Monday, February 9, 2009
Missouri poised to pounce on Big 12 title
Missouri plays Kansas at home Monday. Oklahoma comes to Columbia on March 4.
Why shouldn't Mizzou coach Mike Anderson believe the Tigers can win the Big 12?
Well, he does. Monday night's contest is the first of two games between the heated rivals. Kansas (8-0) is ahead of Missouri (7-2) by two games in the conference loss column. So, too, is Oklahoma (9-0).
"We're in the hunt for a conference championship," Anderson said Sunday by phone from Columbia. (For more of the interview, listen to Monday's ESPNU College Basketball podcast. )
"There's a buzz about this game, more so than in the past," Anderson said. "We're in the hunt for a championship. This is a big game."
The Tigers' turnaround, even just this season, is a credit to Anderson, the leadership of forwards DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons and the infusion of ready-to-contribute junior guards Zaire Taylor and J.T. Tiller, among others.
Missouri was impressive early in the season when it beat USC in Puerto Rico (after a four-point loss to Xavier) and blew out Cal at home. But the Tigers were a mystery when they were slammed by Illinois in St. Louis, then started out Big 12 play by losing at Nebraska (which is being seen in a different light after taking down Texas). Their Jan. 28 loss at Kansas State has a different view, too, after the Wildcats beat Texas in Austin and Texas A&M in College Station.
Still, the inconsistency tag could have applied to the Tigers until the past 10 days. Missouri whipped Baylor by 17 points on Jan. 31, won at Texas by four on Wednesday, then made sure it didn't slip on Saturday at Iowa State, when it won by 14.
"Everyone was talking about Big Monday, but I was talking about Big Saturday," Anderson said of the Iowa State game. "We responded well."
The Tigers' defensive intensity has improved, and Anderson said the team is starting to look like the "fastest 40 minutes in basketball," an offensive scheme he'd envisioned when he took the job.
The leadership from Carroll and Lyons, who both had declared for the NBA draft but withdrew, started on a trip to Canada during the Labor Day weekend. Anderson said it was there that the Tigers began to find themselves. They started to have fun playing the game and haven't stopped. Anderson won't say the Tigers are a lock for the NCAA tournament -- yet.
"We'll see," Anderson said. "I just know we're a good basketball team."
Beating Kansas on Monday certainly would do wonders for the Tigers' perception and NCAA profile.
• Speaking of Tigers, Memphis coach John Calipari continued to show he's impressed with his team Sunday after reflecting on its 18-point win over Gonzaga in Spokane on Saturday night.
"We had relentless defensive pressure for 32 minutes," Calipari said. "They had no good looks. They couldn't post it up on us."
The Zags shot 4-of-15 on 3s. Matt Bouldin, Jeremy Pargo and Steven Gray were a combined 4-of-20 from the field, 0-for-6 on 3s.
Meanwhile, Memphis' Robert Dozier had a double-double (18 points and 10 boards), and Tyreke Evans continued to be a scoring leader at the point with 22 points (7-of-8 at the line).
Calipari said Evans vomited three times at halftime and didn't warm up, but it didn't faze him in the second half. He said he would meet with Evans later Sunday to discuss how the Tigers could get another 10 percent out of him the final month of the season. He said he was going to have the same conversation with Dozier.
Calipari also said that if he'd moved Evans to the point earlier in nonconference play, there's "no way we lose all three of those games [to Xavier in Puerto Rico, at Georgetown and to Syracuse]."
The Tigers, ranked No. 15 before they played Gonzaga, likely will be in the top 10 once the latest Top 25 poll is released Monday. The Tigers have finished nonconference games and resume their march toward perfection yet again in Conference USA. (Their streak is at 50 wins.) Which seed does Calipari want his team to garner for the NCAA tournament? "I'm shooting for a one," Calipari said. What else did you think he'd say?
• Creighton won at Northern Iowa to hand the Panthers their second Missouri Valley loss. There is nothing wrong with losing to Creighton -- in any season, in Valley conference play, even at home. But the Panthers, like Siena, which lost to Rider on Saturday in the MAAC, might find it difficult to earn an at-large berth without winning the Valley tournament. This could be a record low for at-large berths outside the big six conferences, especially if Xavier (A-10), Gonzaga (WCC), Davidson (Southern), Utah State (WAC) and Butler (Horizon) win their respective conference tournaments.
• Virginia Tech finally won a close game by beating NC State in overtime Sunday. The Hokies (15-7, 5-3) are walking a fine line for a bid, which is why losing to teams below them in the ACC isn't a recipe for a berth.
• LSU is quietly putting together a dominating SEC West run with a 7-1 mark after beating Alabama on Sunday. It's hard to believe the Tide have lost 17 straight SEC road games.
• Dayton could have held sole possession of first place in the A-10 with a home win over Xavier (8-1) later this week. But it fell prey to the bottom of the league by losing on Sunday to Charlotte, which previously had only one conference win. Dayton is now 7-2 and has one conference loss more than Xavier and Saint Joseph's. The Hawks (7-1) have been up to their usual act of late. After mediocre nonconference play (7-7), they've found their groove playing against conference opponents.
• It's amazing how one loss can change the complexion of the standings in a day. Boston College entered Sunday in third place at 6-3 in the ACC. Losing to Wake Forest sent the Eagles down to seventh at 6-4.
• A week or so ago it appeared Wisconsin was toast for an NCAA berth. But the Badgers beat Illinois and then Penn State on the road Sunday to move to 5-6 in the Big Ten after a very un-Bo Ryan-like six-game losing streak. Wisconsin plays a favorable schedule down the stretch with two games against last-place Indiana, one against 10th-place Iowa and home games against Ohio State and Michigan, two beatable teams. Beating the Buckeyes and Wolverines would look good on the résumé. The Badgers' two other road games will be at Michigan State and at Minnesota -- both difficult contests, but certainly opportunities to impress the selection committee. Wisconsin, at 14-9, has a pulse.
• Washington (17-6, 8-3) beat Stanford on Sunday to earn a split against Bay Area teams. The Huskies will earn an NCAA bid because they don't lose two games in a row. The Huskies do a good job of finding their offensive rhythm quickly. Quincy Pondexter's 20 points were a welcome sign that he could be another scoring option.
• Robbie Hummel's back injury is a shame for Purdue (17-6, 6-4). The Boilermakers aren't the same team without him, and they scored only 48 points against Illinois. Purdue lost its second straight game with Hummel nursing the stress fracture in his back. Meanwhile, Illinois (19-5, 7-4) suddenly is tied with Ohio State for second in the Big Ten, just two games behind Michigan State.
• Michigan coach John Beilein said he still believes the Wolverines will make the NCAA tournament. But he said the Wolverines have to win "the right games" the rest of the season. That means winning games such as the ones against Michigan State at home Tuesday, Purdue at home Feb. 26 and, likely, Minnesota at home on Feb. 19. The Wolverines will play at Northwestern, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, too. Michigan (15-8, 5-6) still has bankable wins against UCLA and Duke.
• Beilein called Connecticut senior forward Jeff Adrien, "Jason Maxiell with a jump shot." Not a bad description for the Huskies' indispensable power forward.
• The championship ring Boston Celtics All-Star Ray Allen gave Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun on Saturday might as well have been a doorstop. This replica ring clearly couldn't be worn. Calhoun's former players still show him intense loyalty, especially those who are in the NBA.
• Forgot to mention in the Weekly Watch that Boston University hosts Vermont on Wednesday in an America East showdown. The Terriers (14-9, 9-2) matched their win total from last season with seven games remaining. Vermont (8-3) and Binghamton (8-3) trail the Terriers. The homestand continues against Binghamton on Saturday. During an eight-game winning streak, John Holland and Corey Lowe are averaging a combined 42.4 points a game, making 45 percent of their shots and 43 percent of their 3s. Holland and Lowe are averaging 40.6 and 40.4 minutes a game during America East play. The Terriers have played extra periods against Stony Brook and UMBC.