Yesterday, we walked through the two exhibitions and 15 non-conference games that will prepare the Tigers for Last Tango in the Original Big 12. Today, it’s on to weightier things.
In recent years, the unbalanced, North-South split in Big 12 scheduling has favored Missouri, as the South has been tougher top to bottom. This year should be different. The best southern squads face significant issues in need of resolution, and the rest range from mediocre to considerably worse. If a team like Texas A&M or Oklahoma State can jell, it can exceed expectations by feasting on its divisional rivals and by not having to play Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State twice. But in the North, Iowa State, Colorado and Nebraska have as many games against top 15 teams from their own division as they have against all teams from the South. And if the Tigers, Jayhawks and Wildcats beat each other up in conference play, the best team from the South stands a chance to sneak in and steal the Big 12 title.
Colorado (1/8 in Boulder; 2/5 at Mizzou Arena): Considerable optimism seems to exist in Tad Boyle’s first season as coach, and most of that optimism is built around 6-5 senior Cory Higgins and 6-6 sophomore Alec Burks, two of the league’s most prolific returning scorers. Senior Marcus Relphorde, a 6-7 forward, is a nice complementary piece, but the Buffs are counting on a strange recipe for success. They’re wicked good on the wings, but pretty pedestrian at the point and in the post. Most coaches, if they had the choice, would flip that around. Expect Colorado to be dangerous but not consistent. For the Tigers to achieve their goals, they need to sweep the season series. They should do that.
Nebraska (1/12 at Mizzou Arena; 3/1 in Lincoln): Despite going just 2-14 in conference play last year, the Huskers stunned Mizzou in the first round of the league tournament, and that may make Tiger fans wary of Nebraska. But Missouri’s performance in that game was a Halley’s Comet of offensive ineptitude, the kind of effort you’re unlikely to see even once this year. Still, the Huskers are a tough team to figure in their last go-round in the Big 12. What they lack in talent, they make up for in size. You think Illnois has a big roster? Check out Nebraska. They return 6-8 Christian Standhardinger, 6-10 Brandon Ubel and 6-11 Jorge Brian Diaz, and then add 6-11, 275-pound German center Christopher Niemann and 6-11, 310-pound Andre Almeida, a Brazilian who played junior college ball in Arizona. Niemann is in his third year on campus, but has not yet played because of eligibility and injury issues. He is rumored to be a skilled post player. Almeida is rumored to have fought Mothra to a draw. If the Tigers can force Nebraska to run, it could be both a rout and a seismic event. Mizzou takes two from the Huskers.
Texas A&M (1/15 in College Station): Bryan Davis and Donald Sloan, so nice to see you go. They weren’t the two best known players in the league in recent years, but Davis and Sloan were a cross between dynamite and kryptonite for the Missouri Tigers. The Aggies return some nice pieces – Dash Harris, Khris Middleton, David Loubeau – but little star power and suspect depth. Reed Arena has consistently been a tough place for Missouri to play, but the Tigers have a real opportunity to steal a game there this year.
Kansas State (1/17 at Mizzou Arena; 2/26 in Manhattan). With a sublime guard in Jacob Pullen and a stockpile of big and agile athletes in the frontcourt (Curtis Kelly, Jamar Samuels, Wally Judge), the Wildcats are a worthy pick to win the league. But they aren’t without questions. Denis Clemente was an assassin next to Pullen last season. Is there another guard on the roster who can come close to replacing him? Probably not, but the Cats should be crazy good nonetheless. From our perch in early November, a split seems like a good result. The game on February 26 could be huge in the Big 12 race.
Iowa State (1/22 at Mizzou Arena; 2/19 in Ames). Let’s hope the Fred Hoiberg experiment pays off. It’s great to see a guy come home, especially a guy who everyone loves. But the payoff, if it comes, will come down the line. This is a depleted roster. Craig Brackins, Marquis Gilstrap, Lucca Staiger and LaRon Dendy are gone, and the Cyclones weren’t even very good with them. It will be a long season in Ames. The Tigers should – really, must – take two from ISU.
Texas (1/29 in Austin). Box of chocolates and all that jazz. Really, who knows what we’ll get from the Longhorns? Jordan Hamilton might be a breakout star. J’Coven Brown might live up to the lofty reputation he brought from high school. Gary Johnson might be a reliable interior presence. Heralded freshmen Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson might make up for the losses of Damion James, Avery Bradley and Dexter Pittman, and help restore the chemistry that went up in smoke last season. Or it might all go up in flames. Texas could be really good or really disappointing. Flip a coin.
Oklahoma State (2/2 in Stillwater). Another south squad with lots of questions, the Cowboys lost James Anderson and Obi Muonelo, and with them, their identity. They will be tough up front with Marshall Moses and Matt Pilgrim, plus juco transfer Darrell Williams (though as this goes up on the site, Pilgrim is serving an indefinite suspension for undisclosed reasons). The backcourt features a known commodity in super shooter Keiton Page, and three others – Ray Penn, Fred Gulley and freshman Markel Brown – whose development will determine the Pokes’ fate. Like Texas A&M, Oklahoma State appears to have some nice pieces, but little proven firepower. Another winnable road game for Missouri.
Kansas (2/7 in Lawrence; 3/5 at Mizzou Arena). Kansas will be good. They’re always good. And though their roster lost a lot – Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry – it returns plenty to make a run at yet another Big 12 title. The Morris twins will make for one of the nation’s best frontcourt tandems, especially in a year with few (if any) great big men in college hoops. And the backcourt is a fine blend of depth, talent and experience with Elijah Johnson, Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed and Tyshawn Taylor sharing minutes. The question is whether the team has a difference-maker on the perimeter. And that question may not be answered until the NCAA rules on the eligibility of elite guard prospect Josh Selby. If Selby plays, watch out – the Jayhawks could win it all. If he doesn’t, they’ll still be a threat, but they’ll need a player to emerge as a consistent scorer. The February game in Lawrence might be the toughest test on Missouri’s schedule. If we’re lucky, the game in Columbia on March 5 – the last day of the regular season – will be for all the marbles.
Oklahoma (2/12 at Mizzou Arena). Two years ago, the Sooners were in the Elite Eight. Now, the program is in shambles. The roster is bereft of big-time talent, and coach Jeff Capel seems in over his head. Mizzou fans know the story: Young coach with fancy pedigree leads program in an upward trajectory, only to see it come crashing down. Capel may still get control of the program, but it won’t do much good this year. The Tigers should roll here.
Texas Tech (2/15 at Mizzou Arena). A theme is emerging. For perhaps the first time since the league formed, the Big 12 South just isn’t that good. Luckily for coach Pat Knight, he has two really fine players to help break through the clutter of Texlahoma teams. Seniors Mike Singletary (a bull-strong 6-6 wing) and John Roberson (a waterbug point guard) can carry the scoring load from the perimeter. And 6-7 D’walyn Roberts and 6-10 Robert Lewandowski make the Red Raiders respectable in the paint. Add super-athletic 6-8 juco transfer Paul Cooper, and Tech has the makings of a credible roster. But do they have a third scoring threat? At this point, it’s not clear, and that puts this game firmly on Missouri’s side of the ledger.
Baylor (2/23 at Mizzou Arena). Back in September, walking past a magazine stand, I pointed and laughed at all the college basketball previews stacked in rows. There’s so much you don’t know two months before the tip. Will Tony Mitchell be eligible? Will Josh Selby play? Now it’s November, and we still don’t know those things. But in the Big 12 race, the biggest thing we still don’t know is this: Will LaceDarius Dunn be back for Baylor? Dunn, indefinitely suspended following a domestic assault charge, is a first-team All-America candidate, and the single biggest reason that virtually everyone has picked the Bears to finish in the top four in the Big 12. With him, I think Baylor is probably a little overrated. Perry Jones, a likely lottery pick next summer, might be the most spectacular freshman in the nation this year. But the Bears lost Ekpe Udoh, the best defensive big man in the country. And while Jones is slated to fill that spot, there is no one who can replace Tweety Carter, the do-everything guard who facilitated Baylor’s offense. Still, the Bears can be very good, a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team. But without Dunn, they are a very fine front court (Perry Jones, Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones) with suspect guards. Given that this game comes so late in the season, the Bears will have plenty of time to coalesce before coming to Columbia, but if the Tigers can apply pressure at the point, they can win this game without regard to Dunn’s status.
What to expect at the end of conference play? 12-4 is the over/under point. Play below that, and it means Missouri either got swept by the Kansas schools or lost a game or two that look ripe for winning at this point. Play above that, and you may see the Tigers’ first regular season conference title in sixteen years.