Seven games remain on Missouri’s regular-season docket. That stretch run to a possible Big 12 Conference title is marked by two marquee Saturday matchups.
The eighth-ranked Tigers (22-2, 9-2) now have a slight advantage over sixth-ranked Baylor (21-2, 8-2) and 10th-ranked Kansas (18-5, 8-2) at the top of the Big 12 standings. Missouri defeated Oklahoma 71-68 on Monday night.
After this week, there could be more clarity in the Big 12 title race. Baylor and Kansas play each other Wednesday before the Bears travel to Columbia for a rematch against Missouri. The Tigers beat Baylor in an 89-88 game on Jan. 21 in Waco.
Missouri’s first game against Baylor was highlighted by a dominating performance by forward Ricardo Ratliffe. The Tigers’ lack of low-post players was thought to be the key mismatch, yet Baylor had no answer for Ratliffe. He made 11 of 14 field-goal attempts, and six of his eight rebounds came on the offensive glass.
At the same time, Baylor’s leading scorer, Perry Jones III, had eight points and four rebounds in 29 minutes, and he was a non-factor late in the game as Missouri held on. Jones had two points in the second half.
For Missouri to sweep Baylor in the regular season, the Tigers need Ratliffe to once again be a presence in the post. In three games from Jan. 28 to Feb. 4, Ratliffe scored in double-figures once and had 11 total rebounds. Ratliffe found his form Monday, however, and he finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds against Oklahoma.
While the important three-week stretch is bookended by the front-runners for the conference title, it’s the games in between that may ultimately decide the standings. Missouri has home rematches against Kansas State and Oklahoma State, the teams responsible for the two blemishes on Missouri’s record this season.
STAR WATCH: Senior guard Kim English has rebounded from a sub-par junior campaign, and it’s showing in the stat columns. English is shooting over 50 percent from the field and over 48 percent from 3-point range after failing to hit 40 percent in both marks as a junior. However, his ability to guard forwards on defense might be his most impressive transition as a senior. English was tasked to guard Kansas center Jeff Withey on Saturday, and the Jayhawks’ 7-footer had zero points on one field-goal attempt.
Fired-up fans see Tigers rally past Jayhawks
—It was only fitting that a player from the Kansas City area provided heroics that helped Missouri beat Kansas in what could have been the last meeting between the bitter rivals in Mizzou Arena.
Senior guard Marcus Denmon overcame a pronounced slump to pour in a game-high 29 points, including nine in the final 2:07 as the Tigers triumphed 74-71. They held the Jayhawks scoreless over the final 3:22 while winning for just the second time in the last 12 meetings.
Any meeting these days is considered epic after Missouri’s decision to move into the SEC next season triggered a hard-line stance from Kansas to sever any and all ties to the rivalry.
That stirred even more vitriol for a clash in which the outcome left three teams tied atop the Big 12 standings. Missouri, Kansas and Baylor all stood at 8-2 in the conference through Feb. 5.
Throughout the game, the sellout crowd of 15,061 was on its feet, exhorting the Tigers and jeering the Jayhawks. The fans were rewarded with a decisive 11-0 run by Missouri to close out the game, including key charging calls drawn by center Steve Moore (against Thomas Robinson) and guard Mike Dixon (against Tyshawn Taylor).
“The fans were awesome,” senior guard Kim English said. “They were so loud. That was the loudest I’ve ever heard it.”
With good reason. All that was on the line demanded the Tigers get as much support as possible as they improved to 21-2 overall. What cannot be lost in the celebratory mood, however, is Missouri still must visit Kansas on Feb. 25. Any chance at overturning a seven-year run of Big 12 championships for the Jayhawks probably must go through Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.
For now, however, the Tigers gained an edge for at least this season in a rivalry that’s on its last legs. At least that’s the position Kansas administrators have taken, though counterparts from Missouri are doing everything possible to convince the Jayhawks to keep playing the matchup. Well, everything but stay in the Big 12.
“I think it will be a shame if we can’t continue this matchup,” said Frank Haith, the Missouri coach who continues to do a remarkable job with the Tigers. “I’m learning a lot about this rivalry in my first year, and it is great for the game to have us play. Hopefully it does work out in the near future. We’ll see how it goes.”
—The sellout crowd for the Kansas game behaved well, except for one instance in the second half when a compressed T-shirt was hurled to the floor, prompting the public address announcer to warn that a technical foul would be called if any more objects were fired. Missouri trailed 62-61 with 6:12 remaining when that incident happened. Chants of “Kansas won’t play!” were heard, a reference to the decision by KU officials to discontinue scheduling the Tigers in any sport in response to Missouri’s move to the SEC. The two have been conference rivals since 1907, when they were first part of the Missouri Valley.
Kansas coach Bill Self maintained his school’s stance against scheduling Missouri, but said, “I loved the atmosphere here. So much has been made about the hatred and stuff, and this is hard for me to say to Mizzou people, but I thought this was about as good and class of an atmosphere as there is.”
—The crowd attending Missouri’s victory against Kansas on Feb. 4 didn’t need any more reasons to be stoked, especially since fans were on their feet the entire game. Still, a football recruit ranked as the best in the nation returned for the second week in a row, this time after signing with the Tigers. Dorial Green-Beckham, a wide receiver from Springfield, Mo., sat on the front row and received a thunderous ovation when he was introduced. In addition, nine former Missouri stars were also recognized during one stage of the game, stirring yet another frenzy.
—One interesting take on the rivalry was reported by the Columbia Tribune when it asked former Missouri coach Norm Stewart on the Tigers’ move to the SEC. “I’d rather not discuss that,” said Stewart, who posted a 33-41 record against Kansas before retiring in 1999. “Nobody seems to be interested in history. If they were, we might not be where we are today.”
BY THE NUMBERS:4 — Consecutive 20-win seasons for Missouri, the first stretch of its kind for the Tigers since 1992.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “Coach (Frank Haith) always talks to us about growth and how we want to finish games. We want to run our offense and execute defensively. It just boils down to getting stops. And if you’re really good, you can do both of those things.” — Missouri G Kim English.