The Illinois game always kind of marks the beginning of college basketball season for me.  I mean, I’ll watch it before then, but I can’t really get completely into it before then.  That said, this might be odd timing for a mid-season column on Tiger basketball.  But you know what?  It’s two days before Christmas.  Be happy I’m writing ANYTHING, let’s not pick on the semantics.

Anyhow, I’ve seen the vast majority of the games Missouri has played in person, including the three big ones (Vandy, Georgetown and Illinois).  So I figured this was a good time to talk about where the Tigers are.

I believe the ranking.  I’ve watched a lot of basketball this year.  Duke is head and shoulders above everyone else I’ve seen.  Kansas is right there too.  I don’t think Connecticut is on the same level, but Kemba Walker is playing better than anyone in the country right now, so that puts the Huskies in the conversation with the country’s elite.

Outside of those three, I put Missouri up there with any of them on a given night.  The Tigers have played three teams (the ones mentioned above) that I believe to be Sweet 16 caliber.  Missouri has beaten two of them and let the other one off the hook.  Whether you believe Missouri is the ninth best team in the country or not, the ranking isn’t a fraud and it isn’t far off.

And the best thing about that?  This team is going to get better.  The reason is pretty simple.  Mike Anderson’s teams ALWAYS get better throughout the season.  They’re better now than they were against Georgetown three weeks ago.  They’ll be better three weeks from now than they were last night.  And they’ll be better in March than they are in three weeks.

Think about this:  Missouri hasn’t played with a complete roster really all season.  For the first eight games of the year, Phil Pressey was a non-factor (to be honest, so mostly was Laurence Bowers).  Once Pressey figured out how to play at this level, Mike Dixon got suspended.  Dixon was reinstated and Pressey promptly broke his hand.  At no point has Mike Anderson truly been able to go nine or ten deep on his bench.  You may think that’s an indication this team just won’t go nine or ten deep.  I think it will.  And that means the Tigers’ best ball is probably ahead of them.

That’s my big picture thought.  I owe you some impressions from the Braggin’ Rights game.  First of all, let me say, it’s always been my favorite sporting event (assuming always doesn’t include the Quin Snyder years, and I know a lot of Missouri fans who just pretend those didn’t exist, so I can too).  I love it.  It is the only event I go to that is TRULY on a neutral court.  People compare it to the NCAA Tournament, but it’s not.  It’s better.  Because in the tournament, you get a lot of locals from Dayton or Greensboro or Boise who don’t really care who wins.  They just want to see good basketball.  There were 21,904 (or 21,634 depending on which attendance figure you believe—we were given both as official figures on Wednesday night) fans at the Scotttrade Center (is that really only one word?  It looks stupid) and every single one of them had a vested interest in who won.  Every call was either unbelievably stupid or so clearly the right call it was beyond discussion.  Every basket was either a monumental momentum boost or a dagger to the heart.  It’s an atmosphere that is unmatched by any sporting event I ever have the good fortune to attend.

Now, for the game.  A friend asked me on my drive into St. Louis what I thought would happen.  I said, Missouri gets down by ten early, gets even early in the second half and wins.  Score one for me.  But it’s really not rocket science.  Missouri does that in EVERY game against good competition.  I’ve said a number of times that I don’t believe Mike Anderson doesn’t CARE about the first 30 minutes…but I kind of suspect it.  I mean, he doesn’t want to be down 30 with ten minutes to go, but he doesn’t need to be in the lead either.  If he’s within a couple of possessions at the under eight timeout, he truly believes he will win the game.  And more often than not, he’s right.  The Tigers are 5-1 in games that have been in doubt in the final five minutes (the only exception being the gag job against the Hoyas).  Last night was a perfect example of why.  Demetri McCamey was the only guy who was going to beat Missouri, mostly because he was the only guy Illinois had to handle the ball against the press.  McCamey is a hell of a player who will be in the NBA next year.  He made some big-time shots.  But in the final four minutes, he was tired.  And Missouri knew it.  Marcus Denmon baited Illinois into a bad pass when he absolutely knew the ball was going to McCamey.  He stole it, set up Ricardo Ratliffe and Missouri finished the game on a 21-7 run.  Just as they get better as the season goes on, the Tigers improve as the game goes on.  I have learned to accept it.  Down ten ten minutes in?  Who cares.  Down 14 at half?  Not an issue.  Missouri doesn’t just do this against bad teams.  They do it against everyone.  The Tigers are must see TV (as evidence, national analysts Gary Parrish and Doug Gottleib have both called the lone Mizzou game they’ve seen in person the best one they’ve seen all season).

Finally, let me wrap up my thoughts with some individual comments.

Kim English may not yet be a complete basketball player.  But he’s getting there.  Against Central Arkansas, English had more assists than shot attempts.  Against Illinois, his shot wasn’t falling (3-8 from the floor), so he grabbed six rebounds, dished five assists, came up with three steals and took a pair of charges.  That’s an all around game from a kid that had a reputation of being a spot-up shooter.

Mike Dixon can take this team far.  He was rusty last night.  In the first half, he played like a kid who wanted to make up for a two-game suspension in his first 22 seconds on the court.  In the second, he settled down and took control of the game.  Illinois couldn’t keep him out of the paint.  And with the game tied at 58, Dixon took off on a “No, No, No, YES!” drive, finishing with a scoop shot over a seven footer.  He learned his lesson from the Georgetown game, calmly sinking free throws to make sure Illinois was completely dead.  Hopefully he learned another lesson from Anderson this week.

If Ricardo Ratliffe ever develops a shot, the kid is going to be really good.  He had 12 points last night and it easily could have been double that.  The ball just wouldn’t go in.  I’ve seen a comparison between Ratliffe and Jevon Crudup a few times lately.  I like it.  He’s not a great athlete, he’s not a good shooter, but he’s a bull in a china shop and he gets the job done.

Finally, how about Marcus Denmon?  I don’t know for sure if I can tell you when this became his team.  But I have my suspicions.  I think it happened on December 8th.  That morning, Marcus found out his cousin had died as a result of a gunshot wound over the weekend.  He could have gone home.  He could have sat out the Vanderbilt game.  Not one human being with a heart would have questioned him.  But he didn’t.  He played.  He scored 21 points.  He stole an inbounds pass and completed a three-point play in the final seconds that won
Missouri the game.  The Tigers became his team that night and they still are.  The Illinois game was Vandy Part Two.  With 2:30 to go, Denmon had seven points.  From there, he had the steal and the setup to Ratliffe and scored eight points in a two-minute span.  He led Missouri in scoring and was, above all others, the reason Missouri maintained its Bragging Rights.

The Tigers have a chance to go a long way this year.  And that’s even if they don’t get Tony Mitchell into school.  And, no, for the record, I don’t know anything more about that situation.

Gabe DeArmond is the publisher of PowerMizzou.com, the Missouri site on the Rivals.com network.  You can read his daily coverage of the Tigers online at http://missouri.rivals.com.

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# STLMojo
Friday, December 24, 2010 3:41 PM
Denmon as become the inspiration the team has lacked since Demarre Caroll graduated. They could go a long way...

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