Missouri once again answers skeptics

WACO, Texas — For the Missouri Tigers, the routine is always the same.

A day or so following each game — usually after he and his staff have broken down tape — coach Frank Haith stands before his players in a meeting room and dissects their previous performance. The sessions even have a name: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Haith’s next lecture may be his briefest yet.

Saturday’s 89-88 victory over No. 3 Baylor in Waco featured plenty of good moments. But Haith will be hard-pressed to find many bad ones — much less any that were ugly.

Six games into the conference season, there is nothing not to like about these Missouri Tigers.

Nothing about their performance against Baylor, when Mizzou out-toughed a bigger, deeper, higher-ranked Bears team on the road. Nothing about their chances in the Big 12, where Kansas has won seven straight titles. And nothing about their place in college basketball’s national landscape.

After this victory, even the most skeptical cynic would have to agree that the fifth-ranked Tigers are as good as any squad in the country, a team with a legitimate chance to win an NCAA title.

“Just a really, really tough basketball team,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said of the Tigers. “Besides that K-State loss, no one has been able to figure them out.”

That includes the Bears, who failed to capitalize on a huge size advantage against a Missouri squad that features just two players who stand over 6-foot-6. Missouri out-rebounded Baylor 27-24 and outscored the Bears 14-0 on second-chance points in the opening half.

When the Tigers weren’t pestering the Bears defensively — MU forced 19 turnovers — they were picking them apart on offense. A basketball purist would’ve loved watching Haith’s squad Saturday because it was truly a beautiful brand of basketball, with players whipping the ball around the perimeter, dumping it into the paint or setting stiff picks so a teammate could hit an open 3.

The Tigers’ selflessness and patience enabled them to shoot 54.5 percent from the field against a legitimate top-10 team — on the road, no less. Missouri entered the game shooting 50.2 percent on the season, a remarkable feat for a team that has a four-guard lineup and is adapting to a new coach.

“Coach Haith has a lot to do with it,” guard Kim English said. “He says we’re good enough to get any shot we want. A guy could take someone off the bounce, but we’re also good enough as a unit where we should never have to take a contested shot.”

The victory was the fourth straight for Mizzou following a 16-point loss at Kansas State on Jan. 7. The Tigers lost the rebounding battle 36-22 in that game and were outscored 46-18 in the paint.

A few days after they returned from Columbia, Haith had each of his players read a 2009 essay on “toughness” by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. Players said they came to realize toughness had little to do with mixing it up in the paint or dunking over a defender.

Mental toughness, they learned, is what’s truly important. Especially for a team that, as Haith put it, is “vertically challenged.”

“Size doesn’t matter,” English said. “For every bushfire, there’s rain. Everything evens out in basketball. Height limits speed. Every thing has a reciprocal effect. I may have to guard bigger guys, but those bigger guys have to guard me. Matt Pressey had to guard 6-foot-9 Quincy Miller today. But Quincy Miller had to guard Matt Pressey.

“I’m 6-foot-5, but I guard 6-9 forwards all summer when I’m home. I guard Melo and Rudy Gay all summer in Baltimore. I don’t care about guarding someone that’s big.”

Missouri surged ahead by as many as 12 points in the second half before a late rally by Baylor made things interesting in the game’s final few minutes. A 3-pointer by Bears guard Pierre Jackson shaved the Tigers’ lead to 88-85 with five seconds remaining, but the game was all but over when Marcus Denmon put the Tigers ahead 89-85 by splitting a pair of foul shots on the other end. Baylor’s Brady Heslip swished a meaningless 3 at the buzzer to provide the final margin.

The victory marked Missouri’s first road win against a top-10 team since 1994, and the Tigers accomplished it against a Baylor squad that shot 57.1 percent from the field. Still, despite the narrow margin, the game didn’t feel nearly as close as the final score indicated.

The biggest question now is whether Missouri, which improved to 18-1 overall and 5-1 in the Big 12, can take its game to an even higher level. While the Tigers were rolling in Waco, Kansas was struggling to beat rebuilding Texas 100 miles down Interstate 35 in Austin.

The Jayhawks have yet to lose a conference game and are marvelous at Allen Fieldhouse, where they’ve won 85 of their last 86 games. But Bill Self’s squad doesn’t have the depth that it’s boasted in the past. If ever there was a year for Missouri to win a conference title, it’s this one, with this team.

The pressure will certainly mount.

There will be a shake-up at the top of the national rankings on Monday and don’t be surprised if the Tigers are in the top 3.

But English said he isn’t worried about his veteran teammates becoming distracted amid the hoopla.

“We’re so focused on the process,” he said. “Getting a stop on this possession ... getting a good shot on that possession ... having a really good practice today. When you immerse yourself in the process, what people are saying doesn’t matter.”

Haith agreed.

“No win or no loss is going to break us,” Haith said. “We’re 5-1. It’s a hell of a start.”

The finish may be even better.