tigers lack a signature win, all of their losses are quite reasonable. Kansas and Texas don't lose much anywhere, Texas A&M has some sort of weird hex on the Tigers and that game still went into overtime, Colorado played its best game of the year against Missouri (mostly thanks to 36 from a ridiculous Alec Burks performance) and the Tigers were tired at Oklahoma State after the snow prevented them from getting to Stillwater until just six hours before tipoff.

It sure would be nice if they were tired again tomorrow, as depth is the biggest advantage they have over Kansas State. Missouri and its 10-man rotation owned the final eight minutes of each half in Columbia, outscoring the Wildcats 37-15 (it was 44-38 KSU for the rest of the game). Frank can't really afford to go much deeper than eight and Pullen probably still has to play close to 35 minutes, although it might be nice to see Nick Russell get some PT.

Saturday should also be a good opportunity to gauge the progress of Will Spradling. He's been playing some of his best ball since Baylor's zone helped him get out of his funk, even though he struggled with his shooting and didn't get an assist Wednesday against Nebraska. The sad thing is that K-State is so desperate for ballhandlers that Frank still played him 26 minutes, even though his defense is so poor that it hardly takes more than a Justin Bieber crossover to get around him.*

*I found it quite amusing when on at least two occasions, Nebraska ballhandlers actually got flustered when Spradling got up in his man's face a little bit. However, I found it less amusing to watch Spradling try to stay on his man making cuts off the ball. Fortunately, Nebraska only made the backdoor pass for an easy layup once, but Spradling was beaten badly some three or four times. It appears the only thing he's good for on defense is positioning and taking charges.

Speaking of taking charges, I laughed out loud when Dan McLaughlin said Spradling could be the best player in the country at getting run over drawing offensive fouls. I don't doubt the veracity of the claim, but isn't that kind of like being the best sacrifice bunter? It's a useful skill and all, but it's kind of secondary to hitting or playing good defense.

Missouri presents some serious matchup problems with probably the quickest guards in the Big 12, so K-State's big men had better be ready to step in and help out when the guards inevitable get beat off the dribble. Actually, it might not be a bad idea to go zone to try to stop penetration, slow things down a little, and take advantage of the fact that Missouri is shooting just 32% from three-point range on the road in Big 12 play. But I doubt that will be Frank's first choice.

Let's hope Kim English continues to shoot poorly on the road, and although the Pressey brothers and Michael Dixon all have their moments, Missouri's offense clearly starts with Marcus Denmon. It should be a lot of fun to watch the matchup between him and Pullen, since the two play very similar styles and are not only the top scorers on their respective teams, but also two of the most underrated defenders in the conference.

The biggest difference for this year's Tigers team from years past is a true post presence to go along with Laurence Bowers, perhaps the most versatile forward in the conference and another matchup nightmare. Ricardo Ratliffe averages 11.5 points a game, and it would be extremely helpful if Curtis Kelly could contain him without needing a double-team or picking up too many fouls, which was his downfall in Columbia.

Offensively, you'd like to think that Kansas State will be more relaxed at home and has matured enough to avoid a repeat of the season-high 23 turnovers committed at Mizzou Arena. The new spread offense may help neutralize Missouri's ability to trap the ball, and there should be a lot more openings to attack the basket than we saw against Nebraska's foreign towers.

In Wednesday's preview, I suggested that maybe it was time for karma to catch up to Nebraska at home, and sure enough, the Huskers lost their perfect 4-0 record in games decided by five points or less at the Devaney Center. It was one of those wins where you hope the selection committee wasn't actually watching and maybe doesn't even look at the box score

It also featured perhaps the most inept final 30 seconds in NCAA history with equal contributions from both teams, but you have to appreciate K-State's effort and the determination/clutch play of Jacob Pullen, who had merely an average shooting night for the first time in a week and a half. It's tough to pick a "worst play or decision", but I'd say it's a tie between Frank's inexplicable timeout and Lance Jeter's free throw missile that wasn't even close to hitting the rim.

Tomorrow, K-State will likely need more than heart and determination to get past a talented team that seems due for its first decent road win of the season. Just to add a little more intrigue, I'll go ahead and say what we're all thinking: A victory over Mizzou means you can throw away the key on K-State's 'lock' status for the NCAAs.

One more thing: Since you'll already be awake and in a basketball mood, I'd recommend turning over to CBS as soon as the K-State game is over for the San Diego St.-BYU game. I'm still not convinced SDSU is for real and I have trouble believing Jimmer Fredette is really the best player in the country because of the way Jake shut him down last year, but this should be an excellent game.


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