College Basketball Nation: Kim English

He’s still trying to work out the logistics, knowing full well it will be about as popular as a summertime homework assignment.

But if Frank Haith has his way, when Missouri travels to Europe this summer, his players will leave their cell phones behind.

“We want them to be able to get to know one another, to really have a bonding experience,’’ Haith said.

[+] EnlargeMissouri's Frank Haith
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMissouri coach Frank Haith will be adding four notable newcomers to his lineup next season.
With good reason. Stealing a page from the Fred Hoiberg handbook, Haith this season will add four transfers to his lineup, hoping that the express route to experience will help the Tigers' transition from the graduation of their three-headed heart (Kim English, Marcus Denmon and Ricardo Ratliffe).

Transfers are rampant right now in college basketball, with more players switching allegiances every year. Geography, playing time, coaching changes or stylistic loggerheads are just some of the reasons fewer and fewer people are being true to their school choice.

It doesn’t necessarily look good for the game, but the choices aren’t always for the worse. Hoiberg took his recollected talent to the NCAA tournament this season, ending a seven-year drought for Iowa State.

It can work.

At least that’s what Haith half hopes and expects when he adds Keion Bell (from Pepperdine), Jabari Brown (from Oregon), Alex Oriakhi (from Connecticut), and Earnest Ross (from Auburn) to the fold this year. All but Oriakhi spent this past season on campus, able to practice and watch the Tigers up close.

“I think it can be tricky, but the thing that was good for us, these guys got to see how last year’s team won,’’ Haith said. “They saw how chemistry played such an important role to our success.’’

Haith felt like he had little choice but to look for players unhappy with their current circumstances. Hired in April of last year, the class of 2012 was either spoken for or knee deep in its final choices. He knew he’d be losing the bulk of his team -- only a season-ending knee injury allowed Laurence Bowers to return in 2012-13.

So he rolled the dice, welcoming in two seniors (Bell and Oriakhi), a junior (Ross), and a freshman that lasted just one semester at his first stop (Brown).

All come to Mizzou for different reasons. Bell, who led Pepperdine in scoring the past three seasons, wanted a chance to showcase his game at a higher level; Oriakhi left because the Huskies are no longer eligible for the postseason thanks to an APR ban; Ross, Auburn’s leading scorer and rebounder, denied Tony Barbee’s assertion that theirs was a mutual separation, instead insisting he wanted to move on. Brown, a one-time top 30 talent, left after playing just two games for Dana Altman at Oregon.

It’s a unique blend of talent (Bell and Ross led their respective teams in scoring last season) and experience that most agree will help Haith keep things going at Missouri.

If, that is, he can get all the personalities to coalesce.

“We want all of our guys to have leadership skills, but obviously these new guys have to earn respect because they haven’t done it here,’’ Haith said. “Phil Pressey, he wants the role that Kimmie had last year -- to be the vocal leader. Laurence is more like Marcus, a guy who will lead by example. I think it is our job to help them find the right way to lead.’’

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- They were all on the Sprint Center podium, each member of the Missouri basketball team, sporting the commemorative hats and T-shirts given only to Big 12 champions.

Confetti fell from the rafters after the Tigers’ 90-75 beatdown of Baylor. Girlfriends and parents took pictures from the stands and players bobbed their heads as “All I Do is Win” boomed through the arena’s speaker system. The whole scene was surreal -- storybook, even -- for a school just months away from joining the SEC.

This was Missouri’s last moment in the Big 12.

And also its finest.

Then suddenly, the Tigers realized something was missing. Just as league commissioner Chuck Neinas was about to hand over the Big 12 tournament trophy, guard Kim English looked down from his perch and shouted toward the court.

“Hey Coach,” the senior said, “get up here.”

[+] EnlargeMissouri's Frank Haith
Denny Medley/US PRESSWIREFrank Haith coached Missouri to the Big 12 tournament title in his first season with the school.
Frank Haith grinned and walked toward the steps. There was a reason he’d been hiding out, a reason he’d waited to join his team on the stage. While the Tigers had been celebrating, Haith was busy wiping away tears.

“I was reflecting,” Haith said. “It’s been a special run, man.”

Indeed, the players who everyone said were too small are 30-4. The team with no depth may earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The man whose hire was ridiculed last spring is the toast not just of Columbia, but of college basketball.

You could argue that a few coaches -- a very small few -- have done as good a job as Haith this season. But there’s certainly no one that has done any better. That’s why English and his teammates wanted to make sure Haith was the first Tiger to touch that Big 12 tournament trophy Saturday. Haith always likes the spotlight to shine on his players.

But during those emotional postgame moments at the Sprint Center, he deserved it, too.

You did this,” English said he whispered into his coach’s ear. “You constructed this. You’re the reason we played the way we played.”

Just as they have all season, the Tigers treated fans to a beautiful brand of basketball in dismantling a Baylor squad that had looked dominant in its previous two wins against Kansas State and Kansas.

The Tigers shot 53 percent from the field because they passed up good shots for great ones. Their jerseys were dotted with blood because they clawed for rebounds and dove for loose balls. The crowd of 19,006 -- about 18,500 of them were Missouri fans -- got behind them because of the toughness of players such as English and Marcus Denmon, each of whom received pregame cortisone shots so they could play through nagging injuries.

“You just can’t measure this team’s heart and toughness,” guard Michael Dixon said. “I don’t really think too many people outside of ourselves and our fans thought we could do this.”

It’s not as if the Tigers haven’t tasted success before. English and Denmon were freshmen on a 2008-09 squad that reached the Elite Eight, and each of Missouri’s top seven players were key components of a team that won 23 games last season under Mike Anderson, who left in March to take the Arkansas job.

After attempts to lure Matt Painter from Purdue failed, Missouri hired Haith and spent the ensuing spring and summer being mocked nationally. Haith had led Miami to just one NCAA tournament appearance in seven seasons. And last summer, his name surfaced in a Yahoo! Sports report involving impermissible payments to Hurricanes athletes, including one basketball player. Although the NCAA is still investigating, Haith hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing.

The cherry on top of Haith’s tumultuous offseason occurred when standout forward Laurence Bowers suffered a season-ending knee injury before the start of fall workouts.

“It’s been a difficult process with all things we’ve had to go through,” Haith said. “I’ve been very humbled by the whole process. The Laurence Bowers injury, the NCAA stuff ... all that stuff. This team and our staff stayed on the course and stayed focused.”

[+] EnlargeMissouri's Frank Haith
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesMissouri coach Frank Haith got emotional in the final moments of the Tigers' victory over Baylor.
Haith talks all the time about how his players have matured.

But he has grown, too.

Haith brought structure and discipline to an erratic offense. Missouri’s 50.3 field-goal percentage ranks third in the nation. Anderson’s “Forty Minutes of Hell” defense was scrapped, but the Tigers’ quickness and intensity pesters opposing offenses and helps make up for their lack of size.

Missouri starts just one player (6-8 forward Ricardo Ratliffe) who stands taller than 6-foot-5. But instead of that being a detriment, the Tigers see their four-guard offense as a strength. Rare is the power forward who can keep up with the speedy, sinewy English. And there aren’t many small forwards who can stay in front of players such as Denmon and Dixon.

“People like to talk about what this team is not,” Haith said. “That’s what’s motivated this group. I’ve told them, ‘Let’s focus on who we are and what we can do. We can’t change. We’re not going to add any more players. We’re not going to grow any taller. We are who we are.’”

After this weekend, no one should question Missouri’s identity any further.

The Tigers are the best team in the Big 12. Maybe they weren’t during the regular season, when Kansas won the conference title by two games over their archrival. But right now, just days away from the NCAA tournament, Missouri is the best the league has to offer.

Partly because their seven-man rotation is mainly comprised of juniors and seniors, the Tigers were hungrier, more cohesive and mentally tougher than any team in the Big 12 tournament, and there’s no reason to think that won’t carry over into the games that matter most.

Missouri will almost certainly open NCAA tournament play in Omaha on Friday, but the question is whether they’ll be a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed. No school from a Big Six conference has ever not been awarded a No. 1 seed after winning 30 or more regular season games.

Most prognostications, however, suggest that the Tigers will be a No. 2.

“We definitely deserve (a No. 1 seed),” Dixon said. “We’ve got 30 wins and four losses with seven guys. But it’s not really in our control. We’ll take whoever we play head-on. We don’t care who we get.”

As forward as he’s looking to the NCAA tournament, Haith wanted to make sure to enjoy Saturday’s accomplishment, too.

Cameras rolled and light bulbs flashed as Haith climbed the ladder to snip away the Sprint Center net. The crowd erupted in cheers. Just before Haith lifted his scissors toward the cotton, he clutched both sides of the ladder, stared at the ground and closed his eyes. There were no tears this time when Haith raised his head, only a large gulp.

“I don’t know how I’m supposed to act, I guess,” Haith said. “I’m just going to be who I am.”

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Quick thoughts from Missouri's 90-75 victory over Baylor.

Overview: Missouri's final season as a member of the Big 12 is officially its best. Kim English scored 19 points, and Michael Dixon added 17 to propel the Tigers to the conference tournament championship at the Sprint Center. Missouri will take a 30-4 record into next week's NCAA tournament, where the Tigers will likely be a No. 2 seed.

Baylor, which defeated regular-season champion Kansas in Friday's semifinal, fell to 27-7 and is expected to be a No. 3 seed next week. Saturday's loss to Missouri was the Bears' third of the season. Perry Jones III led Baylor with 16 points and 11 rebounds. The Bears made just 39.7 percent of their shots.

Missouri never trailed Saturday, and the score was never tied. Baylor trailed by as many as eight points in the opening half, when Missouri shot a blistering 53 percent from the field. The Bears pulled within two points twice -- 33-31 and 37-35 -- before intermission. But each time, the Tigers responded with points on the other end. Missouri opened the second half with a 13-5 scoring run that made it 56-42.

Baylor never got closer than five after that.

Turning point: The Bears made a slight threat in the game's waning minutes. Trailing 75-62, Baylor went on a 10-2 run to whittle Missouri's lead to 77-72 with 2:20 left. But the Tigers made their free throws after Baylor began to foul, and it wasn't long before the game was out of reach.

Key player: It's hard to pick just one for Missouri, as five Tigers scored in double figures. Along with English and Dixon, Phil Pressey, Ricardo Ratliffe and Marcus Denmon had 15 each. Such balance illustrates the versatility and well-roundedness Missouri has shown all season.

Key stat: Not many teams would've defeated the Tigers on a night when they shot 53.8 percent from the field and 80.6 percent (25 of 31) from the foul stripe.

Miscellaneous: It was a bit of an awkward moment when Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas presented the Tigers with the championship trophy about five minutes after the final horn. Neinas has been ultra-critical of Missouri's decision to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. He was booed heavily.

The all-tournament team: Kim English (Most Outstanding Player), Phil Pressey (Missouri), Perry Jones III (Baylor), Brady Heslip (Baylor), J'Covan Brown (Texas).

What's next: Missouri is expected to open NCAA tournament play in Omaha, Neb., on Thursday. Most prognostications have Baylor going to Albuquerque, N.M., where play begins on Friday.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - About 30 minutes before their tilt with Texas, the Missouri Tigers stood in the Sprint Center tunnel and loosened their legs.

A black curtain hanging from the ceiling kept them from watching the Kansas-Baylor game that was taking place on the court, but the Tigers didn’t need to see a scoreboard to tell who was ahead.

“Everyone always cheers when Kansas scores,” Missouri guard Phil Pressey said. “But when we were standing there, we didn’t hear any cheers for a long, long time. We knew they must be losing.”

Indeed, the game a whole city -- no, a whole nation -- wanted to see on Saturday will never take place. Kansas was upset in the Big 12 tournament semifinals, so instead of one last rendition of the Border War, Missouri will face Baylor for the title. Mizzou, who is making its last appearance in Kansas City as a member of the Big 12, shellacked Texas 81-67 in Friday’s other semifinal.

“I was a little shocked (that KU lost),” Missouri guard Michael Dixon. “But we weren’t too worried about who we were going to play. The only thing we care about is winning a championship. We’ll play whoever we have to play to do it.”

As good as Saturday’s title game could be - the Tigers and Bears both look like Final-Four contenders - the matchup certainly isn’t as sexy as the one that would’ve pitted Missouri against archrival Kansas.

All week long, the buzz in KC has revolved around the potential of the two teams meeting in the title game. Tickets purchased through scalpers would’ve cost in excess of $1,000. The Jayhawks and Tigers split the regular-season series, so Saturday’s rubber match might have been for eternal bragging rights. Missouri is leaving the Big 12 after this season for the SEC, and Kansas has indicated it has no interest in continuing the series.

[+] EnlargeRicardo Ratliffe
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireRicardo Ratliffe scored 18 points and added 14 rebounds and 3 blocks against Texas.
Missouri coach Frank Haith was asked if he hoped to play KU in the title game.

“That’s a really tough question,” he said. “No, I don’t care who we play, all right? We’re happy to be in the championship game. That’s all we’re going to concern ourselves with. It’s a great opportunity.”

And it’s one Missouri certainly deserves after one of the best seasons in school history. Friday’s victory over Texas improved the Tigers’ record to 29-4. Kim English and Phil Pressey scored 23 points each and combined to make 17 of their 23 field goal attempts. Ricardo Ratliffe added 18 points and 14 rebounds.

How good was Mizzou? The Tigers won on a night when leading scorer Marcus Denmon went 0-for-10 from the field.

“That’s a great example,” Haith said, “of a ballclub that’s a team.”

Kansas had been projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament before losing to Baylor. Now the possibility exists that the Tigers could become a No. 1 seed.

“That’s out of our control,” English said. “I’m not Joe Lunardi. I don’t know (what will happen). I have no clue. We’re just trying to win this Big 12 championship.”

To do that, Missouri will have to defeat Baylor for the third time this season. The Tigers escaped Waco, Texas, with a 1-point victory on Jan. 21 before throttling the Bears 72-57 last month in Columbia.

Missouri’s players said Baylor’s performance in its past two games has definitely caught their attention.

“They’re playing their best basketball,” English said, “at just the right time."

So, too, are the Tigers, who are hoping their final Big 12 tournament game in history is also their best.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Thoughts from Missouri's 88-70 victory over Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament.

Overview: Highly ranked teams often look sluggish and disinterested against inferior opponents in the opening game of a conference tournament. Not Missouri. The Tigers jumped out to a 23-6 lead Thursday and never looked back during an complete annihilation of an Oklahoma State squad it lost to earlier in the season.

Granted, the Cowboys were playing without injured star Le'Bryan Nash (wrist). But the freshman wouldn't have been enough to save the Cowboys in this one. Missouri's Kim English had 21 points by intermission and finished with 27. Missouri, which shot 59 percent from the field, also got 24 points from Marcus Denmon and 13 from Michael Dixon. Phil Pressey had 12 assists.

Keiton Page scored 22 points for Oklahoma State while Brian Williams finished with 21.

Turning point: With the score tied 6-6, Missouri uncorked a 17-0 run that included 10 points from English. Oklahoma State missed nine consecutive shots before Williams connected on a 3-pointer that made it 23-9. The Cowboys, though, never recovered and were down by as many as 29 points in the opening half. It was 49-24 at intermission.

Key player: English had the most points, but it was Pressey was the player who turned the most heads Thursday. Along with 12 assists,'s Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year had 6 steals against the Cowboys. The Tigers are a special team when Pressey brings his "A" game. And even when he doesn't, they're still pretty darn good.

Key stat: Missouri might be glaringly undersized, but that rarely shows up on the stat sheet. The Tigers - who start just one player (Ricardo Ratliffe) taller than 6-foot-6 - out-rebounded Oklahoma State 40-20.

Miscellaneous: We'll talk plenty about Missouri in the coming days and week, but as for the obit on Oklahoma State ... give the Cowboys credit for continuing to improve during what could've been a lost season. Rotation players Reger Dowell and Roger Franklin both left the team before Big 12 play, and fourth-leading scorer J.P. Olukemi played just 13 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Nash missed the lpast five games with a broken wrist. Still, the Cowboys became one of just three teams to beat Missouri when they upended the Tigers on Jan. 25 in Stillwater. They also own wins against Iowa State, Texas and Texas A&M. This would've been a fringe NCAA tournament with a healthy, complete roster. Instead Oklahoma State ends its season with an overall record of 15-18, including a 7-11 mark in the Big 12.

What's next: No. 2 seed Missouri will play Texas in Friday's Big 12 tournament semifinal. The other semifinal pits fourth-seeded Baylor against Kansas, the top overall seed. Missouri is now 28-4 overall.

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Here are some quick thoughts from Kansas' classic 87-86 overtime victory over Missouri on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.

Overview: Tyshawn Taylor made a pair of free throws with eight seconds remaining in overtime to lift No. 5 Kansas over archival and third-ranked Missouri. Mizzou had a chance to win the game at the buzzer, but Michael Dixon took too much time and Marcus Denmon couldn't get off a shot as time expired. The game was one of the greatest in the history of the Jayhawks' historic venue, as KU came back from a 19-point second-half deficit to defeat its nemesis in what might have been the final regular-season meeting ever between the two teams. Missouri is moving to the SEC next season and Kansas has indicated it has no interest in continuing the series.

National-player-of-the-year candidate Thomas Robinson had 28 points, while Taylor added 24 for Kansas, which clinched at least a share of the Big 12 title for the eighth consecutive season. The Jayhawks, who have a two-game lead over the second-place Tigers, can claim the championship outright with a victory over Oklahoma State on Monday in Stillwater.

Denmon scored 28 points for MU and Ricardo Ratliffe added 22. Denmon's baseline jumper with 12 seconds left in overtime gave the Tigers an 86-85 lead before Taylor raced down the court and was fouled by Dixon, which led to the game-deciding free throws.

A three-point play by Robinson with 16 seconds left in regulation forced a 75-75 tie and sent the game into overtime.

"It wouldn't have been a disgrace to lose to a good team," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "But it's Missouri. You've got to win that game."

Star the game: Robinson took a huge step toward winning national POY honors with his 28-point, 12-rebound performance. Along with his clutch baskets down the stretch, Robinson also blocked a shot by Missouri's Phil Pressey as time expired in regulation.

By the numbers: Saturday's effort tied the largest comeback victory the Jayhawks have ever had at home — KU also rallied from 19 down in December 1995 to defeat UCLA. It was just three points shy of the school's biggest rally ever (22 versus Texas in 2007). ... Kansas improved to 15-1 at home against Mizzou since the formation of the Big 12. ... This was just the second time in the past 34 meetings of this storied rivalry that the game went into overtime. ... This was the fourth time these two schools have met while each was in the top 10. It was the first of those matchups that KU has won. ... Mizzou came awfully close, but no team since 2001 Iowa State has beaten Kansas twice in the regular season.

What this means for Missouri: Considering the atmosphere and all that was at stake, Missouri played as well at Allen Fieldhouse as any opponent in recent memory. The Tigers' mental toughness was unbelievable against a team that has won 90 of its past 91 home games. Mizzou wasn't at all affected by KU's deafening crowd. The Tigers hit big shot after big shot to maintain the lead until the final seconds of regulation. Their performance is a credit to the senior leadership of veterans Dixon, Denmon, Ratliffe and Kim English -- and first-year coach Frank Haith. This is a Final Four-caliber team.

What this means for Kansas: KU has accomplished one of the most underrated feats in college sports by winning an eighth consecutive Big 12 title -- especially considering this was supposed to be Self's worst Kansas team. The Jayhawks lost four starters from last year's Elite Eight squad. In the waning minutes Saturday, the Jayhawks had a walk-on (Conner Teahan) on the court, along with a Loyola Marymount transfer (Kevin Young) who averaged about 8 points a game at his previous school. Kansas also won without much of a contribution from center Jeff Withey, who turned his ankle in the opening half and hardly played after intermission. More important to Kansas fans is that the Jayhawks will have bragging rights again -- and perhaps forever -- on their most hated rival. Kansas leads the all-time series 172-95.

What's next: Kansas plays at Oklahoma State on Big Monday, while Missouri hosts Iowa State on Wednesday.
It’s the game of the weekend.

If you’re a true college basketball fan, you have to find a way to see Mizzou-Kansas on Saturday afternoon.

This could be the end of the rivalry.

The Big 12 title is at stake. A Missouri victory would put the Tigers and Jayhawks in a 13-3 tie for the first place. A Kansas victory would give the Jayhawks a slice of the Big 12 title for the eighth consecutive season.

It has a pair of serious national coach of the year contenders in Frank Haith and Bill Self. Allen Fieldhouse will go crazy.

The Tigers won the first game 74-71 on Feb. 4, but the Jayhawks have been the better team since that game.

So how can the Tigers beat the Jayhawks for the second time this season? It won’t be easy. The Jayhawks look like a Final Four team right now. And the Tigers are coming off a 78-68 loss to Kansas State.

Missouri won’t have a chance if it’s struggling from the 3-point line. In the first game, the Tigers were 10-for-22 (45 percent) from beyond the arc.

That was a crucial factor in Missouri’s victory. The Tigers hit shots -- really Marcus Denmon hit shots -- because they put in the work to free their best shooters, proven in this sequence from the first game (starting at the 1:22 mark).

Michael Dixon is dribbling the corner as the play unfolds. Kim English sets a hard screen that frees up Denmon on the right wing.

(Denmon scored 29 points and went 6-for-9 from the 3-point line in the game. The Jayhawks had to shadow him, and they’ll have to stick with him Saturday too.

He hits the big shot at a crucial juncture.

But this play showcases Missouri’s versatility and perimeter potency.

After English sets the screen, he’s open at the top of the key. Had Denmon been stuck on that play, he could have easily found English (46 percent from the 3-point line) as a second option.

English, Denmon and Dixon shoot 36 percent or better from beyond the arc.

It’s quite simple. If Missouri’s shooters find more success from the 3-point line, they will put the Tigers in a position to get their second win of the season against the Jayhawks.

Bilas previews Missouri-Kansas showdown

February, 24, 2012
When and where: Saturday (CBS, 4 p.m. ET), Phog Allen Fieldhouse (Lawrence, Kan.)

The setup: Kansas and Missouri are coming off less than stellar performances. The Jayhawks won an ugly game against Texas A&M, while the Tigers are coming off perhaps their worst conference game of the season, a home loss to Kansas State. But in a happy place or not, this game is not for those who are ready to play. This game is for those who are prepared for a fight. Saturday at the Phog will be the Big 12’s top two scoring teams, with Missouri leading the league in scoring (73.7) and second in field goal percentage (48.1) in conference play, while Kansas is second in scoring (73.5) and leads in field goal percentage (48.4).

Kansas leads the Big 12 in scoring defense (60.8) and field goal percentage defense (38.1). It also tops every Big 12 team in scoring margin (+12.7), perhaps the most important indicator of a team’s strength and efficiency (and, predictably, a metric that is completely ignored by the RPI). Missouri is second in the league in scoring margin (+7.0) but is a shaky fifth in the Big 12 in scoring defense (66.7) and dead last in the Big 12 in field goal percentage defense (46.9).

Kansas leads the league in rebound margin (+5.7 to Missouri’s -1.0), blocks, assists and steals. The Jayhawks might not be deep, but they are rock solid. The Tigers might not be deep, but they are dynamic and fearless. This is one of the great games of the season, with a chance to be a memorable spectacle. The sport needs more matchups like this one.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Denmon
Jeff Moffett/Icon SMIMissouri guard Marcus Denmon is fearless when going to the rim.
Neither team can rely on significant bench production. Kansas, in my judgment (and as reflected in The Bilas Index), is the better team because the Jayhawks have size and the ability to get the ball inside for higher percentage shots and more opportunities to get fouled. If you recall from the first meeting, KU seemed to have the game in its win column with three minutes to go and an eight-point lead. But the Jayhawks made a couple of mistakes, and the fearless Marcus Denmon made Kansas pay for every one of them, willing Missouri to the home win.

After the game, I was walking down the hallway to the locker rooms and passed Kansas star Tyshawn Taylor using the wall to hold himself up. Anyone who believes these players don’t care is simply incorrect. They care deeply, and Taylor showed how much he had invested in that game. He was mentally and physically spent, devastated about the loss.

That game was incredible in its solid play. Both teams shot better than 50 percent from the floor, a rarity in today’s bump-and-grind games. Missouri hit 10 3-point field goals and more than doubled the Jayhawks in free throw attempts. One thing is certain, the Jayhawks cannot get a bagel from Jeff Withey and expect to win, even at home. In Columbia, Withey played 23 minutes and did not score, grabbing four rebounds.

After that first game, it was clear that Kansas and Missouri are capable of reaching a Final Four and could win the whole thing with a good draw and some good fortune. KU is probably better suited for it, because of its inside strength and ability to get the ball inside and get to the free throw line. Missouri will cause problems because of its style differences and the matchup problems it poses, but the Tigers are vulnerable to a lot of teams on bad shooting nights.

Tigers' stud: Denmon. The diminutive wing guard put on a show with 29 points and 9 rebounds against Kansas, including 6 of 9 from 3-point range. Late in the game, Denmon carried the Tigers, and this was after a prolonged shooting slump. He is afraid of nothing and is a difficult cover because he can score in transition, off the catch or the bounce and drives the ball with a relentless attitude. Denmon’s play would add up to a Big 12 Player of the Year honor in most seasons, but he just happens to be in the Big 12 with Thomas Robinson this year.

[+] EnlargeThomas Robinson
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKansas' Thomas Robinson had 25 points and 13 rebounds in the first meeting against Missouri.
Jayhawks' stud: Robinson. A legit national player of the year candidate, Robinson has been magnificent all season long. He never takes a game off, and his only real issue is his penchant for taking a perimeter shot or putting the ball on the floor when he should simply lock down his defender in the post and take him apart. Robinson had 25 points and 13 rebounds, but five turnovers, in the first meeting. He was doubled but hit 11 of 17 shots.

Tigers' wild card: Ricardo Ratliffe. He is having a magnificent season and has missed so few shots that he is closing on a national record held by Oregon State star Steve Johnson. Ratliffe is always surrounded by four guards, but Kansas was able to frustrate him, holding him to six points, four rebounds and only five shot attempts. On the floor, Ratliffe usually plays off of his guards, but Kansas did a good job of closing him down and attacking him, putting him into a position to foul. Ratliffe has to give Missouri a presence and be productive in Lawrence.

Jayhawks' wild card: Withey. The transfer from Arizona has blossomed since the Mizzou game, averaging 16.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 5.4 blocks per game in the past five outings. Withey has the ability to be a game-changer, blocking shots, rebounding and finishing. The Tigers present some difficulties for him because he has to guard Ratliffe and can be drawn away from the basket for ball screens. He needs to stay out of foul trouble and be productive. Missouri served him up his only bagel of the season, and Kansas needs something out of him.

Tigers' X factor: Kim English. The senior sharpshooter scored 18 points in the first meeting and has the ability to draw a bigger defender and take him away from the paint. English has been smart about his shot selection and has done a great job defending and laying his body on the line, which he did not do as well last season. English is a respected player and has been an important part of Missouri’s success. Unless English has a productive outing, I am not sure the Tigers can win in Lawrence.

Jayhawks' X factor: Taylor. The senior point guard has had a tremendous season. We spend time talking about his turnovers, but there is no way Kansas is among the nation’s top five teams without Taylor and his stellar play. He is averaging 16.5 points, 5 assists and is shooting better than 47 percent from the floor. In Big 12 play, Taylor is third in the league in scoring and fifth in assists. With his speed, ability to get to the rim and improved shooting, Taylor is a tough player to shut down.

Key stat: Paint scoring. Both teams can score in the lane and get close-in shots, but they do it differently. Kansas pounds the ball inside, hits the offensive glass and gets a ton of high percentage shots that give the opponent a chance to foul. Missouri also gets a lot of paint touches but by dribble penetration and off turnovers. The team that wins the paint will win the game.

And the winner is: Kansas. The Jayhawks have to feel like they let one get away at Missouri. Kansas will pull out a win and claim the driver’s seat toward its eighth straight Big 12 title, 75-70.

Highlights: Missouri 71, Texas A&M 62

February, 18, 2012

Kim English finishes with 21 points and six rebounds as No. 3 Missouri earns a 71-62 victory over Texas A&M.

Rapid Reaction: Missouri 74, Kansas 71

February, 4, 2012

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Here are some quick thoughts from Missouri's classic 74-71 victory over Kansas at Mizzou Arena on Saturday, just the third time these two have ever met while both in the top 10.

Overview: Marcus Denmon scored 29 points, nine of which came in the final 2:05 as No. 4 Missouri rallied from eight down and ended the game on an 11-0 run to win in stunning fashion against bitter rival Kansas. KU led for most of the second half and the eight-point lead was the largest for either team the whole game, but Denmon swished a 3-pointer with 56 seconds remaining that gave his team a 72-71 cushion. The Jayhawks had three more chances to score but failed each time, as they turned it over four times in the final three minutes.

Tyshawn Taylor turned the ball over on one possession and was called for charging on another. A pair of free throws by Michael Dixon put Mizzou ahead 74-71 with 9.8 seconds left. Elijah Johnson attempted to tie the game at the buzzer, but his 3-point attempt from the top of the key didn't hit the rim.

Missouri's victory forces a three-way tie for first in the Big 12 standings, as Mizzou, Kansas and Baylor are all 8-2. Saturday's game may have been the last between the two rivals in Columbia -- the Tigers are leaving the Big 12 for the SEC after this season and Kansas has indicated it doesn't have any interest in continuing the series.

Star of the game: Denmon is the obvious choice, but Kim English (18 points) and Dixon (15 points, 5 assists) both scored in double figures for Missouri. Thomas Robinson had 25 points and 13 boards for Kansas, while Taylor added 21.

What the win means for Missouri: The Tigers, who are still very much alive in the Big 12 title race, proved they can use speed, athleticism and superior outside shooting to beat a bigger, taller, longer team such as Kansas. There's no reason to believe this team can't make a significant run in March. It also moves first-year coach Frank Haith one step closer to the national coach-of-the-year award. If the season ended today, he'd be the obvious choice. Oh, and there's the end of that five-game losing streak to their hated rival to the west. That's pretty big, too.

What the loss means for Kansas: The Jayhawks actually performed somewhat admirably considering the environment and the talent level of their opponent. It's been obvious all season that this is clearly Bill Self's worst KU squad. The Jayhawks have limitations and zero room for error. Taylor and Robinson played great but this program still needs a third person to step up on a consistent basis.

Up next: Missouri has a quick turnaround with a road game at Oklahoma on Monday (7 ET, ESPNU), while Kansas travels to Waco, Texas, on Wednesday to take on Baylor (7 ET, ESPN2).

Video: Kim English's inspiration

February, 4, 2012

Kim English shares a Rudyard Kipling poem that has special meaning to him, and has helped him gain confidence and humility.
AUSTIN, Texas -- In all the fury, Frank Haith implored Michael Dixon to remain calm.

“There is no time to panic and no time to stress,” the Missouri coach told his guard.

Really, if ever there were a time, this would have been it. Dixon had just committed a flagrant foul by swinging his elbow above the shoulders of Julien Lewis. The ensuing foul shot and possession gave Texas a 66-65 lead. And No. 4 Missouri (20-2, 7-2) was suddenly down on the road with less than a minute to go after seemingly taking complete control just minutes earlier.

[+] EnlargeMissouri's Michael Dixon
Brendan Maloney/US PRESSWIREMichael Dixon scored 21 points for Missouri, including the game-winning layup.
But Dixon came right back, found a lane to the basket, lifted a left-handed layup over Lewis and pushed the Tigers to a 67-66 lead and an eventual victory by that score in front of 12,203 at the Frank Erwin Center Monday night.

“In the heat of battle, things happen,” Dixon said of the flagrant call. “You got to look at the next play and that was what we did and we were able to win.”

That Missouri was able to look ahead instead of behind was important because what it had left in the rearview was a path of self-destruction. The Tigers, with the memories of a horrible road loss to Oklahoma State lingering, held a 10-point lead with less than five minutes left in this game. There was also the less-than-impressive home win over Texas Tech bouncing around between the ears.

The Tigers had to eschew the whispers and the yells coming from the home crowd.

“Coach has been stressing growth from the OSU game and kind of how we let that game slip away,” Missouri's Kim English said. “We always stayed true to that. We talked about late in games two things have to be consistent -- defensive stops and offensive execution.”

Neither were exactly flawless in the final five minutes. But in the final 40 seconds, both were. First was Dixon's score. Then came the defensive stop.

Texas has the most prolific scorer in the Big 12 in J'Covan Brown, and the junior is able to squeeze off and make shots from everywhere. With 27 seconds left, there was little doubt the ball was going to find its way into his hands.

Missouri decided to come out in a zone on the final possession and that appeared to throw the Texas offense. When the ball finally did find its way into Brown's hands, there were only 12 seconds left and he was stymied.

“I was just trying to find a gap and there wasn't nothing,” Brown said.

So Brown passed to freshman Myck Kabongo. His shot didn't clear the rim.

“He did get fouled,” complained Texas coach Rick Barnes.

Not in the eyes of the officials.

Barnes did acknowledge that, while that play mattered, it was not the one that lost the game for UT. Instead, it was the Longhorns' inability to contain Dixon, not just on the last play, but on plenty of others as well. The junior went 9-of-10 for 21 points in 27 minutes. During one stretch, Dixon rattled in three straight jumpers over Brown to give Missouri a 12-point lead early in the second half.

“I gave up basically half his points,” Brown said of his defensive effort.

“I felt like from an offensive standpoint he had nice pop and nice focus,” Haith said of Dixon. “His play allowed us to get some separation.”

Now Missouri must separate itself in a Big 12 race that has allowed for anything but. The Tigers, who already have a road win against No. 6 Baylor, get their first of two shots at No. 8 Kansas on Saturday. At 7-1, the Jayhawks, winners of the past seven conference titles, lead the conference race.

As for Texas (13-9, 3-6), the Longhorns have lost seven games by six points or less. Texas may not have enough on its résumé to make it to a 14th straight NCAA tournament without a strong run in the second half of the conference season and in the Big 12 tournament.
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.

[+] EnlargeRicardo Ratliffe
Dak Dillon/US PresswireThe efficiency of post player Ricardo Ratliffe has made Missouri's lack of size less of a concern.
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?
The Missouri Tigers are one of the smallest high-major teams in the country. Frankly, they're one of the smallest teams in the country, period. Their average height of 75.6 inches ranks them No. 300 in the country, per Pomeroy; this is a guard-oriented team with a 6-foot-6 shooting guard (Kim English) playing the majority of the minutes at power forward.

Of course, that lack of height hasn't been an issue. Missouri is 13-0 with the second-most efficient offense in the country to date. In fact, that lack of height is almost an advantage. Few teams can match up with the Tigers' lightning-quick guards; most opponents don't have a player to match up wtih Marcus Denmon's speed and shooting, let alone the personnel to check Denmon and fellow guards Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon at the same time. When coach Frank Haith runs those three alongside English and (actual) forward Ricardo Ratliffe, Missouri forces more mismatch problems for its opponent than it creates for itself. Hence that offensive efficiency. Hence the 13-0 record.

In other words, the news that little-used Tigers freshman Kadeem Green is transferring -- well, it's hardly devastating. Green has played sparingly in his first season in Columbia, averaging 3.0 points and 3.1 rebounds in 10.5 minutes per game. What's more, Green's minutes have steadily dropped; he didn't play at all in recent wins against Villanova and Illinois, and he played a solitary minute in Missouri's tough road win at Old Dominion on Friday. He wasn't playing, so he decided to transfer. For his part, Haith seems to understand:
“We obviously wish Kadeem nothing but the best as he moves forward with this decision,” Coach Frank Haith said in a statement. “Kadeem made great strides during his time at Mizzou, and we are sad to see him leave the program. This is a decision that did not come easily for Kadeem -- he has made a lot of friends and he has really enjoyed his time here at Mizzou. Decisions like this are never easy, but we certainly thank Kadeem for the time that he dedicated to our program and want nothing but the best for him moving forward.”

No harm, no foul. Haith's response doesn't even register on the Memorial Phil Martelli Unwise Transfer Response Scale. (Take notes, St. Joe's.) So why am I even writing this blog post? What's the big deal?

The big deal is this: Thanks to Green's departure, Haith now has just seven -- yes, seven -- scholarship players available on his roster. What's more, Green was a 6-foot-8, 210 pound big man. As The Dagger's Jeff Eisenberg noted today, he was one of only three players on Missouri's current roster standing taller than 6-foot-6. Now, that number is two.

Of course, as you read above, size isn't really the issue. Haith doesn't need to play a conventional power forward/center combo in his frontcourt; why do that when English and his top-15 effective field goal and true shooting percentages are stretching defenses past their breaking points?

The issue, of course, is depth. Seven scholarship players is one thing; Missouri's rotation doesn't go much deeper than that anyway. But Ratliffe and reserve forward Steve Moore are Haith's only options in the frontcourt going forward. If either suffers an injury (remember, Mizzou has already lost putative power forward Lawrence Bowers to a season-ending ACL tear), the other will be the only big man on the roster, let alone in the starting lineup. Even if both remain healthy, foul trouble could create serious problems on a game-to-game basis. And even then -- in a magical world where Ratliffe never fouls opposing big men -- he'll almost certainly have to play more than 24.0 minutes per game, his average to date. Moore will have to play more (ahem) minutes, too.

Missouri's rotation was already shallow, its lineup already small. Neither characteristic has presented a problem thus far. But if any of the above dire scenarios come to fruition -- injury, foul trouble, fatigue, you name it -- Haith won't have an insurance policy in place.

Can this team stay healthy? If yes, great. But can just seven players win the Big 12? Can a team with two players taller than 6-foot-6 reach the Final Four? We're about to find out.

Conference Power Rankings: Big 12

December, 9, 2011
Based on results and not preseason expectations, here's my attempt at ranking the Big 12 teams one month into the season:

1. Baylor: The Bears are the most talented team in the Big 12, and it’s not even close. Just ask previously unbeaten Northwestern, which shot 24.1 percent in a 69-41 home loss to Baylor last weekend. The frontline is imposing, but guard play will determine the Bears’ fate. Juco transfer Pierre Jackson (11.9 ppg, 4.4 apg) is off to a nice start.

2. Missouri: Frank Haith’s detractors are eating their words, as the guard-oriented Tigers have been one of the most impressive teams in the country thus far. Senior Marcus Denmon (21.8 ppg) has looked like an All-American candidate in victories against Notre Dame, Cal and Villanova. Kim English is playing the best basketball of his career.

3. Kansas: We’ll know a lot more about the Jayhawks after Saturday’s game against Ohio State. For now, though, KU's streak of seven straight Big 12 titles appears to be in jeopardy. Forward Thomas Robinson (17.4 ppg, 12 rpg) will contend for national player of the year honors, but a lack of depth and poor guard play -- Kansas committed 22 turnovers Tuesday against Long Beach State -- have been issues.

4. Texas A&M: The Aggies have done an admirable job in the absence of top player Khris Middleton, who is hoping to return in time for A&M’s game against Florida on Dec. 17. Billy Kennedy’s squad has won its past four games by an average of 16.3 points. Forward Ray Turner (14.3 ppg) and guard Elston Turner (12.2 ppg), a Washington transfer, have led the way thus far.

5. Kansas State: The Wildcats aren’t as strong as they’ve been the past few seasons, but Frank Martin has done an impressive job with a team that has a lot of nice pieces but no true star. Jamar Samuels is averaging 13 points and 9 rebounds for squad that beat Virginia Tech on the road before dropping a double-overtime heartbreaker to West Virginia on Wednesday.

6. Texas: The Longhorns are rebuilding after losing Jordan Hamilton, Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson to the NBA draft. But a pair of gut-wrenching losses (in overtime against Oregon State and by three to NC State) apparently didn’t do anything to squelch Texas’ spirits. Rick Barnes’ squad is on a four-game winning streak thanks in part to J’Covan Brown (19.4 ppg).

7. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys haven’t been all that impressive. They lost to unranked Virginia Tech and Stanford in the NIT, and only managed narrow wins against UT-San Antonio and Tulsa. Highly touted freshman LeBryan Nash has been inconsistent, and is shooting just 40 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3-point range.

8. Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg’s squad has been the league’s biggest disappointment thus far. Despite a cast of talented transfers and one of the top all-around players in the conference (Royce White), Iowa State finds itself toting losses to Drake and Northern Iowa, the latter of which came at home.

9. Oklahoma: Lon Kruger is doing an excellent job during his first year in Norman, so don’t be surprised if the one-loss Sooners move up a few spots in the rankings in the coming weeks. Nonconference wins against Houston, Arkansas and Cincinnati would do wonders for OU’s confidence as it prepares to enter Big 12 play.

10. Texas Tech: Billy Gillispie is doing the best he can, but he’s basically working with a group of freshmen and junior college transfers who had never played a minute of Division I basketball prior to this season. The Red Raiders went 0-3 in the Old Spice Classic, losing to Indiana State, DePaul and Wake Forest. It's going to be a long season in Lubbock.