When it comes to hoops in Missouri, which team is No. 1?
ST. LOUIS — Why Missouri and Saint Louis University haven’t met in men’s basketball since 2001 is a shame. The way the Billikens have come on in recent years, the old argument that the Tigers would have nothing to gain and everything to lose no longer holds up (if it ever did).
Maybe the two sides will make it happen again. But that’s a story for another day. For today, let’s look at how the squads would fare if they were matched up this season.
Based on rankings, a meeting between the two would be a tossup. Both teams received three points in Associated Press’ preseason balloting, putting them in a tie for 44th. In last week’s coaches’ poll, the Billikens landed 38th (8 points) with the Tigers coming in at 41st (6 points). When the polls come out again, look for the Tigers to move ahead since the Billikens lost twice last week to ranked teams.
A week ago, I rated the Billikens over the Tigers for two reasons. One, with senior starters Dwayne Evans and Rob Loe, they have far more experienced players on the inside. Two, Billikens guard Jordair Jett is the type of strong, physical defender to slow down Jordan Clarkson, the Tigers’ leading scorer.
That a week later I have flip-flopped my thinking has little to do with what the Billikens didn’t show in close losses to No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 12 Wichita State. It’s far more about what Missouri did show in its three victories last week, especially its 78-67 handling of Northwestern.
The Tigers just might be better than I thought. Three reasons:
— Clarkson definitely is better than I thought. He’s not an ideal point guard because of his score-first (second and third) mentality, but when you can get into the lane like he can, he should be looking to shoot. He’s 6-foot-5, can drive to his left and right and is stronger than he looks, which enables him to get off tough shots in traffic. If he can up his 3-point shooting percentage (22.7) to close to 30 percent, he’s a lock to average 20 a game. Since he’s already averaging 19.4, he might be good for 20 even if he doesn’t find his range from long distance.
— Freshman forward Johnathan Williams III already has adjusted to Division I. Williams will be the Tigers’ leading scorer down the road, but for now he seems to have figured out his best chance to impact a game is with rebounding, particularly on the offensive end. Though he typically will be facing bigger, stronger players, the 6-9, 210-pound Williams has the skills — and basketball savvy — to compensate. Williams took over the Tigers’ rebounding lead after a three-game stretch during which he pulled down 35. He should keep it as long as he maintains his focus on the dirty work.
— Sophomore forward Ryan Rosburg is playing like the most improved player for either Missouri or SLU. The way he has started asserting himself when he gets the ball inside, you can see his confidence rising. As one Tigers analyst said last week after Rosburg was fed and converted a basket: “Last year, Ryan Rosburg doesn’t catch that pass. Last year, Ryan Rosburg doesn’t make that basket.” It’s not likely the 6-10, 250-pounder will average double figures in points or rebounds, but he doesn’t need to. If he can provide the same presence against SEC opponents that he has so far, the Tigers’ inside game will not be the weak link that was expected.
While the Tigers slightly have exceeded expectations — mine, anyway — the Billikens have played more or less as advertised. That should not be a surprise considering they return four starters, three of them seniors. Once leading scorer Dwayne Evans starts asserting himself in the first half like he has in the second, and once Grandy Glaze figures out he’s not a go-to scorer (going for 16 in the opener might have given him another idea), the Billikens should be even better.
As it is, they’re certainly on the same level as Missouri. It’s just too bad they can’t prove it on the court.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.