For the first time this season, the tenth ranked Missouri Tigers will be traveling outside the state of Missouri. The Tigers, and their undefeated record, are traveling to New York to face the Villanova Wildcats at Madison Square Garden.
Three things to watch:
1. Mouphtaou Yarou vs. Ricardo Ratliffe
Yarou is by far the best big man the Tigers have faced so far this season, giving us the first real chance to see how an inside presence disrupts Mizzou. Yarou is averaging 16 points a game on 57% shooting. He’s also a solid rebounder, at over eight a game, and has stayed out of foul trouble all season long. Expect the Wildcats to feed him the ball early and often, especially since Missouri’s big men tend to get into foul trouble.
Ratliffe has been solid for Mizzou overall this season, but also hasn’t faced a quality big man. Despite that, he’s spent most of the season in foul trouble, which has limited him to just 22 minutes a game. Missouri needs Ratliffe in the game, both to defend and score. Tonight’s matchup with Yarou will be an excellent test of Ratliffe’s ability to defend a good big man without spending most of the game on the bench.
2. Guards on guards on guards
Outside of Ratliffe and Yarou, this game is going to be guard oriented. Missouri obviously has one of the best collection of guards in the county, but Villanova has a strong group themselves. Maalik Wayns (does anybody on Villanova have an easily spell-able name?) is the best player for Villanova, averaging nearly 19 points a game. He’s not a great shooter, but is quite adept at getting to the foul line, and is shooting 90% from there this season. Dominic Cheek is a bigger guard, with an inconsistent shot, but another guy who scores a lot at the foul line (see a pattern here?). James Bell is the third guard for the Wildcats, and he’s the best three-point shooter (at least percentage wise) of the three.
Defense has been a big problem for the Villanova guards this year, not a good thing when the opponent is sixth in the country in scoring. Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon’s speed destroys teams that cannot guard them, which is exactly what happened two weeks ago in Kansas City. If Marcus Denmon and Kim English spend the night wide open, then it probably won’t matter how many fouls Ricardo Ratliffe commits.
Missouri obviously wants to play this game in the open court. While they have been ruthlessly efficient in the half court all season, a return to the 40 minutes of hell pace is the way to go tonight. Villanova will want to play slower, feed the ball inside, and attack off the dribble. The higher the score in the game gets, the larger advantage Missouri has. A game in the high 60s or low 70s probably goes Villanova’s way. Any higher than that, and Mizzou will win rather easily.
Prediction: Villanova attacks inside, but simply cannot keep up with Mizzou’s guards. The Tigers pull away late in the second half, and win 84-75.