- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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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.’’
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.
This is the Show Me State, after all.
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15dBrandon Chatmon and Max Olson