Night Line: Missouri Plays Through Adversity in Rebound VictoryPosted by EJacoby on January 12th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist and contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
If Missouri is going to be a serious contender by the end of this season, they’re going to need to win several games in the fashion that they did on Wednesday night. Playing with just five available players in the final minutes and with their leading scorer having an off night, the No. 9 Tigers still found a way to pull out a road win over streaking Iowa State in Ames. Mizzou was coming off a 16-point loss in Kansas State’s raucous arena in their last game, so defeating ISU under adverse conditions was huge for this team’s confidence. “We had a tough loss at Kansas State, and when we came back the next day in practice, the whole week we focused on being mentally tough,” said senior Matt Pressey, and that toughness is exactly what carried the Tigers to the 76-69 victory. While tougher challenges lie ahead, Missouri found out on Wednesday that they can win on the road even when things don’t go their way, a great sign going forward.
Everything went right for Missouri during non-conference play, to the point where many pundits thought they were playing better than anyone in the country. The Tigers were dominant in victories over Cal, Notre Dame, and Villanova, and also defeated Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights game on way to a 13-0 start. But reality has quickly struck for Mizzou, who, in addition to getting spanked by K-State in its first conference road game, found out that freshman Kadeem Green requested to transfer out of the program. Though not a major contributor, Green was part of Frank Haith’s eight-man rotation as the third big man alongside star forward Ricardo Ratliffe and reserve Steve Moore that could bang inside and grab some boards (he averaged 3.4 rebounds in 10 games). Now, Haith plays just seven guys per night, only two of whom stand taller than 6’8”, so there will be plenty of times when the undersized Tigers have little margin for error against their opponents.
Missouri certainly has what it takes to succeed despite an unbalanced roster. The guard-heavy Tigers have been the most efficient scoring team in the nation this year, thanks to the play of their veteran perimeter players. Marcus Denmon is the Big 12’s leading scorer at 18.7 points per game including some outstanding shooting percentages (49% from the field, 44% from three, 93% from the free-throw line). He was a non-factor on Wednesday night with just six points, but fellow seniors Kim English and Matt Pressey picked up the slack. English, averaging 15.4 points per night, had 10 points and six boards while Pressey had a team-high 14 points. Phil Pressey, the younger brother, posted a 12/5/5 assts line and has been the heady point guard (5.8 APG) that consistently sparks this operation. It’s all added up to the nation’s number one offensive efficiency (123.9), number two field goal percentage (51%), and fourth overall points per game average (84.4). The weapons are most definitely there for Missouri to keep winning games without much depth.
But Mizzou fans also must expect some offensive regression, as a 51% team field goal percentage seems unsustainable for a full season against bigger and better opponents. Against Kansas State last Saturday, the Tigers shot an abysmal 32.7% from the field with an 88.1 offensive efficiency. While Iowa State didn’t pose the same defensive challenge on Wednesday, they still held Missouri to 5-21 shooting from three, and limited Denmon to one field goal for the entire game. Then, English and Moore fouled out with under five minutes to play, and Mizzou needed to make tough plays down the stretch to preserve a four-point lead. Close games usually come down to toughness and getting stops at the defensive end, so this team must adapt that kind of identity if it wants to win against the best teams in the Big 12. Wednesday night was a huge step toward becoming that kind of team.
Going forward, Missouri will look to avoid being in the position they were in against Iowa State. They will have their share of games when Denmon, English, and backup guard Michael Dixon are firing on all cylinders to lead to the kinds of results we saw early in the season, like an 87-58 win over Notre Dame. But in the Big 12 where most games involve a war in the paint, Haith and Missouri know that they will experience more close games going forward. In a one-possession game, it doesn’t matter what a team’s season-long efficiency numbers look like, rather it’s about who can make winning plays when they matter most. If Missouri was being written off as a soft team after the loss to Kansas State, Wednesday night’s performance proved otherwise, at least for the time being.