Mizzou in two-team race for Big 12 title

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri coach Frank Haith and his
players have reached a point in their first season together where the
possibility of a Big 12 Conference title has become more than probable.
 
As early as a week ago, before a dramatic victory over then-No. 8 Kansas, the
Tigers found themselves on the brink of a three-team race where a loss to the
Jayhawks would have created a two-game deficit to their archrival with eight
games left and a trip to Allen Fieldhouse set for Feb. 25.
 
But seven days later — after rallying to beat Kansas, edging Oklahoma on Monday
and routing No. 6 Baylor 72-57 on Saturday at Mizzou Arena — Haith is faced
with a new task in guiding the Tigers as they try to remain the Big 12’s best.
 
Now the season’s final three weeks has become about seeing where their wild and
rewarding journey will lead. With six games left, they are one of two teams —
along with Kansas — that have a realistic chance to win the Big 12, after
handing Baylor its fourth conference loss and knocking the former favorite from
consideration. If Missouri plays to its potential and beats Oklahoma State, Texas
A&M and Kansas State in the next 10 days, the Tigers and Jayhawks could meet
on Feb. 25 with the Big 12 lead at stake.
 
“I do think there’s still another level this team can get to,” Haith
said. “There are times when we look great, but I still think there’s a
level this team can get to. I’m excited about where they are at, but I do think
there’s some room where we can get better.”
 
Haith is right, and Baylor showed Saturday where Missouri remains vulnerable.
The Bears outrebounded the Tigers 40-27 — a total that was in contrast to the
meeting between the teams Jan. 21, when Missouri outmuscled a starting lineup
that includes three forwards of at least 6-foot-7 for six more rebounds.
 
Still, Baylor’s size proved inconsequential in the encore. Bears coach Scott
Drew entered his team’s fourth game against a top-10 opponent this season with
a plan to force Missouri to win from the perimeter. On paper, the idea appeared
wise: Long rebounds from missed 3-point attempts would figure to fall to Baylor
because of its length.
 
But Missouri swished enough baskets from the outside to foil the strategy. The
Tigers made 14-of-28 shots from 3-point range, including seven during a
seven-plus-minute stretch that pushed their lead from one point to 14.
 
The way the Tigers exploited the Bears’ zone defense shows how versatile
Missouri has become. Opposing coaches have tried to eliminate the Tigers’
various weapons throughout the season, and all but two have had minimal
success.
 
Some have tried to limit Missouri’s guards. Some have tried to take away senior
forward Ricardo Ratliffe. And yet some coaches, like Drew, have tried to force
the Tigers into low-percentage outside shots.
 
But the sight of a sellout crowd of 15,061 rising to its feet as sophomore
guard Phil Pressey dribbled out the remaining seconds proved that Baylor’s size
may be superior to Missouri’s but the Bears’ will is not. True contenders shine
late in the season, and the Tigers responded to the test with one of their year’s
most-impressive shooting displays in the second half, going 8 of 15 behind the
3-point arc.
 
As a result, Missouri showed that its victory over Baylor last month in Waco,
Texas, was no accident. The Tigers look as if they are no worse than the second-best
team in the Big 12. Other than a trip to Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan.,
they have the potential to handle their remaining competition and consider a
path in the NCAA Tournament that includes a Sweet 16 appearance in St. Louis.
 
But Missouri is focused enough to leave such talk for a later time. Saturday’s victory
was important because it strengthened the Tigers’ resume – they are unbeaten in
three top-10 matchups. But Pressey reflected his team’s attitude after he was
asked if he and his teammates have considered postseason scenarios.
 
“We just need to focus on this next game,” said Pressey, who had a
team-high 19 points.
 
That outlook has served Missouri well this season. Haith drew laughs in his
postgame address following the last week’s victory over Kansas when he said his
team would report to a hotel for midnight curfew in advance of a trip to
Norman, Okla. As he spoke, parties around this mid-Missouri community that
lasted well into the early-morning hours were only beginning.
 
Still, the small-but-meaningful act showed there is discipline within Haith’s
program. That is why the Tigers find themselves in their current position.
Players believe in Haith — “Faith in Haith” became a popular slogan
among some after his controversial hire. He has created a level of confidence
that makes a 15-point victory over a quality team like Baylor seem more routine
than surprise.
 
The Tigers carry themselves like one of the Big 12’s best, especially at home.
Unlike the Bears, who went winless in four games against Kansas and Missouri
this season, the Tigers are playing with a sense that they belong atop the
conference. Baylor looked overwhelmed when Missouri made its second-half rally,
and the Tigers exploited their opponent like elite teams are supposed to do.
 
“When Missouri is on,” said Drew, whose team lost its ninth
consecutive game against top-10 competition, “there is nobody in the
country who is as good as them offensively. Period.”

Missouri was on in the second half Saturday, and the Tigers made visions of a
Big 12 title appear more real. With their victory, a three-team race for the
conference crown was whittled down to two.
 
Missouri remains standing after the latest twist.