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COLUMBIA MO - JANUARY 17:  Michael Dixon #11 of the Missouri Tigers battles Jacob Pullen #0 of the Kansas State Wildcats for a loose ball during the game on January 17 2011 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA MO - JANUARY 17: Michael Dixon #11 of the Missouri Tigers battles Jacob Pullen #0 of the Kansas State Wildcats for a loose ball during the game on January 17 2011 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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After a long hiatus (hey, I get busy), we’re back to survey the world of hoops.  Let’s go around the nation.


That’s more like it:  The past week’s relatively comfortable wins over Kansas State and Iowa State put the Tigers back on track, but it was really just holding serve.  Those were games Missouri needed to win, and should have won. 


In conference play, the Tigers have had two opportunity games – at Colorado, where they should expect to win, and at Texas A&M, where it was in their hands – and have come up empty.  Come March, the last minute of overtime in College Station may continue to reverberate for Mizzou.


Now comes big opportunity.  Win at Texas, and it’s all square.


Win at Texas, and you play for seeding the rest of the way. 


Lose at Texas, and then you go into Stillwater, Oklahoma hoping not to fall to 3-4 in the league.

The next two games provide a huge pivot point for the season.  And the Tigers will have to ride the best asset they have, their guards.  Right now, I’m not sure there’s a better unit in the nation than Denmon, Dixon, Pressey, Pressey and English.  The key to winning the past two games was frustrating opposing guards on defense and demoralizing them on offense.  As Missouri prepares to face guys like Tristan Thompson and Marshall Moses who can score in bunches in the paint, they’ll need their guards to be as good as they have been all season long.


Now that I’ve written that, it’s all but assured that the games will turn on the play of Laurence Bowers and Ricardo Ratliffe.


T is for Texas, Tremendous:  There’s a word for those of us who scoffed at the Texas Longhorns’ lofty preseason rankings – stupid. 


By now we ought to know that when Rick Barnes has a point guard he has a ball club.  And though Cory Joseph isn’t T.J. Ford or D.J. Augustin (at least not yet), he’s good and he’s one of four Longhorns averaging at least 2.3 assists per game.  This team shares the ball.  And with an emerging star in the post in freshman Tristan Thompson and a nuclear weapon on the wing in Jordan Hamilton, Texas provides tough matchups for any team.


Now that they’ve won the toughest road game on their schedule (at Kansas) and routed one of the two best teams that will visit Austin (Texas A&M), the Longhorns have a chance to seize firm control of the Big 12 race with a win at home against Missouri on Saturday.


The rest of the league says Help us, Obi-Wan Denmoney.  You’re our only hope.


Look at the Longhorns’ schedule to date, and it’s a lot like Mizzou’s, only tougher.  In addition to the somewhat inexplicable egg they laid at Southern Cal (much like the Tigers’ performance at Colorado), Texas has a two-point loss to Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden and a one-point overtime loss to Connecticut.  Two losses to top ten teams by a total of three points.  Missouri, with its heartbreaking losses to Georgetown and Texas A&M, isn’t the only team two possessions away from near-perfection.


But the Longhorns have also gone on the road and beaten Illinois, North Carolina, Michigan State and Kansas, ending two home-court winning streaks of more than fifty games in the process.


We’ve seen super-talented Texas teams play erratically in recent years.  Not this one.  This team is tough.


Jimmer!:  Jimmer Fredette gets a fair amount of attention for being named Jimmer and for being one of the best college basketball players in the nation.  Still, if anything, he’s underappreciated.  Playing out west in a relatively unheralded basketball conference means that he doesn’t get all the attention he deserves.  Remember a few years ago when J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison shared national player of the year honors?  He’s both of those guys.  Brigham Young plays undefeated San Diego State at 9:00 pm tomorrow on CBS College Sports.  Do whatever you have to do to see that game.


While you wait, watch these.  Fredette scored 47 points at Utah last week, including 32 in the first half.  These were his last three before the break: 

Something’s happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?: Ken Pomeroy has been tracking his ownplayer of the year candidates, using his own statistical formula. Most of the names on the list are ones getting the national attention: Fredette, Kemba Walker, Jared Sullinger. Another name on the list is Kentucky super-frosh Terrence Jones. Not only is Jones crazy productive, he’ll also blow your mind a little if you let him.


Required reading: SI’s Luke Winn checks in with a highly entertaining midseason style report.

Sympathy for the Rival:  Sometimes, it’s good to remind ourselves that a rival isn’t the same thing as an enemy.


I recently talked to Norm Stewart for a story I wrote for the February issue of Basketball Times (it’s print-only at the moment; I’ll post it online in a week or so), and part of the discussion involved old rivalries with former Kansas coach Ted Owens and former K-State coach Jack Hartman, and how bitter feelings borne from competition eventually give way to respect.  I’ve seen it in person with Norm and Billy Tubbs entertaining a crowd by telling stories from the old days.  If you watched those two go at it twenty-five years ago, you would never imagine that they could be friends, but they eventually let the world in on a secret: they really like each other.


By now, you’ve probably heard that Kansas forward Thomas Robinson’s mother died of an apparent heart attack on Friday at the unspeakably young age of 37.  When I first heard the news, I gave it a perfunctory "that’s sad."


Then I read the story in Sunday’s Kansas City Star.


Lisa Robinson died less than three weeks after losing both her mother and her father.  At Christmas, Thomas Robinson had a mother and two grandparents in his life.  Estranged from his own father, Thomas Robinson lost his entire adult family in a fleeting, incomprehensible moment.


And as terrible as that is, it gets worse.


Thomas Robinson learned of his mother’s death in a call from his nine-year-old sister, Jayla.


I have a nine-year-old daughter.  The thought of her having to make a call like that is almost too much to bear.


It’s hard to imagine what life is like for Thomas and Jayla at this moment.  They must be reeling, confused, despairing.  Thomas Robinson is nineteen years old.  At 6’9" and 237 pounds, he looks like a man, but he’s still a kid, and Jayla, well, she’s a baby.


The only appropriate reaction is to ache for them.


God bless you, Thomas and Jayla.  You don’t know us, but we’ll say a prayer for you.