Tigers Win Biggest Game of The Year; Now Can They Avoid the Letdown?

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click to enlarge What the city of Norman, Oklahoma should look like to the Mizzou players flying in.
What the city of Norman, Oklahoma should look like to the Mizzou players flying in.
On Saturday evening the Missouri Tigers won perhaps their biggest game of the year. Well, okay, biggest of the year so far; the games really only get bigger from here on in. Such is the life of a top five college basketball team. Every game becomes the biggest game. 

Even so, beating a Kansas team sitting atop the Big XII rankings and ranked in the top ten nationally is pretty damned big. Marcus Denmon going Super Saiyan at the end to put the Tigers ahead? Big. Michael Dixon hitting two free throws in a row following an offensive foul to extend the lead to three? Big. Holding serve in Columbia ahead of a rematch in Lawrence three weeks from Saturday? Bigger than big. 

So yeah, it was a big, big game. Tough to say it was bigger than the Tigers travelling to Waco, Texas and taking down then-number three ranked Baylor, but it probably was. 

The problem is that, following a game that big, it's easy to look at anything less as small and not nearly so important. How Frank Haith keeps his team from falling into that trap will be his next big challenge as the coach of this Mizzou team. 

After the Tigers beat the Bears of Baylor back on the 21st of January, their next game came on a Wednesday night in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Facing an Oklahoma State team which, while not exactly a bunch of pushovers, should not have posed a real threat to an elite team like the Tigers, Mizzou came out flat and lost to the Cowboys 79-72. 

That game featured a particularly painful performance by Denmon, whose early-season player of the year buzz has almost completely evaporated the past handful of games thanks to a miserable shooting funk. Against Oklahoma State, he shot just 25% from the field, converting only 4 of 16 shots and 2 of 8 from beyond the arc. Really, though, the onus shouldn't fall too heavily on Denmon for the Tigers' loss in Stillwater; it was very much a team effort. Ricardo Ratliffe was really the only starter who played up to his usual standards in that contest, and even he seemed soft, or perhaps tentative, on defense at times. 

Now, following the big -- ahem, excuse me, BIG -- win over Kansas, the Tigers have to travel to another Oklahoma city, Norman this time, to take on the Sooners tonight. Haith's team absolutely stomped Oklahoma when they played earlier this season; the Tigers opened conference play with an 87-49 victory over the Sooners. 

Lon Kruger's squad is coming off back-to-back losses to Kansas and Iowa State, after beating Kansas State -- the team who handed Mizzou their only other loss this year -- on the 28th of January. The Sooners are 3-7 in conference play this year. They've looked downright overmatched at times, the result of both youth and some real holes in their game. Bottom line: it's been kind of a rough season for Oklahoma. 

Or, to put it another way, we need Admiral Ackbar on the plane with the Missouri players on their way to Norman, yelling out, "It's a trap!" at every possible opportunity. 

This is very much the classic trap game, the exact same sort the Tigers fell victim to at Oklahoma State. Coming off a big win, feeling awfully good about their NCAA ranking, facing a clearly inferior opponent ... seriously, it's a trap, guys. Just remember that. 

It will be up to Frank Haith to find the magic words to keep his players from succumbing to either complacency or plain old fatigue tonight in Oklahoma. It didn't happen the last time the Tigers won the Biggest Game of the Year; let's see if they've learned anything since then. 

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