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December 7, 2011, 10:51 AM ET
Is the Big 12 losing its best team?

by John Gasaway

When one is speaking of the Big 12 and the sport is basketball, you know the drill. It’s all about Kansas. Also Kansas. Then there’s Kansas. And finally, on occasion, Kansas.

Even this year the only part of that equation that was supposed to change was that a newly feisty Baylor team was going to rise to challenge the Jayhawks in a year where, for once, Bill Self does not have a bottomless reservoir of NBA-track bigs.

It’s only December, and the Big 12 title could still very well go through Lawrence or Waco or both. But after watching Missouri handle Villanova by the score of 81-71 in Madison Square Garden last night, I think the Tigers will have a say in this discussion as well. Frank Haith’s team is looking to hang a Big 12 banner on their way out the door, in this their last season before joining the SEC.

Granted, it’s difficult to know just how good Missouri is. Six of their seven opponents can be classified as falling into one of two categories: “cupcake” or “major-conference team that may not be all that great on defense.” (The seventh opponent, Mercer falls between those two stools. The Bears are too good for cupcake status. Mizzou handled them anyway.) Nevertheless, all the Tigers can do is play the games on their schedule, and they’ve played those games very well. Fun fact: on consecutive nights in the CBE Classic in Kansas City the week before Thanksgiving, Missouri inflicted upon Mike Brey the worst loss he’s ever suffered at Notre Dame, and then handed Mike Montgomery the worst defeat he’s ever recorded at California.

That’s striking, to say the least, and I salute Frank Haith for his cunning stylistic blend of conservatism and reform. Any first-year coach dealt a roster this experienced should be required to take a Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. Haith, as one would expect, scrapped the pressing and trapping defense of the Mike Anderson years, but met his new players half-way stylistically, upping the tempo dramatically from anything seen in recent years from his teams at Miami. As Bradford Doolittle has pointed out, the Tigers are attacking more off the dribble under Haith, with the result being that they’re getting to the line more often. This blend of Haith and speed seems to be working. At some point Missouri will face an opposing big man that demands the ball on offense (paging Meyers Leonard), and when they do this smallish team will encounter a new challenge. But to this point Missouri has met every challenge by exceeding expectations.

Give a lot of the credit there to 6-3 senior Marcus Denmon. Watching Denmon in person, as I did at the Garden last night, you can’t help but be struck by how effortlessly he carries the role of featured scorer. In most offenses a player who personally accounts for 31 percent of his team’s shot attempts during his minutes is going to be the focus of attention in more ways than one. Both the crowd and the opposing defense will track our featured scorer intently as he runs himself silly off multiple screens meant to get the ball in his oh-so important hands. That’s not how Denmon gets his shots. The ball simply arrives for him naturally, as Missouri’s well-spaced offense places pressure on the opposing D and makes it very difficult for defenders to help. (Shades of Ohio State, with Ricardo Ratliffe doing his best Jared Sullinger, of sorts.)

The way Missouri has looked in three games on neutral floors against major-conference opponents, combined with the way Baylor looked against Northwestern on Sunday, makes it hard not to go ahead and circle January 21 on the calendar. The game in Waco that day has all the trappings of a can’t miss speed-vs.-size collision.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

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