posted on December 23, 2012 00:17
A year ago, the identity of Missouri's basketball team was evident from the onset of the season.
It was a team lacking in depth and size, but would shoot any team out of the building on any night. It was a team led by seniors, and that maturity overcame any deficiencies in athleticism or talent.
This year, the identity of Frank Haith's second-year team wasn't apparent until the second half against Illinois. For the previous ten games of the season, the Tigers were inconsistent, but showed flashes of brilliance. It looked like the team was gelling before a 23-point loss to Louisville in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis. Since that day-after-Thanksgiving defeat, the Tigers basically treaded water with Dec. 22 circled on the calendar and bragging rights at stake.
After a gritty, physical 82-73 win against previously unbeaten Illinois, we finally know the identity of this team.
Frank Haith has a talented, deep rotation that focuses mainly on four players: Phil Pressey, Laurence Bowers, Alex Oriakhi and Jabari Brown. As those four players go, this team goes. They're backed by a strong rotation of athletic, broad-shouldered guards in Keion Bell and Ernest Ross, in addition to the Janitor, Tony Criswell, who does all the behind-the-scenes work in back-up duty.
But the identity of the team is the first four players mentioned. Pressey missed his first fifteen shots and there wasn't a doubt in anyone's mind that he should sit. In fact, his misses set up Missouri for its strong finish. Because of his willingness to penetrate and shoot despite an ice-cold start, his baseline drive-and-dish to Bowers for an emphatic dunk put Misouri up by five with a minute to play, effectively sealing the victory.
Bowers' return to form after his knee injury finally came full circle on Saturday, as he was consistently the best player on the court with 23 points and ten rebounds. Maybe he's lost some athleticism because of that injury, but he's more physical and determined than ever. Likewise, Oriakhi's emergence as an unmoveable force in the post has given the Tigers a bizarro Bowers -- more physical, but less athletic. But he's the perfect complement at the 5 to Bowers at the 4, making those two forwards impossible to deal with by many teams.
Finally, there's Brown, two games into his Missouri career. With all the hype that followed him out of high school to Oregon, and then from Eugene to Columbia, it wasn't clear if he would be content with being a guy instead of THE guy. On Saturday, we found the answer to that question. Brown put up 18 points on 50-percent shooting, and might as well have signed a lease with the corner of the baseline for how often he set up shop there, waiting for a dish from Pressey. But it was those seven rebounds that showed Brown doesn't feel the need to hunt his shot and be the superstar. Instead, he's fit in seamlessly with that identity of four players that will define the rest of the season.
There are issues. The point guard situation beyond Pressey needs to clear up. The Tigers' need to figure out a consistent pace to play at, depending on which line-up is in the game. But this is a team with multi-faceted identity. They can score inside (44 points in the paint) or outside. They can get to the line and make those free-throws. Frank Haith rebuilt his team and found even more players willing to chip in, in any way possible. Six players had over 20 minutes of playing time, and all six of them had at least five rebounds. Three players had some form of a double-double.
Yes, there's plenty of the season left. But Missouri found its identity on Saturday in the Braggin' Rights game. Suddenly, the narrative for the rest of the year came into focus.