Mizzou proves dangerous to lesser opponents

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Vengeance was swift and with little sympathy. A rout of Oklahoma State was achieved with efficient shooting, physical rebounding and, most evident, a focus that suggests third-ranked Missouri is capable of handling lesser opponents before playing No. 4 Kansas for the Big 12 Conference lead on Feb. 25.

The countdown toward a matchup at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence that could decide the Big 12 title is on, and the way the Tigers trounced the Cowboys 83-65 on Wednesday night at Mizzou Arena showed how versatile Frank Haith’s team could be against inferior competition. Missouri avenged one of its two losses by skilled touch from the floor, finishing 32 of 61 shooting. Missouri avenged that loss by playing much taller than its size, outrebounding the Cowboys 37-29. And Missouri ended the suspense early, going on a 37-12 run to close the first half and creating a 22-point halftime lead.

The last meeting between Missouri and Oklahoma State this season began with questions. How would the Tigers follow a 15-point victory over then-No. 6 Baylor on Saturday? And how would they approach Oklahoma State freshman forward Le’Bryan Nash, who scored a season-high 27 during the upset in Stillwater on Jan. 25?

Despite the curiosity, the encore between the Tigers and Cowboys ended with a sense that Missouri is surging 10 days before what could be the most meaningful Border Showdown in recent memory.

Revenge? To Missouri senior guard Kim English, what happened to Oklahoma State on Wednesday was nothing more than business, the latest step in the Tigers’ journey toward their first Big 12 regular season title. Still, the message sent in the aftermath of Missouri’s 15th consecutive home victory was clear: The Tigers are good perhaps worthy of a No. 1 seed when they play to their potential.

“It’s a game that we needed to win – a huge game, because it was our next game on the schedule,” said English, who finished with 13 points. “But we definitely remembered how we didn’t perform in Stillwater.”

The memory served as motivation. Missouri enjoyed an eight-point lead with a little more than 13 minutes left at Gallagher-Iba Arena, only to falter late and lose by seven. Afterward, Haith criticized the Tigers’ lack of focus and an inability to finish.

No such criticism was necessary Wednesday, and the effort showed the Tigers’ growth. Missouri played its best game in a month, earning its largest margin of victory since beating Texas A&M by 19 on Jan. 16. Paired with the win over Baylor on Saturday, the rout of Oklahoma State represented Missouri’s first consecutive double-digit victories since beating Texas by 11 on Jan. 14 before the triumph over Texas A&M.

The Tigers earned their second decisive victory in as many games because of versatile scoring and strong defense. Senior guard Marcus Denmon scored a team-high 17 points, and four other players – senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe (15), junior guard Michael Dixon (15), English (13) and sophomore guard Phil Pressey (13) – also finished in double figures. Meanwhile, Missouri’s pressure limited Nash to 11 points.

“There may be more teams in the country with more talent,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “But (Haith) has developed some chemistry and a flow within their offense and defense. I’ve been impressed with what Frank has done. Really impressed.”

Ford had reason to be, because the Tigers’ play against the middling Cowboys brought to mind the efficiency that overwhelmed non-conference opponents in the season’s first seven weeks. At that point, Missouri introduced itself as a national contender and created believers out of many of Haith’s critics during a stretch that included routs of 39, 38 and 37 points. Blowout victories became more of an expectation than a luxury, and Haith was elevated to a popular National Coach of the Year candidate.

Now, 13 games into the conference schedule, Missouri’s place as one of the nation’s top teams – along with Kentucky and Syracuse – is secure. But upcoming contests against Texas A&M and Kansas State – teams that are a combined 10-16 in the Big 12 – could serve as traps if the Tigers lose their focus before facing the Jayhawks. Kansas State, for one, already proved it could handle Missouri by winning by 16 on Jan. 7 in Manhattan, Kan.

However, the chance of Missouri losing its edge against either the Aggies or Wildcats appears slight. After the game Wednesday, a question about the Big 12 becoming a two-team race between the Tigers and Jayhawks was directed toward Dixon. He began to answer. Soon, English interrupted him.
“Texas A&M?” said English, referring to the Tigers’ next opponent Saturday.

“Yeah,” Dixon said. “What he said.”

The moment was another example that Missouri, at least publicly, is not allowing itself to spend energy on what the nation already anticipates: A wild scene at Allen Fieldhouse with conference title implications in the last regular season meeting between the bitter rivals before the Tigers move to the Southeastern Conference. Right now, anything less than such an atmosphere with such stakes would be a disappointment.

But English, Dixon and others have maintained their tunnel vision, churning through Big 12 opponents over the past six games since the upset in Stillwater. The matchup Wednesday promised intrigue, because it offered the chance for revenge. And for the Tigers, vengeance came with ease.

But the result also could be a sign of outcomes to follow before Missouri and Kansas meet. On Wednesday, the Tigers showed how dangerous they could be against inferior competition.

Until Feb. 25, they have two more chances to prove the same.