You’ve met the players. Let’s meet the opponents. This is a season accompanied by the sort of anticipation that had been absent from the Missouri basketball program for years. We know what you hope for as a final result, but how do we get there? Let’s take a walk.
Exhibition games: Harris-Stowe (11/05) and Arkansas-Fort Smith (11/12) at Mizzou Arena.
With Hanna-Barbera, Acuff-Rose and Sleater-Kinney unavailable, the Tigers open with Harris-Stowe. Then comes Arkansas-Fort Smith, the first of several Arkansas teams on the schedule, though the Arkansas Razorbacks aren’t among them (chickens). These games won’t be the least bit competitive, but you’ll watch because you want to see Ricardo Ratliffe and Phil Pressey in uniform for the first time.
Cancun Challenge : Western Illinois (11/18) and North Florida (11/20) at Mizzou Arena. Wyoming (11/23) and Providence or La Salle (11/24) in Cancun, Mexico.
Never in the history of man has one team been such a prohibitive favorite to win a basketball tournament. Wyoming is a bottom of the pack Mountain West team, Providence is picked to finish 15th or 16th in the Big East, and La Salle is a middling (at best) Atlantic 10 squad. You could construct an all-star roster from the other seven teams in the bracket and Missouri would still be favored to win it.
The best thing about the first two games? Two of the finest team names in the NCAA. The Leathernecks and the Ospreys. Western Illinois also features one of the best unknown players you’ll see up close this season. Ceola Clark, a 6-3 junior guard, is the Summit League’s reigning defensive player of the year, and a box score filler. Last season, he averaged 14.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.7 steals per game, while making 40.6% of his threes as a high-volume shooter. Western Illinois and North Florida both like to play slow. They’re about to have their realities rearranged.
Mizzou comes home from Mexico at 4-0.
Breather: Arkansas-Pine Bluff (11/28) at Mizzou Arena. You may remember the Golden Lions. They played a murderous non-conference schedule last year, going 0-11 on the road against a panoply of major conference teams (including Missouri) before rolling to second place in the SWAC and then winning the league tournament to secure a spot in the NCAA field. They gave a good effort at Mizzou Arena, falling 88-70. But four starters from that team are gone. Mizzou will roll here.
The Majors: Georgetown (11/30) in Kansas City; at Oregon (12/2); Vanderbilt (12/08) at Mizzou Arena.
Styles make fights, and Missouri’s battle with Georgetown at the Sprint Center could be the best – or the ugliest – of the non-conference. The Hoyas will pit their methodical Princeton pace against Missouri’s forty minutes of furious hellish fastness. Georgetown returns four starters, and their strength is on the perimeter, with 6-1 point guard Chris Wright, 6-2 shooter Jason Clark, and 6-4 swingman (and All-America candidate) Austin Freeman. It’s the kind of matchup that Zaire Taylor and J.T. Tiller would relish. How will their successors defend the Hoyas’ trio? Answer that, and you’ll know who wins.
Next, the Tigers go to the scene of the attempted crime, Eugene, Oregon, home of those bastards who tried to steal away our coach, for this year’s edition of the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series. As much as any road game against a big conference foe possibly can, this one shapes up as an easy win. Oregon’s program is in shambles at the moment, and Mike Anderson’s players are going to hear all week about how their coach thought about leaving them for a big bucket of Nike money. They’ll put on a show.
Six days later, the Tigers return home to face a Vanderbilt team that (mercifully) no longer has A.J. Ogilvy, who steamrolled Missouri’s interior defense last year in Nashville. Point guard Jermaine Beal (who scored 15 that night) is gone, too. But the Commodores still have Andre Walker and Jeffery Taylor, who dominated the glass in that game. This is a tough matchup, but if the Tigers can contain 6-2 guard John Jenkins, it’s one they should win in front of the home fans.
The Presbyterians, the Preacher and the Protégé: Presbyterian (12/11), Oral Roberts (12/16) and Central Arkansas (12/18) at Mizzou Arena.
The Tigers continue their December to Dismember against three mid-to-low-major opponents. Presbyterian is one of the toughest teams to figure on the schedule. Last season, Presbyterian (in the midst of its five-year transition to full-fledged Division I status) redshirted its three best players with an eye on building toward the 2011-12 season, when the Blue Hose (real name) will be eligible for the Big South title and NCAA Tournament for the first time. Despite going just 5-26 last year, Presbyterian is picked to finish in the top half of the league, and 6-7 forward/center Al’Lonzo Coleman (15.0 ppg, 8.4 rpg in 2008-09) will be one of the best interior players the Tigers will see on their non-conference slate.
Oral Roberts visits next, and the Tigers won’t take the Golden Eagles lightly, not after fumbling away a win last year in Tulsa. This may be Mizzou’s second-toughest test (after Vandy) at home before conference play. ORU has a veteran backcourt, and returns productive talent across the front line, including Kansas City kids Michael Craion (13.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg last season) and Dominique Morrison (15.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg).
The biggest name at Central Arkansas – by far – is Corliss Williamson, the Bears’ new coach. Williamson, who led Arkansas to a national title when Mike Anderson was an assistant to Nolan Richardson, gets a visit with his mentor, a nice game check, and a furious beating. But the biggest potential story? This is the first game after the end of the fall semester. If super-talented freshman forward Tony Mitchell is cleared to play, he could make his debut here for the Tigers.
Braggin’ Rights: Illinois (12/22) in St. Louis.
Missouri has dominated this series over the past 12 months. Over the previous ten years, not as much. After a disappointing 2009-10 campaign, much is expected of the Illini this year, and they make for one of the toughest matchups Mizzou will see this year. This team is massive. Gargantuan. Dinosaur-huge. Bruce Weber’s starting lineup is likely to feature 6-3 D.J. Richardson (last season’s Big Ten frosh of the year), 6-3 Demitri McCamey (first team All Big Ten last year), 6-8 freshman Jereme Richmond (a McDonald’s All-America), 6-9 Mike Davis, and 7-1 Mike Tisdale, which gives Illinois a size advantage at every position except shooting guard, where it’s a push. In addition, the Illini are a seasoned team. McCamey, Davis and Tisdale are seniors, and it seems like they’ve each been there for eleven years.
So, they have talent, size and experience. What Illinois may lack is quality backcourt depth. Expect Missouri to throw waves of pressure at the Illini guards in an effort to wear them down, and to make Tisdale drag his mammoth frame up and down the court more than he would like. This could be a tremendous clash, as two very fine teams with contrasting styles go at it like it’s March. Factor in the neutral-court, holiday-fueled atmosphere, and it’s one not to be missed.
Hands down, the game of the non-conference schedule.
(Factoid sure to enhance your enjoyment of the game: Illinois is first alphabetically in the Big Ten. They would not hold that distinction in any other Division I conference. These are the things you notice when doing your research.)
The Calm Before the Conference: Northern Illinois (12/27), Old Dominion (12/30) and North Alabama (1/5) at Mizzou Arena.
Go ahead and brace yourselves for it. When former Colorado coach Ricardo Patton brings his Northern Illinois team to Columbia, the Tigers will be sluggish in the first half as they work through the Illinois/Christmas hangover. But they’ll roll in the second half against a team that has experienced a wave of player discord and defections over the past year. Still, keep an eye on 6-5 swingman Xavier Silas, one of the most gifted mid-major perimeter players that Missouri will see this season.
A much stiffer test comes three days later when Old Dominion visits. The Monarchs beat Notre Dame in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, and they gave Mizzou fits last November in South Padre. They are again picked to compete with George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth for the top spot in the Colonial Athletic Association, one of the NCAA’s best mid-major leagues. And despite losing high-scoring Gerald Lee, ODU returns Kent Bazemore and Frank Hassell, one of the best forward tandems Missouri will face before January.
We’ll confess to not understanding the final game on the non-conference slate (let’s assume it was a desperate effort to fill the last hole in the schedule). Missouri hosts North Alabama, a traditional power . . . in NCAA Division II. Not sure what this game gets the Tigers other than a visit from bubbly Bobby Champagne, the Lions’ head coach.
If the Tigers are who we think they are, they will come through this part of the schedule at 13-2 or better, and then will have a chance to play their way to a top-three NCAA seed in conference play.
[Tomorrow: A Walk Through the Conference Schedule]