College Basketball Nation: Ricardo Ratliffe

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.’’

OMAHA, Neb. -- Quick thoughts from Norfolk State's 86-84 upset win over second-seeded Missouri.

Overview: As if George Mason and VCU weren't enough, another unlikely March hero has emerged from the state of Virginia.

Norfolk State -- a school of about 6,000 that had never appeared in the NCAA tournament -- shocked Final Four favorite Missouri before a sellout crowd of 16,843 fans Friday at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha.

The victory marked the first time since 2001, when Hampton defeated Iowa State, that a No. 15 seed has defeated a No. 2 seed. Kyle O'Quinn scored 26 points for Norfolk State, which advanced to play Florida on Sunday for a trip to the Sweet 16. Missouri ends its season with a record of 30-5.

Trailing by two points with 2.8 seconds remaining, Missouri had a chance to win. Tigers guard Phil Pressey took an inbounds pass near midcourt, took a few dribbles and got off a decent look from 3-point range. The shot clanged off the side of the rim as the horn sounded, setting off a wild celebration by Norfolk State.

Norfolk State took the lead for good with 34.9 seconds remaining when O'Quinn snared the offensive rebound of a teammate's air ball and put it back in for an easy two points while being fouled. O'Quinn converted the ensuing free throw to make it 84-81.

Missouri's Marcus Denmon missed an ill-advised, deep 3-pointer early in the shot clock on the Tigers' next possession. O'Quinn got the rebound and was immediately fouled. He made one of two free throws to put Norfolk State ahead 85-81 with 16 ticks left.

Pressey, who was brilliant down the stretch for Missouri, made a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left to pull Missouri within a point, 85-84. Rodney McCauley was fouled by Missouri, and he made the first of two free throws to extend the Spartans' lead to 86-84. O'Quinn snared the rebound on McCauley's miss, and a jump ball was called when O'Quinn became tied up with a Missouri player. O'Quinn missed both foul shots, and Missouri called a timeout to set up the final shot by Pressey, which was off the mark.

Along with his 26 points, O'Quinn added 14 rebounds for Norfolk State. Chris McEachin had 20 points. Michael Dixon (22 points), Pressesy and Denmon (20 points each) all had good games for Missouri.

Player of the game: O'Quinn is an absolute beast. He clearly outplayed Missouri forward Ricardo Ratliffe and was a flat-out warrior throughout the entire game. The 6-foot-10, 240-pounder has an exceptional shooting touch for his size and can handle the ball.

Key stat: Both teams were on fire Friday. Norfolk State shot 54 percent from the field, Missouri 52 percent.

Miscellaneous: Even though Omaha is somewhat close to Columbia, Missouri must have felt like the road team Friday. More than half the CenturyLink Center was filled with Kansas fans cheering for Norfolk State. The Jayhawks, Missouri's Big 12 rival, take on Detroit here later tonight.

Up next: Norfolk State will play Florida on Sunday for a chance to go to the Sweet 16. For Missouri, it's over. The next time we see the Tigers, they'll be official members of the SEC.

Previewing Omaha: Afternoon games

March, 16, 2012
3/16/12
12:15
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OMAHA, Neb. -- Here’s a quick rundown of what to look for in Friday’s afternoon games in Omaha.

No. 7 Florida (23-10) vs. No. 10 Virginia (22-9), 2:10 p.m. ET

Florida’s Billy Donovan and Virginia’s Tony Bennett may respect one another -- but when they run into each other during the offseason, it’s pretty obvious the coaches don’t compare notes.

While Bennett prefers a slower, muddier game with the score in the 60s, Donovan likes his teams to push the tempo and rack up as many points as possible. It’s a scenario that makes Friday’s Gators-Cavaliers clash one of the most intriguing matchups of the day.

“Our styles,” Virginia forward Mike Scott said, “are going to clash.”

That’s not all that separates these teams.

Florida -- which won the national title in 2006 and 2007 -- is making its 11th NCAA tournament appearance in the past 13 years. Virginia is in the field for the first time since 2007 and for only the fourth time in the past 16 years.

“Their players have all been here and done this before,” Bennett said. “Hopefully, [by] the first five minutes after the media timeout, we’ll have enough experience to play well.”

Even though Florida finished in a three-way tie for second in the SEC, the Gators’ season has been a bit of a disappointment. Donovan’s squad has defeated just four teams (Mississippi Valley State, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Florida State) in this year’s NCAA tournament. It enters Friday’s contest having dropped four of its past five games.

Still, with a lineup that features standout guards such as Bradley Beal, Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker -- as well as likely future NBA forward Patric Young -- Florida has enough talent to erupt at any time. But the Gators know that won’t be easy against a Virginia squad that has held all but two opponents to fewer than 70 points.

“This year we have seen every type of defense you can,” Boynton said. “With our offense, we can adjust to any type of defense.”

Even though it has a gaudy record, it’s not hard to understand why Virginia (22-9) received a No. 10 seed. Other than a Nov. 29 win against Michigan, the Cavaliers boast just one win against a team in this year’s NCAA tournament. That came in a 61-60 victory against NC State on Jan. 28.

Bennett’s squad is hoping to reverse that trend Friday.

“[Coach Bennett] just tells us it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “We’ve been at the school five years. We’ve been waiting for this our whole career.”

Added Scott: “The celebrating is over. We’re here to work and win games.”

Players to watch:

Florida’s Brad Beal: One of the nation’s top freshmen, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Beal averages 14.6 points and 6.5 rebounds. But he’s shooting just 32.9 percent from 3-point range.

Florida’s Patric Young: He’s still raw, but the 6-9, 247-pound sophomore has made tremendous strides in his first year as a starter. Young, who said Thursday he plans to return for his junior season, averages 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds.

Virginia’s Mike Scott: The first-team All-ACC selection is one of the most efficient offensive players in the country. The forward averages 18.1 points on 56.2 percent shooting. He makes 80.1 percent of his free throws and snares 8.4 boards per game.

No. 2 Missouri (30-4) vs. No. 15 Norfolk State (25-9), 4:40 p.m. ET

They were denied a No. 1 seed, but the Missouri Tigers may be the top team in the NCAA tournament in terms of confidence.

While schools such as North Carolina, Kentucky, Syracuse, Duke and Kansas all suffered losses last week, Frank Haith’s squad demolished its competition at the Big 12 tournament and is a popular pick to reach the Final Four.

“This is a senior-laden team,” Haith said. “We have had opportunities to lose focus throughout the year, but this team has been determined and resilient. I anticipate us having great focus Friday afternoon.”

Missouri certainly can’t afford to look past Norfolk State.

The Spartans defeated a Drexel team that many felt should’ve been in this year’s NCAA tournament. And they lost to Marquette by only two points back on Nov. 21. Norfolk State will be hard-pressed to stop Missouri’s four-guard offense, but its players didn’t sound all that intimidated by it Thursday.

“Yes, we’re going against better players from a different conference,” senior Kyle O’Quinn said. “But it’s not something we haven’t seen before. We’re comfortable going into the game.”

Missouri has won its past four contests by an average of 17.5 points. The Tigers are making 50.4 percent of their field goals, a mark that ranks third in the nation. The figure is even more impressive considering Missouri uses a four-guard offense, which means more outside shots.

Five Missouri players are scoring in double figures, led by Marcus Denmon with 17.6 points per game.

“We are hoping that our length will pose problems for them,” Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans said. “They have four great guards. We can post up a little bit, but we think that Kyle is our best chance of creating mismatches against them. Hopefully, he can kick it out to our shooters to make shots.”

Players to watch:

Phil Pressey, Missouri: The Tigers point guard is the key to Missouri’s four-guard attack. He’s one of the fastest players in the country with the ball in his hands. Although he’s a pass-first guard, Pressey can score when he needs to. The defensive standout led the Big 12 in steals.

Ricardo Ratliffe, Missouri: The 6-8 senior shoots an eye-popping 69.8 percent from the field. The Tigers’ guards get most of the attention, but Ratliffe is averaging a respectable 13.9 points and 7.5 rebounds as the only big man in Missouri’s starting lineup.

Kyle O’Quinn, Norfolk State: The 6-10 senior averages 15.9 points and 10.4 rebounds. He’s scored in double figures in all but one game this season. He also averages 2.7 blocks.


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, ESPN.com'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.

Stat Your Case: Davis or Robinson for POY

March, 1, 2012
3/01/12
2:19
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The latest College Basketball Nation Player of the Year Straw Poll shows a dead heat between Kentucky's Anthony Davis and Kansas's Thomas Robinson.

If Davis wins any of the three major awards, it would be historic even compared to Kentucky’s storied past. No Wildcat has ever won the Wooden Award, Naismith Award or AP Player of the Year. Among freshmen, only Kevin Durant has taken home the hardware, winning all three awards in the 2006-07 season.

Danny Manning was the last Jayhawk to win national player of the year, claiming both the Naismith and Wooden Awards after the 1987-88 season. No Kansas player has ever won the AP award, which was first awarded in 1961.

The advanced metrics are split on who the top player has been this season.

Davis leads the nation in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), a metric established by John Hollinger to measure overall effectiveness. Davis has a PER of 36 this season while Robinson’s PER is 29, 18th in the nation and second in the Big 12 behind Missouri's Ricardo Ratliffe.

KenPom.com's Player of the Year standings favor Robinson for the top spot. Davis comes in fourth in these rankings, behind Draymond Green and Jared Sullinger.

Case for Anthony Davis
Davis changes the game with his defense. Through 29 games, he has blocked 139 shots. He has a chance to set both the national freshman record, currently held by Marshall's Hassan Whiteside with 182 in 2009-10, as well as the overall SEC record, set at 170 by Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado.

Davis is less polished on the offensive end of the floor, where he averages 14 points per game. The only AP National Player of the Year to average less than 15 points was Patrick Ewing for Georgetown in 1984-85.

Davis makes 66 percent of his shots from the field, among the best in the nation. If he keeps up his current pace, he’ll be the first player to average 14 points, nine rebounds and four blocks since Connecticut's Emeka Okafor in 2003-04.

Case for Thomas Robinson
While Davis is the nation’s top shot-blocker, Robinson is near the top in rebounding. He is second nationally in rebounds per game and first in defensive rebounding percentage.

With a small increase in rebounds per game, Robinson could join Kansas legends Wilt Chamberlain and Clyde Lovellette as the only players in school history to average 17 points and 12 rebounds in a season. The last three power six conference players to reach both thresholds are Blake Griffin, Michael Beasley and Tim Duncan.

Robinson is second in the nation and first among power six conference players with 21 double-doubles this season. Only three players in Big 12 history have recorded more in a season – Griffin, Beasley and Drew Gordon.

Robinson averaged less than 8 points per game last season. No AP Player of the Year winner has ever averaged fewer than 10 points per game the previous season.


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.

Bilas previews Missouri-Kansas showdown

February, 24, 2012
2/24/12
9:00
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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.

Player of the year straw poll update

February, 15, 2012
2/15/12
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With a month left before the NCAA tournament begins, there is a legitimate race for the National Player of the Year.

Kansas junior Thomas Robinson, the leader in the first two ESPN.com National POY straw polls, is getting a major challenge from Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis.

And in the Year of the Versatile Forward, it makes sense. College basketball hasn’t seen a year of top big men like this since 2009, when the top three finishers for the Wooden Award and the top four for the Naismith Award were all forwards and centers.

In that year, Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin ran away with both awards, blowing by Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair, Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet and the 2008 Wooden Award winner, North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough. The top college guard that season, Davidson’s Stephen Curry, had a standout season but his team ended up in the NIT.

That season did have a lot of talented, well-known guards, led by Curry, UNC’s Ty Lawson, Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks, Memphis’ Tyreke Evans and Arizona State’s James Harden. All were in the final ballot of that season's straw poll.

As for this season, the top six vote-getters in this week’s poll were forwards, and 12 of 17 players mentioned by the 54 pollsters who responded were forwards or centers. Players like Michigan State’s Draymond Green and West Virginia’s Kevin Jones, now among the best players in the nation, were freshmen during that 2009 season and are now in this straw poll as seniors.

For those who missed the first two polls, here’s a recap of how it all works: Each pollster sends us their top three. A first-place vote is worth three points, a second-place vote worth two and a third-place vote worth one. Every voter is granted anonymity. Every voter has a voice in at least one of the four major college basketball player of the year awards: Wooden, Naismith, Associated Press or Robertson (the USBWA award).


Poll analysis:

-- For the third straight ballot, 17 players were represented. They come from 11 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Sky, Big Ten, MAAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Ohio Valley, SEC and West Coast). Just one school, Missouri, had multiple players on the ballot -- Denmon and Ratliffe.

-- Four players are making their first ballot of the season -- Johnson-Odom, Canaan, Anosike and Rob Jones. Five players dropped off from the second ballot: UNC’s Harrison Barnes, Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins, Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin, Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Miami (Ohio)’s Julian Mavunga. In addition, the poll had its first returning player after being knocked off the ballot. Denmon was in the first poll, off the second and returns for the third.

-- The biggest mover was Davis, who jumped from fourth to second. Even more so, he went from being on 16 ballots to 47 ballots and from 30 points to 112 points. He also went from four first-place votes to 20. McDermott had the biggest drop, falling from second to fourth and from 70 points to 15.

-- In what is shaping up as a two-man race, only Robinson and Davis received first-place votes. On the second ballot, seven players received first-place votes: Robinson, McDermott, Sullinger, Davis, Kevin Jones and two players completely off this poll -- Barnes and Jenkins.

-- Player on the poll who should be getting more attention: Scott. This is the second poll I’ve mentioned this. His statistical numbers might not be as strong as others, but he consistently faces opponent double-teams and the exceedingly slow pace the Cavaliers play at limits Scott’s possessions to put up huge numbers.

-- Three players not in the poll who should get more attention: Iona guard Scott Machado, who continues to be one of the nation’s top passers, averaging 10 assists a game. Iowa State forward Royce White, while not putting up monster numbers, has been the key cog to the Cyclones' attempt to make a run at the NCAA tournament and is a matchup nightmare for any team facing him. Syracuse guard Dion Waiters, who while being the Orange’s sixth man, has been a major reason for their success averaging 12.2 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists in just 23.7 minutes -- minutes much lower than any other contender. Three of the four players mentioned here two weeks ago ended up in this poll. The other was Seton Hall’s Herb Pope.

So what comes next? Here is a look at the next two weeks for the main contenders.

-- Sullinger has three marquee games that could give him one last push. He’ll be on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET Saturday against rival No. 19 Michigan, then faces elite big man Meyers Leonard and Illinois on Feb. 21 and No. 17 Wisconsin on Feb. 26.

-- Davis faces Ole Miss on Saturday, goes to Mississippi State on Feb. 21 and then faces Vanderbilt on Feb. 25.

-- Robinson has a major statement game on Feb. 25 against Missouri as well as three games against three teams at the bottom of the Big 12: Texas Tech (Saturday), Texas A&M (Feb. 22) and Oklahoma State (Feb. 27).

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- They call it 10-for-14, a sort of masochistic shooting drill Marcus Denmon and Phil Pressey dreamed up in the preseason. The idea is simple: Make 10 out of 14 shots from seven spots on the floor.

The catch? If you don’t hit 10, start over.

Pressey rarely had to start over when the two Missouri guards got together for the preseason drill. Yet during games, Denmon often finds himself yelling at his point guard, practically begging him to shoot.

“Phil is just naturally a pass-first player,’’ Denmon said. “I’m always telling him to shoot. He says he hears me, but he doesn’t always shoot it.’’

Pressey heard the call against sixth-ranked Baylor, draining four of Missouri’s season-high 14 3-pointers in a 72-57 win that solidified both what makes the Tigers so special and what makes the Bears so exasperating.

For 25 games now, the critics and doubters have circled, railing about what Missouri isn’t. Mostly, the Tigers aren’t big and haven’t been since Laurence Bowers went down with a torn ACL before the season.

Perhaps now, with the calendar bearing down on March, with the Tigers owning a 23-2 record and not only jockeying for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament but also elbowing to earn the coveted St. Louis regional top spot -- and with three wins against top-10 opponents for the first time in 22 years -- it is time to finally discuss what Mizzou is.

“When Missouri is on, there is nobody in the country as good as them offensively in the country,’’ Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Nobody. Period. And they’ve been on a lot this season.’’

Drew, who could double as a presidential candidate in his endless effort to spin positive on his own flailing team, for once wasn’t trafficking in hyperbole.

Three weeks ago, Drew decided his longer and taller team would be better served if the Bears played man-to-man against Missouri. Ricardo Ratliffe went for 27 points, with his speedy guards slicing and dicing the flat-footed defenders.

This time, Drew went zone, figuring it would slow the Tigers down.

“At the end of the day, when you play Missouri, you have to give up something,’’ Drew said. “We decided to give up the 3.’’

[+] EnlargePhil Pressey
Dak Dillon/US PresswireWith Phil Pressey leading the way, Missouri's offense had Baylor baffled on Saturday.
He got that part right at least. The game was still tight, 38-37, after the under-16 timeout. In the Tigers’ next six possessions, they sank five 3-pointers.

It wasn’t tight after that. That four players scored those five 3s says everything about Missouri’s versatility.

That Pressey was one of them says even more. The sophomore can turn heads on one play and make people bang their heads on the next, a cat-quick guard who occasionally falls in love with the flair more than the finish. He was an offensive nonfactor in his previous two games, scoring just two against Kansas and five against Oklahoma.

The Tigers can and did win without him scoring, but when he does, he makes them that much better. With 12 in his pocket by the break, Pressey forced Baylor to honor his shot in the second and made the Bears pay -- by kicking the ball to Denmon, Kim English or Michael Dixon.

Asked how he would defend against his own team, Pressey wasn’t offering up any insight.

“I don’t know what I’d do,’’ he said with a smirk. “I can’t tell you what our weakness is. I’ll let you all figure that out.’’

Baylor, certainly, will be wondering for a while. In two games, the Tigers have left the Bears behind like roadkill, hitting them with two different styles yet two equally dominant wins.

And as much as this is about who the Tigers are, it is also an indictment of what Baylor is not.

Or more, what the Bears ought to be. Outside of Kentucky and North Carolina, there might not be a more NBA-loaded roster in the country. Yet in back-to-back games against their two biggest Big 12 rivals, the Bears have looked nothing shy of awful.

The Tigers and Jayhawks have outscored the Bears by an average of 12 points, scored 80.3 points and shot 53 percent. Against everyone else this season, Baylor is 15.9 points better, giving up only 60.5 points and 38 percent shooting.

The Bears have not just lost, but have been embarrassed by the Jayhawks and steamrolled by Missouri, leaving Drew to look for small slivers of a silver lining on a team that has too much talent to require so much searching.

Kansas’ Jeff Withey was the best big man on the floor last week. Steve Moore took the honors Saturday, outplaying, outworking and outhustling a big-boy lineup that includes Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy.

A game after his five-point APB showing against the Jayhawks, Jones scored four, shooting 2-of-12.

“Every night we depend on Perry Jones, so when he struggles, it hurts us,’’ Anthony Jones said. “We’re not the same team without him being Perry Jones.’’

Perry Jones is experiencing the burden of the anointed that is the reality of college basketball today. Drew is right when he says that “you are judged on your potential.’’ He’s also right that he has a fairly young team.

But Kentucky is a fairly young team with an awful lot of anointed players, and the Wildcats are toting the burden with aplomb.

Baylor, instead, is caving under it. The Bears are, barring a miracle, all but eliminated from the Big 12 race.

And instead of picking up steam, they are picking up doubters.

That’s just the opposite of Missouri. With every passing game, the Tigers are silencing the critics, showing that while they might be unorthodox, they are no less effective.

Makes sense.

This is the Show Me State, after all.
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of the night's best basketball action.

No. 23 Louisville 80, UConn 59: Over the weekend, an inspired Huskies squad destroyed Seton Hall following a series of inspirational developments. Last week, Jim Calhoun commenced an indefinite medical leave. Shortly after that news broke, interim coach George Blaney called on his team’s leaders to, well, lead.

Alex Oriakhi called a pregame meeting with players and stressed unity and selflessness. The result: a 69-46 win over the Pirates. And finally, a reason to cling to the slight possibility that the Huskies might finally reverse their problematic patterns after they’d snapped a four-game losing streak.

And then, Monday happened. It was a weak effort for the Huskies. Yeah, teams lose sometimes. The best teams have bad nights. But that same motivated crew that whipped Seton Hall didn’t come to play on the road against a surging Louisville team. Ryan Boatright scored 18 points. The other four starters? A combined 7-for-29 from the field. The Huskies shot 3-for-14 from the 3-point line.

In the second half, the Cardinals took the fight out of the Huskies as they pulled away and feasted on their vulnerable foe. To UConn’s credit, the struggling assembly fell to one of the hottest teams in the Big East. But that’s no excuse for that lackluster effort.

Rick Pitino is clearly cooking something poisonous in that league. The Cardinals, ranked ninth in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, have won five straight. And although they’ve never entered a game at 100 percent due to injuries, their speed and relentless defense (they’ve held Big East opponents to a 38 percent clip from the field, second in the conference) continues to carry a program that could do damage in March.

Three Cardinals reached double figures and the team shot 11-for-25 from the 3-point-line. But they were monsters on defense. Gorgui Dieng shook off a weekend ankle injury to score 15 points and grab six rebounds. He was crucial to Louisville’s ability to hold future lottery pick Andre Drummond to an 0-for-6 outing. The Cardinals forced 15 turnovers and just ran the floor all evening, allowing their defense to spur their offensive production.

So here’s what you should take away from this game. The Huskies haven’t figured it out yet, and based on their troubling body language against the Cardinals, this thing could continue to spiral downward. The Cardinals, however, appear to be headed in the opposite direction. They’re like a sprinter reaching his peak just in time for the championship races. Louisville is definitely a team to watch closely in the coming weeks.

No. 4 Missouri 71, Oklahoma 68: Two days after an emotionally taxing victory – Saturday’s 74-71 home win over then-No. 8 Kansas – the Tigers found themselves in a surprising battle with the same Oklahoma squad that they’d defeated by nearly 40 points last month.

But the fourth-ranked Tigers held on and claimed first place in the Big 12 after shooting 56 percent from the field and forcing 16 turnovers. Ricardo Ratliffe’s double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Marcus Denmon’s 25 points were vital for the Tigers.

It wasn’t easy for Frank Haith’s squad. Steven Pledger missed a game-tying 3-pointer that rattled in and out of the rim at the buzzer. He’d knocked down a critical trey minutes earlier to pull the Sooners within two points of the Tigers, who were outrebounded 31-18 in Norman, Okla.

The Tigers, however, handled the quick turnaround from Saturday’s victory over the Jayhawks like professionals. This team is not very deep or big, but the Tigers are one of the most mature squads in America.

After the Kansas victory, Haith made players report to a local hotel by 2 a.m., a smart move to contain the postgame celebration for a team that had to travel the next day. Every player met the curfew.

But that wasn’t the only moment related to this game that showcased Missouri’s class. After Pledger missed the 3 at the buzzer, two Tigers walked over to the heartbroken junior and helped him up. Classy.

Haith has something special in Columbia with this disciplined group.

Weekend recap: Ratliffe efficient for Mizzou

January, 23, 2012
1/23/12
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Player of the Weekend – Ricardo Ratliffe
Ratliffe scored a career-high 27 points to go with eight rebounds, as Missouri came away with an 89-88 win at Baylor. He went 11-for-14 from the field, and now has a 77.2 field goal percentage on the season. That’s on track to break Steve Johnson’s Division I record of 74.6 percent in 1980-81. How efficient has Ratliffe been? Consider that he’d need to miss his next 18 shots just to fall into second place in the nation.

Filling Up the Stat Sheet – Jesse Sanders
Liberty’s Jesse Sanders came into Saturday averaging 12.6 PPG, 7.9 APG and 7.9 RPG this season, yet somehow a triple-double had escaped him. That changed in an 84-78 win at High Point, as Sanders finished with 14 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds. The senior has now had a triple-double in all four years on campus. Sanders is now averaging 8.0 RPG and 8.1 APG. No one has done that in at least the past 15 seasons.

Losing Legends – Boeheim, Calhoun, Krzyzewski
Syracuse, Duke and Connecticut all lost Saturday, meaning the three winningest active coaches all fell on the same day. Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and Mike Krzyzewski hadn’t lost on the same day since Jan. 18, 2003. That’s a span of 3,291 days. The fourth-winningest active coach (Bob Huggins) did manage a win on Saturday, as West Virginia topped Cincinnati in overtime.

Lofty Historical Comparison – Tony Mitchell = Michael Beasley
On Saturday, Missouri picked up its biggest win of the season down in Waco. Meanwhile, just two hours to the north, a former Tiger recruit had a huge game. Tony Mitchell had 30 points and 17 rebounds in North Texas’ overtime win over Denver. In just 11 career games, he's hit 30 points and 15 boards twice. The last freshman with multiple such games? Michael Beasley, who did it five times in 2007-08.

Ugly Stat Line of the Weekend - Brandon Young
Shadowed by Hugh Robertson for most of the game, DePaul’s Brandon Young went 0-for-13 from the field in Sunday’s 75-59 loss to South Florida. It’s the most attempts without a make by a Division I player this season. The last Big East player to go 0-for-13 or worse was South Florida’s Collin Dennis in 2006.

Conference power rankings: Big 12

January, 23, 2012
1/23/12
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Here are this week’s Big 12 power rankings:

1. Kansas: Bill Self said Saturday’s 69-66 victory at Texas was his team’s best win of the season. Not because the Jayhawks played particularly well against the struggling Longhorns, but because they found a way to grind out a victory in a tough road environment. Kansas is 36-7 in Big 12 road games in the past five-plus seasons.

2. Missouri: Ricardo Ratliffe scored 27 points in Saturday’s 89-88 win at Baylor, but many of those came on easy baskets against the Bears’ soft interior defense. The bigger story was the performance of point guard Phil Pressey, who had 18 points, seven assists and six steals in the Tigers’ most impressive victory of the season.

3. Baylor: Saturday’s 89-88 loss to Missouri was more lopsided than the final score indicates. The Bears were outscored 14-0 on second-chance points in the first half, when they were out-toughed and out-hustled in the paint by the undersized Tigers. The Bears trailed by as many as 12 points in the second half. Perry Jones III has a nagging ankle injury that has limited his performance the past two games.

4. Iowa State: Success in its next three games (at Texas and at home against Kansas and K-State) would go a long way toward improving the NCAA tournament hopes of a Cyclones team that is 14-5 overall and 4-2 in league play. Juco transfer Tyrus McGee had six 3-pointers in a 20-point effort in Saturday’s win at Texas Tech.

5. Kansas State: The Wildcats have won their last two games (against Texas and Oklahoma State), but their free-throw shooting has been abysmal. Frank Martin’s squad has made just 44 of its last 79 attempts from the foul stripe (55.7 percent). Center Jordan Henriquez has been suspended indefinitely.

6. Texas: The Longhorns are improving, but it hasn’t shown up in the win column. Texas’ last two losses (to K-State and Kansas) have come by a combined seven points. Freshman guard Sheldon McClellan is averaging 15 points in his last two games.

7. Texas A&M: Billy Kennedy’s team got a huge confidence boost when it defeated Oklahoma in overtime Saturday in College Station. It may be short-lived. Three of the Aggies’ next four games are against Kansas, Baylor and Kansas State. Khris Middleton, who is regarded as Texas A&M’s top player, missed most of Saturday’s game after bumping knees with a teammate and is questionable for Monday’s game at Kansas.

8. Oklahoma: The Sooners have a huge chance to regain some momentum when they host Baylor on Tuesday. Forward Romero Osby is averaging 17.3 points in his last three games, but he may have trouble against the Bears’ size and length. Upcoming road games at Kansas State (Saturday) and Kansas (Feb. 1) won’t be easy.

9. Oklahoma State: The undermanned Cowboys turned in an impressive performance before losing at Iowa State on a buzzer-beater last week. Saturday they fell at home to Kansas State for their third straight loss. Missouri visits Stillwater on Wednesday. The Cowboys are 9-10 overall.

10. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are 0-6 in Big 12 play, and their losses have come by an average of 17 points. Billy Gillispie’s squad averages just 63.1 points per game. The biggest question the rest of the way will be whether Texas Tech can get a conference win. Its best chance may be at home against Oklahoma State on Jan. 31.
1. Ricardo Ratliffe is the most important player in America. Missouri has a national-championship caliber backcourt. The Tigers have so many weapons. And they used all of them to beat Baylor Saturday. Ratliffe was dominant with 27 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Missouri gets by on limited size because of Ratliffe’s efficiency and versatility. With Ratliffe’s prowess, the Tigers have Final Four potential. Without him, they wouldn’t be a top-10 squad. He’s that much of a difference-maker for that team. With Missouri’s limited size, he’s the most crucial player in the country.

2. Wisconsin is quietly climbing the Big Ten standings behind a more confident Jordan Taylor. The Badgers won their fourth in a row with a 67-63 victory at Illinois Sunday. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. But the Badgers have shaken off their rocky start in the Big Ten and surged over the last two weeks. Taylor’s renewed confidence and aggression has been a big factor in Wisconsin’s turnaround in conference play. He’s scored 53 combined points in his team’s last three games. And although he’s still struggling from the three-point line, he’s attacking. His energy has sparked a crucial run for the Badgers. Don’t be surprised if Wisconsin (5-3 in the Big Ten) is fighting for the Big Ten title toward the end of the season.

3. Anthony Davis is the national player of the year right now. Alabama wasn’t bad in its 77-71 loss to Kentucky Saturday. The Tide just couldn’t withstand Davis. The freshman is a force on the defensive end and he’s evolving every night on the offense. He recorded four blocks and four steals against Alabama. He’s a special defender. He alters so many shots and just poses problems for every opposing player who wants to get to the basket. Right now, he’s as much of a contender for national player of the year as Thomas Robinson. And if I had to pick right now, I think I’d go with Davis just based on the way he’s impacting the game on both ends.

4. Syracuse needs Fab Melo. Syracuse knew that it wouldn’t have Melo for Saturday’s matchup at Notre Dame earlier this week, according to Jim Boeheim. But the Orange didn’t look like it was prepared to compete without him. Jack Cooley destroyed Syracuse inside. And Melo’s absence was a significant factor in Cooley’s production. Melo has had 11 blocks in his last three outings for Syracuse. He’s averaging 3.0 per game this season. Syracuse is a deep team. But Melo’s interior defense has been vital this season. Who knows when/if he’ll return. But to fulfill its potential as a Final Four contender, the Orange will need Melo’s defensive tools.

5. Andre Drummond is not playing like a lottery pick. It’s frustrating to watch a guy with Drummond’s skill set refuse to assert himself. He’s scored 10 points (5-for-17) in UConn’s last two games, both losses. I think Ryan Boatright’s absence has affected UConn. But the Huskies have also been impacted by Drummond’s up-and-down aggression. The talent is there but he doesn’t always utilize it because of inconsistent energy.

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