Mizzou rolls into first conference game

After cruising through its non-conference schedule with little difficulty, Missouri is focused on the more difficult challenges ahead.

Enjoying its best start in 30 years, the seventh-ranked Tigers look to keep rolling as they open Big 12 play Tuesday night against visiting Oklahoma.

Missouri (13-0) moved up one spot in this week’s AP poll after keeping its unblemished record intact with Friday’s 75-68 victory at Old Dominion. Senior Marcus Denmon scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half – including the go-ahead 3-pointer with just over a minute remaining.

“We’re really happy with 13 wins heading into conference play, but we understand that none of those wins matter,” said Denmon, who ranks third in the conference with an average of 18.7 points.

Though Missouri had plenty to celebrate in 2011, it knows 2012 brings consistently tougher competition in the Big 12 – including unbeaten Baylor and two other ranked foes in Kansas and Kansas State.

“You understand, once you get to January, late December, you’re playing good teams for the rest of the year,” senior Kim English said.

If their recent history in this series is any indication, the Tigers have to like their chances of extending their best start since opening 19-0 in 1981-82. Missouri has posted five consecutive home victories over Oklahoma (10-2) by an average of 10.8 points – including an 84-61 win Feb. 12.

The Sooners’ two losses came 83-63 to Saint Louis on Nov. 27 in Anaheim and 56-55 to Cincinnati on Thursday in a virtual home game for the Bearcats. Oklahoma, though, bounced back two days later to defeat Northwestern State 83-63.

“We have taken a lot of steps. Most importantly, we have gotten a little bit tougher,” coach Lon Kruger said. “Big 12 (play) is exciting. Guys look forward to it. Guys look forward to every game.

“When you get to conference play all across the country, it takes on a little added level of enthusiasm. That will be no different here. The challenge is tough. Every time we line up, 18 times, it’s going to be a huge test.”

The Sooners are paced by junior guard Steven Pledger, who ranks just ahead of Denmon with 18.8 points per game thanks to 55.0 percent shooting – 48.4 percent from 3-point range.

Pledger, who posted just 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting during last season’s road loss to the then-No. 19 Tigers, scored 18 on Saturday and will likely need to come out with another big effort if the Sooners hope to keep up with Missouri.

The Tigers, averaging 86.2 points, lead the nation in shooting a remarkable 51.7 percent from the floor. They’ve won 27 straight home games over unranked opponents by an average of 23.9 points.

Oklahoma, meanwhile, has dropped 16 of 17 conference games as the visiting team – including its last five in 2010-11. The Sooners have also lost 12 consecutive meetings with ranked foes by an average of 15.4 points.

In addition to trying to slow down Denmon and English, Oklahoma could have its hands full with big man Ricardo Ratliffe and point guard Phil Pressey.

Ratliffe is averaging 14.2 points on 76.1 percent shooting – the best in Division I – while Pressey has posted at least five assists in a school-record eight straight games, totaling 61 over that span.