Braggin’ Rights Win Over Illini Reveals a Different Missouri TeamPosted by dnspewak on December 23rd, 2012
Danny Spewak is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report from the Scottrade Center following Missouri’s 82-73 victory over Illinois Saturday night. You can follow him on Twitter @dspewak.
It was an unfamiliar sight. The big, bad Missouri Tigers ferociously attacked the offensive glass on Saturday, flying over Illinois at every opportunity and bullying the Fighting Illini with their size and strength. Phil Pressey, who missed his first 15 shots from the field, could have missed 100 shots for all he cared. Every time Pressey clanked another floater off the rim, Alex Oriakhi was there to clean up the mess. By the end of Missouri’s 82-73 Braggin’ Rights victory at the Scottrade Center, he’d tallied 14 rebounds — seven on the offensive end – and cemented himself as the face of the Tigers’ new identity.“Alex is just a monster on the glass. We see that every day in practice. We call it eating,” senior forward Laurence Bowers said. “That’s how Alex eats.” His diet is starting to rub off on his teammates. Bowers grabbed 10 rebounds, too, and scored a game-high 23 points in a contest that featured a near-brawl in the first half during a tie-up. In fact, the game teetered on the brink of an all-out brawl for 40 minutes. The officiating crew rarely blew the whistle. As the second half wore on, Oriakhi and the Tigers clamped up defensively, out-rebounded the Illini by 22 and powered their way to a fourth straight victory in the Braggin’ Rights series.
Notice the key word here: “powered.” In every way, the Tigers flashed their new identity as a tough, in-your-face squad who will fight you for loose balls and make you miserable on the offensive glass. That’s an absurd and fairly unbelievable identity for this program, considering the team has seemed to perpetually lack size for several years. When MU hired Mike Anderson in 2006, he implemented a style of play tailored toward speed, quickness and guard play. He recruited tough kids who could guard, and he recruited forwards who could run the floor, but he never recruited a traditional big man. For five seasons, Missouri compensated for an inability to rebound by forcing turnovers and scoring in transition. Sometimes, it worked, like during a run to the Elite Eight in 2009. Other times, though, it left Missouri fans shaking their heads when opponents would manhandle the Tigers on the boards and in the paint. When Anderson left for Arkansas, he left Frank Haith with a terrific set of guards, which he coached to 30 wins using a four-guard attack. They were fun. They were gunners. They won by outscoring you. But Kyle O’Quinn and Norfolk State eventually exposed the guard-heavy attack in the NCAA Tournament.
Enter Alex Oriakhi. The Connecticut transfer changed the game on Saturday against an Illinois team without much frontcourt depth. Oriakhi finished with a double-double and slammed home putbacks on more than one occasion after missed shots. “Rebounding is a matter of will and determination. That’s what my game is based on, trying to attack the glass and rebound. That’s exactly what we did,” Oriakhi said. Bowers, who came to Missouri under Anderson five years ago, has fed off that physicality and has improved his offensive game tremendously. Backup Tony Criswell also played well in stretches, and this team has a bunch of big guards, too. Chiseled wing Earnest Ross can rebound with the best of them, for example. Add it all up and this team looks like it’s from a different planet than those Anderson teams.
Missouri has flaws, certainly. When Pressey hit the bench in the first half, his team looked lost on the offensive end and struggled to make basic plays. They fumbled around with the ball, dropped passes and made silly turnovers. Every dribble seemed like an adventure for freshman Negus Webster-Chan, forced into the backup point guard spot after the dismissal of senior Michael Dixon. Louisville exposed this weakness in the Battle 4 Atlantis, as did VCU to an extent (although the Tigers edged the Rams in the third-place game of that tournament). Without any depth behind him, Pressey does not have much margin for error this season. Even though he missed a comical amount of shots on Saturday, he wound up with 11 assists and controlled the game late in the second half. “He means everything to this team,” Oriakhi said. “Even if he’s not able to score… He makes the game extremely easy for us. I think he’s the best playmaker in college basketball.”
That’s not say the preseason SEC Player of the Year will look forward to another 3-of-19 shooting performance again.“I think I made it tougher on [the team] than it actually should have been,” Pressey said. “If I made some of those, we would have won easily. But I got my teammates to help me out.” Coach Frank Haith said he didn’t realize until the final minutes of the game that Pressey had missed so many shots. Perhaps blinded by Pressey’s gaudy assist totals, he drew a comparison between another star point guard he saw while serving as an assistant at Texas. “I think Phil gets caught wanting to take the game on. And he can,” Haith said. “I compare him to T.J. Ford. T.J. was like that, too. But there are times when you’ve gotta back off a little and trust your teammates.” It became evident on Saturday that Pressey has trustworthy teammates. Besides Bowers, Jabari Brown also scored 18 points in his second game as a Tiger and flashed some much-needed shooting touch from the outside.
And then there’s Oriakhi, who won a title at UConn as a sophomore. “I thought his experience really helped him, playing for a national championship,” Bowers said. “He’s seen this.” The Tigers don’t shoot as well as a year ago, they don’t pass as well as a year ago and they don’t have as much speed or ball-handlers, but those are problems for another day. Right now, the Tigers are playing with an edge. They just knocked off an archrival, and now they’ll move into the top 10 in the polls next week. Not a bad weekend. They’ll find out during the next few months whether they’re as good as last year’s team. Maybe Missouri isn’t better or worse, though. Maybe the Tigers are just different. It helps to have a 6’9″ behemoth in the paint, a traditional center who plays an old-school style of basketball. If only Alex Oriakhi could have suited up against Norfolk State.