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Hoop M Nation

We begin the second installment of Hoop M Nation with a modest proposal.  Let Justin Safford start for the Tigers with everyone else coming off the bench.

With that, we go spanning the sphere.

Double hotdamnity
:  Over the last four games, Ricardo Ratliffe is averaging 12 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.  Missouri basketball sports information director Dave Reiter tells us that Ratliffe is the first Tiger with four straight double-figure rebounding games since Arthur Johnson recorded six straight eight years ago.  I was hoping for 14 points and 8 boards per game from Ricardo this season, but 12 and 11?  Even better.

The next step for Ratliffe is to embrace his inner beast.  Even though Missouri has run little half-court offense for him, Ratliffe has displayed a rare and precious gift for finding the ball in his hands within two feet of the basket.  During Sunday’s radio broadcast, Gary Link implored Ricardo to attack the rim; the result ninety percent of the time will be either a dunk or a trip to the free throw line.  Too often, Ratliffe’s instinct is to go up softly or to fall away.  He’s too good and too strong for that.  More than any other player from the past, Ratliffe calls to mind Jevon Crudup, a big, strong and effective rebounder who seemed reluctant to tear down the rim.


There had been some talk entering the year that Ratliffe hoped to jump to the NBA after just one season.  I think we can put that speculation to rest until he dramatically expands his offensive arsenal.  A 6’11" player can make it in the league by defending, rebounding and scoring on put backs.  A 6’8" guy needs to display markedly different skills.

Half and Half:  I’d like to tell you that I have some insight into how Mizzou can lead North Florida by eight at halftime and then win by 38, how the Tigers can be tied with LaSalle at the break before cruising to an easy win, or how they can they can go to the locker room up two against Arkansas-Pine Bluff only to win by 28.  It’s half-maddening, half-reassuring.  Sure, you’d like to blitz these opponents from the opening bell, but the second half annihilations prove what you hope – the team you want them to be is lurking inside.


Part of it may be a chemistry problem.  Mike Anderson has a lot of pieces to put on the floor, including some new ones, and I’m not sure he yet knows how they best fit together.  But as much as anything, I think it’s a personality crisis.  This team has more raw talent than any that Anderson has had before at Missouri, but it’s constituted much differently than previous squads.  The Tigers’ true identity the past three years ago rested in J.T. Tiller.  He wasn’t as offensively skilled as Marcus Denmon, Michael Dixon or Kim English (nor perhaps Phil Pressey and Ricky Kreklow once they’ve developed).  But none of the current guys can hold a candle to Tiller when it comes to defensive intensity or on-court leadership.  The man had basketball gravitas and a withering stare that could bring young players into compliance with expectations.  To date, it has been too easy to break the press and for opposing guards to drive into the lane in the half court.  Remember how predatory Tiller was on defense, how he would smile at other guards, seeing not opponents but opportunities?  This team needs some of that.  And tonight would be a very good time to find it.


Energy Shortage:  Part of the problem – and really, when a team is 5-0 and ranked in single digits in both polls, "problem" is a relative concept – may be who and where the Tigers have played.  You’d like for your team to bring its best effort every time out, but when they play second-rate teams in third-rate facilities, the energy can get sucked out of the game.  Tournaments like those in Cancun and South Padre are far more dangerous and considerably less useful than the Preseason NIT or the CBE Classic.  The latter events test teams against top-flight competition in March-like environments, while the former are trips to the dentist – it’s like having teeth pulled in a sterile environment.  The fact that the Tigers emerged unblemished (remember last season in south Texas?) is encouraging.


Opposition Research:  The energy that has been missing from games so far this year should return with a vengeance this week.  Tonight, the Tigers take on fourteenth-ranked Georgetown at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.  The Hoyas are 6-0 on the year, including an 82-67 win over North Carolina State in the finals of the Charleston Classic.  Two keys for the Tigers:  (1) Contain Austin Freeman.  The All-America candidate averages 20 points per game, takes great care of the ball (his assist to turnover ratio is better than 3:1, and he hasn’t turned the ball over more than once in any game, an astonishing feat for a player who has the ball in his hands as much as Freeman does), and has made 19 of 33 three-point attempts (57.6%!!!) so far; and (2) Get into Georgetown’s bench.  The Hoyas have five players who average 9.0 points per game or more.  No one else tallies more than 3.6.  Georgetown likes a more methodical pace.  The Tigers need to make them run.


Two nights later, the Tigers travel to Oregon for the first true road game of the season, and the biggest obstacle might be acclimating to the environment.  After playing in Mexico, traveling home, playing in Columbia and then Kansas City, the Tigers immediately head to Eugene for a game that tips at 10:00 central time.  Dana Altman’s Ducks have struggled in the season’s early weeks; they have posted narrow wins over UC Santa Barbara and North Dakota State, suffered a three-point loss to San Jose State, and got routed by Duke on Saturday.  One key to stopping Oregon is finding a way to slow Joevon Catron, a 6’6" fifth-year senior forward, who leads the team with 18.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.  The other is applying pressure to the Ducks’ guards.  Point guard Malcolm Armstead leads Oregon with 4.3 assists per game.  He also leads the team in turnovers, at 4.5 per contest.  Marcus Denmon and Michael Dixon need to take up residence in Armstead’s head early in this game.


Hoisting the Hardware:  Unless I’m missing something obvious, the tournament title in Cancun was Missouri’s first pre-conference championship since Kareem Rush, Rickey Paulding and Clarence Gilbert each made clutch shots in the final forty seconds to win the 2001 Guardians Classic final against Iowa at Kemper Arena in Kansas City.  The Tigers trailed 73-62 with 2:15 to play before making an all-but impossible comeback that Gilbert finished with a free throw with 0.8 seconds remaining that gave Missouri a 78-77 victory.


The Big 12


This week gave several teams from the conference the chance to make statements.  Boy, did they blow it.


The Mushy Middle:  The league’s five best teams – Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor and Texas – seem fairly well defined, but several others – including Colorado, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech – entered the season believing they could contend for NCAA bids.  Each of those teams had a chance to build their tournament resumes over the holiday, but the results were a mixed bag.  Texas A&M fared best.  The Aggies went to Orlando for the Old Spice Classic and promptly lost by two to Boston College, but bounced back with wins over Manhattan and Temple.  The victory over the number 20 ranked Owls is one of the Big 12’s best to date, and A&M can further enhance its reputation in games against Washington and Arkansas just before Christmas.


Oklahoma State ventured to Anaheim for the 76 Classic where the Cowboys eked out a win against a bad DePaul team and then dropped a 56-51 decision to Virginia Tech.  Not a bad loss, but a missed opportunity.


Texas Tech’s trip to the South Padre Invitational was nothing less than a season killer.  The Red Raiders arrived with a loss to North Texas and without a single quality win, and left with two more losses, an 88-68 thumping by St. Mary’s, and a closer (but no less dispiriting) 64-61 defeat at the hands of South Florida.  Pat Knight’s team needs John Roberson and Mike Singletary to be efficient scorers, and to date they are shooting 37.7% and 42.2% from the field, respectively.  That won’t get it done.


Speaking of not getting it done, Colorado is the face of underachievement in the league.  The Buffs stand at 2-3 on the year after losing on Sunday to Harvard.  And it was no fluke.  The Crimson had their way with Tad Boyle’s team, leading by nine at the half and stretching the margin to 21 before prevailing 82-66.  It’s too early to worry about the Buffs packing it in, but their schedule doesn’t have a single high-level opponent on it until January 8 when they host Missouri.


The Brutal Bottom:  Colorado can take some consolation in not being Oklahoma.  


The Sooners showed some pluck by going to the Maui Classic and hanging with Kentucky for a while in the opening round, but then they imploded in the losers’ bracket.  Virginia, fresh off of consecutive blowout losses, scored the game’s first twelve points and cruised to a 74-56 win over OU.  But the real humiliation came next, when tourney host Chaminade, an NCAA Division II program, opened a ten-point second half lead, withstood a Sooner rally, and held on for a 68-64 victory.


The Sooners have a chance to get back on track this week with trips to Arkansas and Arizona.  They also have a chance to fall to 3-5.


Lace ‘em up:  Baylor’s LaceDarius Dunn made his season debut on November 22 following a bizarre three-game suspension for either assaulting or not assaulting his girlfriend, and through two games he’s averaging 22 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4 assists. 


Shoot ‘em down:  What did K-State’s Jacob Pullen do last night?  He made four three-pointers against Emporia State en route to 26 points and a school record for treys made in a career (241).  Pullen, Dunn, KU’s Marcus Morris and Jordan Hamilton of Texas already look like good bets for the all-conference team.


Not so lonely at the top:  A new set of polls are out, and Missouri ranks third in the Big 12 North and eighth in the nation.  Kansas (fourth), Kansas State (fifth) and Baylor (tenth) join the Tigers in the top ten of the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.


The Nation

The team of the week, hands down, is Connecticut, who went from unranked to number 7 in the Associated Press poll in a matter of days.  The Huskies took down Michigan State (then ranked second) and whipped Kentucky (then eighth) to win the Maui Classic title.  Kemba Walker, who we mentioned last week, continues his mesmerizing play.  He dropped 30 points on Michigan State and then posted 29 points and six assists against. Kentucky.  When he got on the bus after taking home tournament MVP honors, his teammates applauded.  Jim Calhoun, who has coached a lot of awfully good players, said he had never seen that. 


And finally . . .


I searched in vain for video of Clarence Gilbert’s heroics in the Guardians Classic, but I did stumble across this, and include it because it’s just fun to watch.