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Welcome to the first installment of what (we hope) will be a weekly run of concentric circles around Mizzou, Big 12 and national college basketball.  The title is tentative.  If you have a better one, post it in the comments.

The week that was. 


Let’s start with a quick look at what we learned in a squeaker against Western Illinois and a blowout of North Florida.


Sometimes it is that simple.  The 2010-11 College Basketball Prospectus provides this gem.  Last year’s Tigers were one of only two teams since 2004 whose opponents turned the ball over on more than 27% of their possessions.  In the season’s first game, Western Illinois turned the ball over just under 24% of the time.  Missouri won by five.  In the season’s second game, North Florida turned the ball over on 40% of its possessions.  The Tigers won by 38.  Turnover percentage doesn’t tell you everything, but for a Missouri team, it tells you a lot.  Another stat that tells you a lot: Pace.  The Western Illinois game yielded 67 possessions per team.  The North Florida game yielded 85.  The Leathernecks dictated the opening game’s pace, and that may be the most effective thing a less-talented team can do against Mizzou.


Your English is improving.  For the season’s first 62 minutes, Kim English played far below his ability, and teams with ability far below the Missouri Tigers managed to hang perilously close.  Then English made a jump shot with 17:51 to play against North Florida to increase the lead from two to four, a layup with 15:04 left to increase the lead from five to seven, and two treys over the next eight minutes to help blow the game open.  Here’s a truism:  When Kim English makes shots, the Missouri Tigers are exceptionally hard to beat.  Last season, English shot 25.8% from beyond the arc in losses, and only shot better than 33.3% in two of those games (2 for 5 against Texas A&M and 3 for 7 against Vanderbilt, two contests that came down to the final minute).  In Mizzou’s wins, Kimmie made 42.6% of his tries.  It’s no coincidence that Western Illinois pushed Mizzou to the limit when English went 0 for 3 from three-point range, or that North Florida rolled over when Kim when 2 for 4 from behind the arc (and 5 for 7 overall).


Part of the problem is that when he doesn’t make shots, English’s erratic ball handling bogs down the offense.  Through two games, Kim has twice as many turnovers as assists, and there have been other times when bobbles have killed a fast break or slowed the half-court offense.  To make the leap from shooter-with-potential to game-changing offensive force, English has to become better with the ball. 


As the World Rotates.  Two games in and it’s clear that Mike Anderson is going to play ten guys.  All ten logged at least ten minutes in each of the first two games, ranging from Kim English (26 minutes per game) to Steve Moore and Ricky Kreklow (12).  What’s not clear is how the rotation is going to take shape.  It’s hard to imagine that Anderson will continue the hockey-style substitutions seen so far.  Against North Florida, the starting lineup of Denmon-Dixon-English-Bowers-Safford raced to a 16-2 lead in just over five minutes of play before Anderson made wholesale changes, bringing in Pressey-Pressey-Kreklow-Ratliffe-More, and promptly saw his offense go stagnant.  The reserves were outscored 10-6 over the next four minutes, and the Tigers didn’t regain their offensive swagger until the second half.


It’s not hard to see why.  Phil Pressey is going to be a potent scorer, but he isn’t yet, and neither is Matt Pressey or Ricky Kreklow (Matt took more shots against North Florida than did Kim; let’s not let that happen again).  Combine them with Steve Moore’s less-than-potent offensive game and Ricardo Ratliffe’s adjustment to the D-I level, and you have a lineup that will struggle to score.  Swapping five players at a time might result in fresh legs, but fresh legs don’t mean much if you can’t put the ball in the basket.


Going forward, I suspect that as long as any game remains close, you’ll see a three-man perimeter of at least two of Denmon, English, Dixon and Phil Pressey combined with a frontcourt that includes Bowers and/or Ratliffe.  That guarantees at least three scoring options on the floor at all times, and this team needs it.


As for the end of the bench, Mike Anderson said after Saturday’s game that freshman forward Kadeem Green may redshirt this season as he continues to work back to full strength following an Achilles injury. 

The only other scholarship player not getting significant minutes is sophomore big man John Underwood.  Underwood has always seemed to be productive in mop-up duty, but mop-up minutes are all that he seems to get.  After not getting off the bench against Western Illinois, Underwood played just the final three minutes of the game against North Florida, entering after the Tigers had built the lead to nearly thirty points.  The remainder of the non-conference schedule could be make-or-break for Underwood.  It’s hard to recall a player being completely buried on the bench at this stage of his career and then evolving into a productive player.


Are you experienced?  As much as anything, Missouri’s first two games showed the value of player development.  Phil Pressey and Ricardo Ratliffe are, by far, the most heralded recruits of Mike Anderson’s tenure.  But so far, neither has been the best Tiger at his position.  Still, you can see it coming.  Pressey looks like a colt out there, kicking and playing.  Over the next few weeks, expect to see the exuberance beaten out of him.  At the moment, his biggest problem – maybe his only problem – is the urge to make an entertaining play when an effective one will do, and the result is one turnover per six minutes of court time.  Once that is straightened out, he has the stuff to become as fine a pure point guard as this program has seen.


As for Ratliffe, he clearly was pressing over the first game and a half (Bill has noted his no-look shots).  Once he allowed the game to come to him, his numbers shot up.  So far, Ratliffe’s production has come almost exclusively off of offensive rebounds and in transition.  The next step in the evolution comes when he starts scoring by design in the halfcourt.  This team can’t reach its potential without it.


I’ve Got to Hand it to Myself.  How good was Marcus Denmon against North Florida?  Just check the play-by-play.  With 5:51 left in the game it reads "Marcus Denmon made Three Point Jumper.  Assisted by Marcus Denmon."


This Game is History.  If you’re reading this (and I know you are), it’s likely that you’ve heard by now that the Western Illinois game marked the first time in nearly sixty years that Mizzou won a game without having a single player score in double figures.  The last such occurrence was on February 12, 1951 at Brewer Fieldhouse (the second of the Tigers’ four home courts) when Mizzou beat Kansas 39-38.  Missouri trailed by eleven points in the second half but rallied and pulled even on a field goal by George Lafferty that tied the score at 37-37.  After Kansas made a single free throw, Lafferty struck again with a driving layup in the final half-minute that gave the Tigers the win.


The Tigers may have also made some history in the second half of Saturday’s game.  North Florida’s Matt Sauey made a pair of free throws with 7:18 to play to cut Missouri’s lead to 72-58.  The Tigers then went on a 24-0 run to close the game, capped by Jarrett Sutton’s three-pointer in the closing seconds.  I asked Rock M Nation’s crack research staff if the Tigers’ 24 consecutive points were the most to close a game in the program’s history.  The answer:  "Probably.  Sure.  We guess.  What?"


Around the Big 12.


You shouldn’t take too much from November games, but you shouldn’t take too little, either.  And my take from Kansas’s thorough domination of three lower-level opponents is that the Jayhawks are the best team in the league.  Shooting 58.6% from the field as a team, and with a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, Kansas is playing perfect team basketball.  When the lesser twin is averaging 13 points and 12 boards per game, you know something good is happening.  And Tyshawn Taylor’s 7.0 assists per game reveal a maturity in his game that has been lacking in previous years.  Now, with the news that super blue chip guard Josh Selby can begin playing on December 18, Kansas is beyond loaded.  My question regarding Selby is this:  Does he help more than he hurts?  Clearly, Kansas has to put a guy like that on the court, but right now, the team looks so cohesive that you have to wonder whether a prodigious freshman talent will blend well with a team of players dominated by juniors and seniors.


I haven’t seen them play, but one of the conference’s pleasant surprises in the early going has to be the Iowa State Cyclones.  Fred Hoiberg’s team is 4-0, and the Cyclones’ wins include a 91-43 thrashing of Drake, and a 91-88 victory over former ISU coach Greg McDermott’s Creighton team.  A key addition for Iowa State is 6’2" senior guard Jake Anderson, a transfer from Northern Illinois, who is averaging 12.8 points and 10.0 rebounds per game thus far.  It seems the Cyclones always have a broad-shouldered guard who crashes the glass to great effect.


The league’s best player to date?  It could be Jordan Hamilton, Texas’s 6’7" sophomore swingman.  He is averaging 24.5 points through four games, including an impressive win against Illinois and a two-point loss to fifth-ranked Pittsburgh.  I was skeptical of the Longhorns entering the season, but they look very much for real.


Who is trending down?  Colorado.  Buoyed by the return of the high-scoring tandem of Alec Burks and Cory Higgins, the Buffs had high hopes entering the season.  And while those two have been productive, Colorado has not.  The Buffs opened the year with an 88-80 win over Idaho State, but have since lost to Georgia and San Francisco.  With few opportunities remaining for signature wins on the non-conference schedule, the Buffs have little room for error if they are to have any chance of making the NCAA field.


Around the Nation.


 That’s what’s happening in your neck of the woods.  Here’s what’s happening around the country.


Opposition Research.  Two of Missouri’s three toughest tests in the non-conference figure to be Illinois and Vanderbilt, and after the past two weeks, those tests appear to be even tougher than expected.  The Illini are 4-1 (their one loss was by six points to Texas) and they look impressive.  Big men Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale have added bulk and strength, and Brandon Paul has emerged as a third scoring threat on the perimeter (along with Demitri McCamey and D.J. Richardson).  A week ago, while you were watching Oregon play Cal in football, I was checking in on the Illini’s game with Southern Illinois, and I flipped the game on just in time to see this:


Likewise, Vandy has been impressive, standing 3-1 with a win over North Carolina and a three-point loss to West Virginia in Puerto Rico. With sequoia-big center A.J. Ogilvy gone, the Commodores might be less of a matchup problem for Missouri, but a better team overall. Sophomore guard John Jenkins has struggled from the field, but has been so good at getting to the free throw line that he leads the team with 18.8 points per game, and sophomore forward Jeffery Taylor, an elite NBA prospect , is close behind. Like me, Andy Katz is impressed.

So Fresh.  North Carolina freshman forward Harrison Barnes got the most acclaim, including a spot on the preseason All-America team, but to date the best frosh in the nation has been Ohio State man-beast Jared Sullinger (though Terrence Jones threw his hat into the ring last night).  The 6’9" and 280-pound forward who posted 26 points and 10 rebounds in a win at Florida doesn’t just look like the freshman of the year – he looks like a good bet for player of the year.  Sullinger’s toughest competition might be Connecticut’s junior guard Kemba Walker, who has been all kinds of ridiculous over the season’s first couple of weeks.

Big, Big Ten.  The best conference so far?  I’ll take the Big Ten.  In addition to the expected quartet of Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, and Ohio State, the Minnesota Golden Gophers have announced themselves as an early season force by winning the Puerto Rico Tip-off Tournament with wins over Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia.  With an interior presence anchored by 6’11" Ralph Sampson III and beefy junior college transfer Trevor Mbakwe, the Gophers are going to be a load for anyone to handle.  Should be a bruising conference campaign in the rust belt.


And finally . . .   The Clippers are still struggling (though they did manage to beat the Hornets last night), but former Oklahoma star Blake Griffin is part-kangaroo, part-jackhammer.  Dear NBA:  Put this guy in the Slam Dunk competition.  Please.