It's easy to get lost in a discussion of Missouri's style. It's easy to lament this team's lack of size, to fret about its lack of depth.
Yours truly has done as much more than once this season, and with good reason: The Jan. 3 transfer of freshman Kadeem Green left this already height-challenged squad with just seven scholarship players, and just two taller than 6-foot-6. When Missouri went on the road to play Kansas State just four days later, the Wildcats' strength and length were too much. The game -- Mizzou's only loss of the season to date -- was never close. Sure, this team was good. Sure, they can score in bunches. Sure, their hyperquick four-guard style gives other teams problems, too. But the Tigers couldn't match up with size. This was an obvious knock. It was also true.
And yet, since then, Missouri has kept on winning. Even better, two of its three victories -- at Iowa State, versus Texas A&M -- have come against teams whose strengths decidedly lie in their interiors. The concern over Missouri's lack of interior players, over Frank Haith's conscious design to play a lights-out shooting guard (Kim English) alongside one big man (Ricardo Ratliffe) and three diminutive guards (Marcus Denmon, Michael Dixon, Phil Pressey, et al.) seems at least a little bit inflated. Clearly, Missouri can win with this style.
At the very least, this hand-wringing has distracted us from one of the more remarkable seasons we've seen from a big man in modern college hoops history. That big man is Ratliffe, and what he's doing in the middle of that Missouri attack deserves serious attention and acclaim. Why? Because if Ratliffe maintains his current pace, he'll not only smash Missouri's single-season field goal percentage record, he'll also become the most accurate single-season field goal shooter in the history of college basketball. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Then again, Ratliffe has made 81 of his other 112 attempts, leaving him 111 of 144 overall and leading the nation in field goal percentage (.771). He also is on pace to shred the MU record of .676 set by Jeff Warren in 1990-91 and, in fact, on track to break the men's Division I record of .746 set by Oregon State's Steve Johnson in 1980-81.
"We're all surprised when he misses a shot," MU coach Frank Haith said, smiling.
Ratliffe's tempo-free numbers are every bit as impressive. Ratliffe ranks No. 1 in the country in effective field goal percentage (77.1 percent) and true shooting percentage (75.8 percent). The former factors in 3-point shooting, which Ratliffe never does; the latter accounts for free throw accuracy. What's more, Ratliffe's eFG% is nine points better than the second-best player in the country, Denver's Brett Olson, and the rest of the pack that crowds the top of the list. Ratliffe is way out in front.
How does he get his points? As Luke Winn pointed out yesterday, the Tigers, while still fast-ish, aren't nearly as breakneck as they were under former coach Mike Anderson. Haith has slowed them down. Ratliffe, then, isn't getting the lion's share of his buckets on fast break dunks set up by teammates. According to Synergy Scouting data, the Missouri big man has recorded just 23 fast-break possessions this season. He's scored 36 points in those situations, to the tune of an amazing 1.565 ppp, but the real work has come in the half court: 165 possessions, 212 points, 1.285 ppp and a ranking in the 98th percentile of every player in college hoops.
Ratliffe has been good in post-up situations, but that's not really his bread and butter. Per Synergy, post-ups account for just 39.2 percent of Ratliff's half-court offensive possessions. Instead, Ratliffe gets most of his looks -- 57.7 percent -- in non-post-up situations. These looks come in basically three ways: Pick and rolls, pure cuts to the rim and, perhaps most frequently, offensive rebounds.
This is an excellent way to go about scoring. It leads to inherent accuracy. Ratliffe doesn't ever need to do things he can't do, like spot-up or isolate his man, because he has a team of incredibly efficient shooters -- including one of the best in the country in English, whose nation-leading 51 percent 3-point percentage is worth of commendation, too -- surrounding him. He can merely play off his team's guards, who stretch defenses with their accuracy and quickness. He can cut to the rim in space. He can slide to the middle of the lane off a pick and roll, which opposing teams always have to hedge high to prevent an open 3. And with his high work rate, active feet and athleticism, Ratliffe can, when all else fails, crash the glass. He grabs 14 percent of his team's available misses, a figure that would no doubt be higher if Missouri, you know, missed every once in a while.
However you break it down, Ratliffe has been remarkable. In many ways, he has his guards to thank. But his own brand of post efficiency isn't just about Missouri's style, or his team's coterie of quick, accurate guards. It's also about maximizing opportunities. No player in the country in 2012 does that better than Ricardo Ratliffe.
Can he maintain this scorching pace? We'll see. Saturday's trip to Baylor is going to be a (cough) tall task, what with all those talented and very large men (Quincy Acy, Perry Jones III, and on down the line) patrolling the paint for the Bears. At times, Missouri will struggle against size. It's bound to happen.
But when you've got a big man having a historic season on the offensive end, converting touches into points in a fashion we rarely see, the concerns about your lack of size can be easily and deservingly brushed aside. As it stands, Missouri is the perfect team for Ratliffe. And Ratliffe is the perfect big man for Missouri.
What more could the Tigers want?