Last Monday, the Missouri Tigers
were the number three ranked team in the nation. They were 25-2. They were tied for first place in the Big XII Conference
. They were looking at a #1 seeding in the NCAA Tournament
. Life was good for the Missouri Tigers last Monday.
Unfortunately, things aren't nearly so rosy this Monday. The Tigers have now lost two in a row; a second straight beatdown at the hands of an inferior Kansas State team, and perhaps the most gut-wrenching (not to mention infuriating), loss I can recall in any sport at Kansas on Saturday.
Mizzou's record now stands at 25-4. They have no chance of a number one tourney seed. Kansas will win the Big XII.
It was not a very good week.
Both losses exposed some aspect of this Missouri team, though the K-State loss did so a bit more poignantly. Kansas is good this year. They're always good every year. Kansas is going to beat you plenty, even when you're an elite team. The Wilcats, though, while talented, cannot hang with Mizzou in terms of pure skill. There was no reason in the world for Mizzou to go down to K-State twice.
For the second time this season, the Wildcats simply beat up the Tigers. They manhandled Mizzou, and there was no real response by Frank Haith's team for most of the game. The Tigers allowed K-State to dictate the pace of the game, and they settled for low-percentage, poorly-selected shots all game. By the time the Tigers got around to making their run, it was too little, too late. Perhaps they could have still had a chance, but an inability to sink the shots they were putting up ensured the defeat.
The main issue was, as it has so often been this year for the Tigers, a lack of a physical, inside presence. Kansas State absolutely ruled the paint, mugging any Missouri player foolish enough to come down low, and forced the ball out to the very edges. The absence of Laurence Bowers was palpable. Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore both fought valiantly, but it remains the Achilles' Heel of this team: when they aren't shooting well, there really isn't any other mode of attack they can rely on. Ordinarily when you see a team shooting poorly and being harassed every step of the way, they can start forcing the ball low into the post, letting the big men do what big men do: create space, force respect, and put home the tough points. The Tigers simply don't have that option with the makeup of this roster.
The Kansas game exposed one of the same fundamental flaws in the Tiger attack, as they failed to feed the low post enough high-percentage shots to hold off Kansas with the game in their hands, but the mental breakdown in the game was the much more troubling situation.
The Tigers had a lead of 19 points at one time, but went ice cold shooting in the second half, failing to score a single bucket from the field for just shy of seven minutes. Seems like an optimal time to try and feed the ball in to the paint, or else drive the bucket hard and try to draw the foul, right?
Instead of doing either of those things, though, the Tigers took numerous off-balance, low-percentage, and often just plain dumb shots from beyond the three-point arc. They took those shots time and time again with time still on the shot clock, as well; not exactly the recipe for success when you're trying to hold on to a lead with the clock ticking down. What exactly happened to the Mizzou players in that long stretch I'm not sure we'll ever completely understand; Kansas played tough defense, sure, but the Tigers acted as if Kansas had spiked the Gatorade jug with Everclear.
Perhaps even more telling than the Tigers' own inability to force the ball down low was their complete lack of an answer for the big men of Kansas, most notably Thomas Robinson. Over and over the Jayhawks put the ball in the hands of their big forward; over and over he muscled his way down low and put the ball through the hoop. Mizzou had no way of stopping him, particularly after Ricardo Ratliffe got into foul trouble.
Speaking of foul trouble, I don't like to pull the biased refs card, but that game Saturday was one of the absolute worst -- and most lopsided -- hatchet jobs of officiating I've ever seen. All the way down to the phantom foul on Robinson to set up his free throw to complete a three-point play and tie the game at the end of regulation, the level of contact constituting a foul varied wildly from play to play, depending largely on which team was holding the ball. The game was not called evenly, period.
Thomas Robinson has made a lot of teams look weak this year; it's why he's one of the favorites to win the NCAA Player of the Year award. He made the Tigers look more than weak, though; he made them look impotent. All along we've known this Missouri team would have trouble against bigger, more physical opponents unafraid of banging bodies around down low. One week, two losses, and a Big XII title (not to mention a tournament seed), all going down the drain at once, and the Tigers' vulnerabilities have stripped much of the luster from what was an historically great season.