Tigers Send Message in Kansas City

November 24, 2011

From the time Mike Anderson announced he was leaving Mizzou to take the Arkansas job, things haven’t been going well in Columbia, Missouri. After losing their coaching staff, the Tigers stumbled through their coaching search, finally landing on relative no name Frank Haith.

After Haith took over, top recruit Otto Porter picked Georgetown over Mizzou. Then Yahoo Sports dropped their massive Miami recruiting violation article, in which Frank Haith was one of the main offenders.

After that had started to die down, the Tigers’ best defender, and probably best player, Laurence Bowers tore his ACL, ending his season. Needless to say, expectations weren’t terribly high for Mizzou fans.

That all changed this week. Mizzou trudged through the first part of their schedule, winning easy home games against lackluster opponents. The CBE Classic was supposed to be the true test of how good the team would be this season. The answer is: really, really good.

The Tigers completely destroyed Notre Dame on Monday night with a combination of speed and great shooting. They followed that up with an even more convincing win over 18th ranked California. The message has been sent, Mizzou isn’t going to slug through this season, they are going to make a lot of noise in the Big 12.

The style isn’t even close to the same this season. Gone are the days of constant full court pressure. The gambling full court defense has been replaced by an active, half court defense that emphasizes ball pressure. Leading the charge is sophomore Phil Pressey, last year willing to allow his man a free path to the basket, Pressey is arguably the best on ball defender the Tigers have. He’s pestered opposing point guards all season, refusing to let down even as the shot clock ticks down.

Perhaps most shocking isn’t the defensive improvement, but the fact that the improvement has seemingly come from great coaching. Last year the Tigers didn’t try very hard on defense, especially once the shot clock started to run down. Some reporters have speculated that Mike Anderson checked out mentally last season, and it showed. Frank Haith is the complete opposite. His team is fighting and battling on defense, pressuring the ball, funneling their man into the middle, where Steve Moore and Ricardo Ratliffe are somewhat imposing forces (when they aren’t fouling people).

Offensively, Missouri is even more unselfish than they were in years past. Their four guard lineups have created great mismatches, and taken advantage of lazy, slow defense. Mizzou’s biggest advantage on offense this season is speed, and they have Mike Anderson to thank for that. Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon are almost always faster than the man guarding them, and they have been living in the paint this year. Their ability to get to the hoop and draw fouls will prove invaluable all season.

Also of note is Kim English, who has not only been hitting a lot of his shots this season (57% for the season), but playing within himself. Last season he tried to hard to make himself some sort of NBA player, instead of playing to his strengths. Now he’s cut down on the ill-advised drives to the hoop, and stopped fading away on his open jumpers. The result a 16 points per game average, along with  five rebounds and two assists.

Finally, Marcus Denmon, the star. Denmon isn’t just on pace to make the All-Big 12 team, he’s probably going to be an All-American. Maybe not first team, but almost certainly second team. He might also be able to win Big 12 Player of the Year. Denmon is a complete offensive player, combining great three-point shooting with a great ability to drive to the hoop. He’s also a fearless rebounder, and an above-average defender. Two years ago, it looked like Kim English would be the star player on this team, but now, Denmon is, and it isn’t even close.

This isn’t all to say the Mizzou is the perfect team, they are not. Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore still can’t play defense without fouling. Kadeem Green probably can’t play extended minutes against Big 12 competition. Baylor and Kansas are going to give Mizzou a ton of trouble with their big men.

Still, this week in Kansas City, the expectation for Mizzou this season changed. A run to the Sweet Sixteen and perhaps beyond is totally conceivable. That is something that didn’t seem possible when the season began.


Aggies, Tigers in action tonight

November 17, 2011

Tonight’s slate of games in the Big 12 is light, but two of the conference’s ranked teams are in action.

A&M and Miss. St. look a lot alike jersey-wise. Image courtesy 101cheapchecks.com

#18 Texas A&M gets a nice early season test against Mississippi State in Madison Square Garden. The SEC looks like it could be one of the strongest conferences this season but has taken some lumps early on. The Bulldogs are one of the guilty parties, as they dropped a game at home to Akron.

It probably sounds worse than it is because Akron is coming off a 23-win season and funny things happen early in the season when teams are still growing. Akron also had a well-regarded 7-footer in Zeke Marshall who had 10 points, 6 rebounds and 5 blocks in that game, and you don’t see players like that too often.

But nonetheless this should be the best team the Aggies play besides Florida and whomever else they play in New York before the season starts. Point guard Dee Bost is the Bulldogs leader, but he’s not the greatest shooter and turns the ball over a bit much. Mississippi State does have some big bodies in Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney, and it such be fun to watch them match up with A&M’s frontcourt.

For the Aggies, Ray Turner has been remarkably efficient the first two games, making 18 out of 22 shots he’s taken. We’ll see how he and the rest of the team continue to adapt to not having Khris Middleton. These two schools with extremely similar colors should get used to playing each other as they’ll be in the same conference next season.

Niagara visits Columbia this evening to take on #25 Missouri. Presumptively the Tigers are more talented, but these non-conference fodder teams could create issues for Frank Haith if they have some size. Unfortunately for Niagara they have only one player over 6’8”. The Purple Eagles are also very young, with only one senior on the roster and the majority of their scoring coming from freshman or sophomores in their only game so far.

Tonight I’ll be watching for consistent play from Kim English and Phil Pressey, who I am refusing to call Flip until I read something that says he actually likes being called that. English is off to a good start, but at times it looks like he still thinks he can do more than he should be doing. All English needs to do to be a fine contributor is give effort on defense, space the floor and wait for the drive and dish opportunities that’ll come via Pressey/Dixon/Denmon.


Baylor Takes Down SDSU

November 17, 2011

Watching Baylor yesterday was a rare mid-day treat that won’t come back around until conference tournament time in March. There is just something about weekday basketball games starting at lunchtime that makes them more fun to watch. Playing San Diego State, a Sweet Sixteen team last year, the Bears passed their first real test of the season. The 77-67 win at home was an across the board showcase of everything I thought Baylor would be good and bad at.

Baylor sort of slugged their way through the first half, and only led by two. They then went on a run in the second half, took what should have been a commanding lead, and then slowly let SDSU back into the game. There were stretches of brilliant athleticism, amazing dunks, solid point guard play, and good three-point shooting. There were also stretches of out of control play making attempts, lazy defense, and overall disinterest in playing hard.

That last point is my real concern with Baylor this season. Forget their supposed lack of point guard play, especially since I think Pierre Jackson and AJ Walton will do a more than credible job throughout the season. Baylor goes on a mental break far too often for me to be comfortable. For most of the season, that won’t actually hurt Baylor, they are just too talented, but come March, it will.

Other notes from Baylor-SDSU

1) I really don’t like Baylor having to use Anthony Jones at small forward. Sure he made both his three’s yesterday, but he didn’t look comfortable with the ball in his hands. Other teams are going to strip him every time he dribbles. I know Jones is a veteran, and certainly is a solid player, but I’d rather Quincy Miller play on the outside, giving him a chance to make plays off the dribble.

2) Quincy Miller has stepped up big time with Perry Jones out, and looks like the real deal. He showed a number of good post moves, and was able to make plays off the dribble multiple times.

3) Quincy Acy can play for my team everyday. He’s an aggressive rebounder, has solid post moves, and brings great emotion to the game. I’ll be hard pressed to find a more impressive dunk this season than this one by Acy.

4) Pierre Jackson was out of control at times, but looks to be the answer to the Baylor point guard question. He had nine assists, and played down the stretch. Scott Drew clearly wants to trust him, and knows that Jackson gives his team the best chance in the final minutes.

5) Once Perry Jones gets back, this team will create more highlights per minute than any team in the nation this side of UNC and Kentucky. Going to be fun to watch.


Baylor gets early season test

November 15, 2011

While Baylor went through a thoroughly disappointing season in 2010-2011, San Diego State found themselves in the national conversation all year.

Former Michigan coach Steve Fisher led the Aztecs to a 32-2 regular season record and spot in the Sweet Sixteen, where they lost to eventual champion Connecticut. So it’s not often you see a team like this at home this early in the season.

But, like many Mid-Majors that have great seasons, the Aztecs were led by a number of seniors. Major contributors D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White all ran out of eligibility. And the Aztecs had been led by sophomore Kawhi Leonard, who left for the NBA. The bulk of the team’s scoring and rebounding production left with those players.

So this isn’t exactly a juggernaut Baylor will face tonight. But the Aztecs still have some players with experience. Junior Chase Tapley played 20+ minutes a game last season, and sophomores Jamaal Franklin and LaBradford Franklin got a few minutes here and there as well. The former Franklin scored 31 points in the Aztecs last game against UC-Davis. Regardless the competition level, 31 points in a NCAA is impressive.

I’ll have my eyes on the Bears’ point guard play, which I really think is a key to their season. AJ Walton has looked good so far, with a 11-2 assist/turnover ratio in the first two games. Deuce Bello has done the opposite with a 1-6 ratio. The more those guys can run the transition offense and find Quincy Miller, Quincy Acy and (eventually) Perry Jones in spots they like, the better the Bears will be.


Preview: UK v. KU

November 14, 2011

One of the biggest non-conference matchups takes place tomorrow in Madison Square Garden, as Kansas plays a not-shockingly reloaded Kentucky team. Whereas Kansas hit a snag in its usually solid recruiting efforts with the Class of 2011, John Calipari kept rolling in the blue chips.

In a normal year Terrence Jones would be sitting on a NBA bench right now. Enjoy him. Image courtesy bleacherreport.com

The Wildcats added four Rivals five star players: F Anthony Davis, G Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, G Marquis Teague and F Kyle Wiltjer. Calipari really showed his ability to recruit anywhere in the country, as the four were from Chicago, New Jersey, Indianapolis and Portland, respectively.

But what really makes AP #2 Kentucky impressive on paper this season is the return of F Terrence Jones, whose second year in Lexington would appear to be a product of the uncertain labor situation in the NBA. Basketball fans can find a silver lining in the frustrating NBA situation in that a number of players returned to school that would probably have bolted in other years, such as Jared Sullinger, Jones and the North Carolina trio among others.

That being said, it’ll obviously be interesting to see how Thomas Robinson matches up against fellow NBA talent in Jones and Davis. Davis particularly stole the show in Kentucky’s 108-58 opening win against Marist, scoring 23 points in efficient fashion (10-13), grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Jeff Withey did a decent job controlling the paint while he wasn’t in foul trouble against Towson. I’ll be interested to see how he fares against the gigantic increase in talent, especially if he can be effective while avoiding bad fouls.

Although Kentucky’s point guards are talented, last year’s starter Brandon Knight didn’t return and the more experienced Jayhawk backcourt could exploit this. Kansas forced Towson into 23 turnovers, while Kentucky’s freshman guards combined for 5 turnovers against Marist. I’m sure Kidd-Gilchrist and Teague have played in a lot of high-pressure AAU showcases and All-American games, but an early season game at Madison Square Garden could still rattle them a bit.

I’m especially interested in watching Teague, the younger brother of former-Wake Forest and current Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague. I’ve read some Tweets that say Marquis is better than Jeff right now. I’ll chalk that up to hyperbole because Jeff was a heck of a college player and looked impressive in the NBA playoffs, but I’m still looking forward to seeing if it has any merit.


Iowa State leans on Royce White and wins opener

November 13, 2011

Iowa State beat Lehigh 86-77 last night at Hilton Coliseum. It served as the Cyclone debut for highly touted forward Royce White. It was good to see White scored (25 points) and rebounded (11) effectively. He also blocked three shots.

The Cyclones also got some nice production from Scott Christopherson, their reliable shooter. He made all six of his free throws and had 12 points and four rebounds.

Melvin Ejim averaged about 27 minutes per game last year and it looks like he’ll play a big role this year, too. He had 10 points and five rebounds. New transfer Chris Allen had 10 points as well.

I’m looking forward to watching Iowa State this year. One positive thing I see from the scoresheet is the shooting percentage yesterday. The Cyclones were 30-53, for 56%. Even against subpar competition, that’s a sign the offense is taking good shots or getting fast breaks, or both. Some teams are tempted to take bad chances against inferior athletes but Iowa State didn’t do that.

I do not like the turnovers. There were 18, and White made six of them. Nothing to worry about of course, but it’s something to try to improve. They had 13 assists, which isn’t too bad for 30 made shots.

I am very curious to see if 20+ point efforts are the norm this year for White. It was nice to see five guys score at least 10 points, because that indicates a natural balance.

We all know one of Iowa State’s biggest problems in the last few years was depth. Craig Brackins was a great player but defenses could key on him too much. If the Cyclones continue to share the basketball well, I think we’ll soon see a team much better than the one that beat Lehigh by nine yesterday.

P.S. Shoutout to Cyclone fans for selling out the season opener, 13,000+ in attendance yesterday.


Opening night roundup: A few scares

November 12, 2011

The opening game in college basketball is supposed to be a feel good romp. Tonight there were a few tense moments in the early games; a few “how is this happening?” moments. But thus far, everyone in the conference can exhale.

Kansas State and Oklahoma had to overcome half-time deficits to win. Missouri wasn’t that much better, as they enjoyed only a two point lead at the break.

I was bouncing around a lot and didn’t focus on one game in particular, so I’d be making up any comprehensive analysis I put on here. Thus, here is a quick overview of the action:

McGruder (eventually) stepped up, and boy did Frank Martin need that. Image courtesy foxsportskansascity.com

Charleston Southern 67 – Kansas State 72 

The head-scratching moment of the night came in Manhattan, where the Wildcats found themselves down by 15 at halftime. Had they been trailing by a few points it wouldn’t have been that surprising, since for the first time in the Frank Martin era they don’t had a clear cut go-to guy.

But as you’d expect, Martin had the Wildcats ready to mount a rally in the second half. Rodney McGruder began to assert himself more offensively towards the end of the first half, and ended up as the game’s leading scorer with 20 points. McGruder also pitched in with 10 rebounds. Jordan Henriquez was solid, and Will Spradling made some key plays late, allowing the Wildcats to take their first lead with a little over three minutes left.

Idaho State 74 – Oklahoma 78

Well don’t I look stupid (at least right now). I had wrote the other day that Andrew Fitzgerald and Cameron Clark, and to a lesser extent Steven Pledger, would handle virtually all of the scoring load for OU this season. That is 99 percent likely to still be the case, but on this night the three combined for only 9 points (though Pledger was suspended).

Despite the fact OU did find itself behind at half, they have some things to be encouraged about other than simply escaping Lloyd Noble with a win. They won on a night their two presumptive “biggest” contributors didn’t score much. Romero Osby, the hyped up transfer, actually looked the part in filling up the stat sheet (17 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists).

Their point guard play, a concern heading into the season, looked alright in an extremely small sample size. Newcomer Sam Grooms had a nice A/TO rate (8-2) and incumbent Carl Blair wasn’t so bad either (5-2) after struggling mightily last year in that category. They also got an unexpected scoring boost from guard Calvin Newell, Jr. who had a great time chucking up three’s (4-11).

Southeast Missouri State 68 – Missouri 83 

The Tigers hit a rough patch midway though the first half with SEMO leading by as many as six. But Missouri swung momentum with a run into halftime and didn’t look back in the second half. Marcus Denmon had a predictably good game, doing what he does best: scoring (20 points) and not turning the ball over (0 TO’s). Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe also played well.

The interesting thing for Mizzou was that Frank Haith’s worst fears were realized right away. Without Laurence Bowers the Tigers are very thin in the frontcourt. Behind Ratliffe, only Steve Moore and Kadeem Green provide any size, and Green’s first minute tonight was his first in official NCAA competition. Moore and Ratliffe have an affinity for fouling, will probably cause a ton of problems for Haith this year.

He got some experience shuffling his lineups in this manner against SEMO as Moore picked up a few early fouls in the first half and was rendered basically useless throughout the game because of this (12 minutes, 4 fouls). Ratliffe picked up his third foul early in the second half, and the tightrope act began.