Missouri takes big step at the Garden

NEW YORK -- Eight games into the season, it’s fair to say -- Missouri is a serious threat to win the Big 12 title.

The No. 10-ranked Tigers passed their first big test with flying colors on Tuesday night, defeating Villanova 81-71 at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic.

Missouri is now 8-0 for the first time since 2006-07.

“We know that that’s gonna happen as we continue further into the season,” said first-year Missouri coach Frank Haith of being challenged. “It was great to see how we responded when we had a little bit of adversity."

In their first seven games of the season, the Tigers pounded their opponents by an average of 27.9 points per game -- including a 92-53 romp over then-No. 20 California in Kansas City on Nov. 22.

Things were a little tougher against Villanova, which hung tough with Missouri for much of the first half Tuesday night. The score was tied at 21 with just under seven minutes remaining before intermission. That’s when the Tigers first took control, thanks to a 12-2 run. Missouri led 42-29 at the half.

The Tigers came out hot after the break, but the Wildcats would not go away. A 10-0 run got Villanova within 61-55 with just under 10 minutes remaining. But Missouri executed well enough down the stretch to keep Nova from getting any closer.

Haith was particularly impressed that his team figured out a way to win when the shots weren’t falling as frequently as they usually do. Senior guard Marcus Denmon, who came in averaging 20.3 points per game, poured in 28 on 10-for-16 shooting from the field (6-for-10 from 3-point range). But overall the Tigers, who entered the game fifth in the country in field goal percentage (52.5 percent), shot just 28-for-66 (42.4 percent).

“We talk about finding ways to win basketball games when we don’t shoot the ball well,” said Haith. “I think the one thing we gotta hang our hat on is how we defend, and how we rebound.”

Missouri is the smallest of any team in a power-six conference this season, taking a big hit when senior forward Laurence Bowers was lost for the season to a torn ACL in early October. Yet the Tigers hung right with the Wildcats on the boards, including a 14-13 edge on the offensive glass. And their aggressive man-to-man defense forced 15 Villanova turnovers (Missouri had just eight).

Haith isn’t employing the same full-court-pressure style that his predecessor, Mike Anderson, did. He has tweaked things to fit his own style, and his personnel.

“I think we’ve got quick athletic guys, we’re just not very big,” Haith said. “We can still be disruptive in the half-court. I think they were more full-court pressure, trapping, gambling a little bit in terms of going for steals. We’re more back it up, make people score over us. And we can still turn people over and still be disruptive in the halfcourt.”

“There’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat,” Haith added. “And I think this is what we decided to do -- what’s best for this team is how we defend in the halfcourt.”

But perhaps the most impressive stat of the night was Missouri’s 23 assists on 28 field goals -- 12 of them by sophomore point guard Phil Pressey.

Senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe, who also had an excellent night (17 points, 11 rebounds), indicated that there is a special chemistry on this squad.

“I’ve been on a lot of teams, from high school to AAU to junior college, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it,” Ratliffe said. “This is the most unselfish team I’ve played on, or seen on TV. It’s just once in a lifetime that you get to be blessed to be on a team like this.”

Haith did step into a good situation, with all five starters returning from a team that won 23 games a season ago. But he appears to be pushing the right buttons so far to lift this group to another level.

Missouri was picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 in the conference’s preseason coaches poll, behind Kansas, Texas A&M and Baylor. The Jayhawks have won the conference the past three years outright, and at least a share of the title every season since 2003-04.

But these Tigers look capable of potentially ending that streak.

“We’re playing a game that we love to play, and the style of play we have is really fun,” said Denmon. “The guys that we have on this team, we all get along on the floor and off the floor. And I feel that that’s something that translates in the games.”