The season has reached the point where they are certain must-win games on the schedule. One of those comes up for Missouri on Saturday when it visits Texas.
Missouri can certainly lose at Austin and not worry about damaging its hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers are 17-3 overall and it would take a major collapse for them not to make it to the Big Dance would need a pretty big collapse not to make it to the big dance for a third straight season.
However, Missouri needs a victory against the Longhorns to have a shot at winning the Big 12 regular-season title. The Tigers are in fourth place with a 3-2 record, trailing Texas (16-3, 4-0), Texas A&M (4-1), Kansas (3-1).
However, Missouri coach Mike Anderson isn't necessarily looking at the standings as he prepares to face Texas. Instead, he believes facing the talented Longhorns will provide a good read of exactly how good Missouri is heading into the homestretch of the regular season. The Tigers' two conference losses came on the road to Colorado in the Big 12 opener and at Texas A&M in double overtime.
"We have a chance to go on the road against an outstanding basketball team and I want to see how we play against them," Anderson said. "Against Colorado, it was a case of our guys weren't mentally prepared to play and took the opponent too lightly. The effort was there against Texas A&M; we just took a tough loss. I think we're playing well right now, though."
Anderson is curious to see his defense performs against Texas because he believes Missouri has been inconsistent on that end of the floor until recently, though the numbers belief that thought as the Tigers are 29th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency with a 90.4 mark.
"I think last two games have been a good indicator that our defense is picking up," Anderson said. "That means not only making people shoot low field-goal percentages but holding them down from a scoring standpoint. For much of the season, we were only trying to outscore people. I like how we've been trying harder to stop people."
In a 75-59 victory over Kansas State on Jan. 17, Missouri held the Wildcats to a 45.2 percent effective field goal percentage and just 19 percent from three-point range. The Tigers then really locked down in an 87-54 rout of Iowa State last Saturday as the Cyclones had a 30.0 effective field goal percentage and also shot just 19 percent on threes.
Anderson is a disciple of Nolan Richardson and believes in pressure defense, so it is not a surprise that Missouri is 10th in the nation with a 13.3 steal percentage and 16th with a 25.1 turnover percentage. However, the Tigers' 14.5 block percentage is 18th and that is an area that hasn't been one of their team strengths in recent seasons. Laurence Bowers has an 8.9 percentage and fellow junior forward Ricardo Ratcliffe has a 6.7 mark.
"I thought we had athletic guys coming into the season and I've been on these guys to play athletic," Anderson said. "It's amazing how sometimes it can be contagious. Bowers has great timing as far as tipping the ball and anticipation in coming in from backside to block shots and Ratcliffe has been joining in. A lot of blocks aren't going bounds and we're coming up with the basketball, which is a big part of our defense. As you pressure people, rotating defense becomes very important and blocks are a product of that."
Ratcliffe (120.8 offensive rating) and Bowers (111.9) are also factors on offense but junior guard Marcus Denmon has been the star as his 130.2 offensive rating is 19th in the nation. He is also 18th in turnover rate (8.8), 40th in true shooting percentage (64.4) and 46th in effective field-goal percentage (61.7) while averaging 17.3 points a game.
Denmon is doing it with a heavy heart, though, as his cousin Marion Denmon was shot to death in their hometown of Kansas City last month. Marcus and Marion grew up in the same house.
"The way Marcus has played during such a difficult time in his life is amazing," Anderson said. "If anything, he is even hungrier now. You can tell he is playing with a purpose."
Zags' Tournament Streak in Question
Gonzaga has become a fixture in the NCAA Tournament with 12 consecutive appearances and has also won 10 consecutive West Coast Conference regular-season championships. However, both those streaks are in jeopardy as the Bulldogs are 13-7, 3-2 in the WCC after losing at Santa Clara and San Francisco last weekend.
One of the reasons for Gonzaga's lackluster record has been forward Elias Harris regressing in his sophomore season after being talked about as a potential lottery pick and first-team All-American coming into the year. Harris is averaging 12.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 25.5 minutes a game after putting together a 14.6/6.7/1.1/28.3 line as a freshman.
"Compared to last season, I think I have taken steps back," Harris told the Spokane Statesman-Review. "I need to play way more aggressively like I did last year. I need to be just the old 'E' that I was when I came here and not think too much."
Harris has been hampered by a sore Achilles this season. However, Gonzaga coach Mark Few agrees with Harris that his problem is overthinking.
"He needs to play hard and be aggressive and quit overanalyzing everything," Few said. "There was a lot of preseason publicity on him, on a guy who had a lot of nice dunks and a lot of things. But when you really analyze his game, including the whole NBA stuff, it was just too much too early."
Gonzaga has a pivotal WCC game Thursday night when it hosts Saint Mary's (17-3, 5-0). A loss would put Gonzaga three games behind the Gaels midway through the conference season with a return match at Saint Mary's looming on Feb. 24.
Ohio State Removing Doubts
Ohio State believes it answered anyone who doubted it should be atop the polls with its convincing 87-64 home victory over Purdue on Tuesday night that enabled the Buckeyes to stay perfect at 21-0, 8-0. Ohio State had a 64.7 effective field-goal percentage, averaged 1.22 points on 71 possessions and held Purdue to a 42.9 effective field percentage and 0.89 points per possession while outrebounding the Boilermakers 39-26.
"I think it was a loud answer to those questions about us being No. 1," freshman forward Jared Sullinger said.
While Sullinger is the Ohio State player who has gotten the majority of attention this season, the Buckeyes showed against Purdue that they are far from a one-man team. Sullinger had 17 points but was one of six Ohio State players in double figures along with William Buford (19), Jon Diebler (13), Deshaun Thomas (13), Aaron Craft (11) and David Lighty (10).
"We pass the ball pretty well and every time someone doubles down on Sully we always pass the ball around to get open looks," Buford said.
Purdue coach Matt Painter, whose team is 17-4, was duly impressed by Ohio State.
"It ends up 23 (points) but we got five or six calls in the second, kind of some mercy calls," Painter said. "It really should have been about 30 or 40 points. Ohio State has a lot of experience and toughness and is a good defensive team."
Ohio State is also two-thirds of the way toward being the first Division I team to have an unbeaten regular season since St. Joseph's went 27-0 in 2003-04. Ken Pomeroy projects the Buckeyes as likely to win every remaining game with their closest calls by a one-point victory at Wisconsin on Feb. 12 and a two-point win at Purdue a week later.
Ohio State plays at Northwestern (13-6, 3-5) on Saturday night.
Syracuse Stunned by Seton Hall
Syracuse has lost three games in a row after opening the season with 18 consecutive victories, falling to Pittsburgh, Villanova and Seton Hall. While the losses to Pitt and Villanova, two of the top teams in the nation, are understandable, the 90-68 drubbing at home by Seton Hall have some wondering if coach Jim Boeheim should consider playing more man-to-man defense instead of his usual 2-3 zone.
Pitt had a 53.6 effective field-goal percentage while Villanova had a 61.0 mark and Seton Hall shot a blistering 62.3 percent. However, Boeheim says he is not going to change defenses and it has nothing to do with being stubborn.
"We're not a pressing team," he said. "We cannot play man-to-man. We have to play zone. We have to work with our defense. It is our defense. Most teams have a dominant defense and that's the one they use. That's our defense. We've got to do a better job with it."
Despite its recent struggles, Syracuse is still 31st nationally with a 90.6 adjusted defensive efficiency. The Orange will try to snap their skid Saturday afternoon when they visit Marquette (13-8, 4-4).
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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