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Columbia Missourian

Road trips teach value of practice, free throws for Missouri men's basketball

By Ben Frederickson
December 6, 2010 | 9:59 p.m. CST
Missouri junior guard Marcus Denmon, this week's Big 12 Player of the Week, spent down time on the Tigers' recent road trip teaching his teammates to be better card players.

COLUMBIA — The Missouri men’s basketball team was the last ranked team in the nation to start its season. Since then, a flurry of seven games in two weeks quickly caught up No. 15 Missouri with the rest of the nation. Here are some things the Tigers (6-1) learned along the way.

It's nice to be home

Wednesday's game

Vanderbilt Commodores (7-1)
at No. 15 Missouri Tigers (6-1)

WHEN: 8 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM
Vanderbilt won 89-83 last December in Nashville.

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Missouri logged more than 7,000 travel miles between games in Mexico, Columbia, Kansas City, and Eugene, Ore. Five of Missouri’s seven games have been played on courts not named after Norm Stewart.

"You can stay in the nicest hotel on the road, but there’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed," junior forward Laurence Bowers said.

Practice is important

The Tigers’ unusual game schedule made finding time for practice nearly impossible.

"Practice time is very, very valuable," coach Mike Anderson said. "We haven’t had as much as I would like to."

When the team did get a chance to practice on the road, it was often limited to shooting free throws or holding walk-throughs the night before or the day of a game.

"I think we missed a lot of practice time," Anderson said. "You don’t realize, you know, you just started your season. You’re playing games, and you’ve got guys in different roles."

The focus of practice this week is defense, nothing surprising for an Anderson-coached team. But the defense displayed in the past two games has not been representative of Missouri’s defense-first philosophy. The team allowed triple-digit scoring against Georgetown and 80 points against Oregon.

"We gave up 111 points to Georgetown," Bowers said. "I think that’s a record under Coach Anderson. He made that known. Our focus has really turned to defense."

Denmon and Ratliffe are stepping up

Marcus Denmon is Missouri’s leading scorer, and he's apparently not too bad at cards either. On plane rides, Denmon and his teammates play card games to pass the time.

"Marcus Denmon is probably the best card player," Bowers said. "We play spades and blackjack and stuff like that. He’s actually teaching me how to play blackjack."

Denmon’s winning ways transfer from cards to the court. The junior guard is averaging a team-high 16.4 points per game. His efforts were rewarded with the Big 12 Player of the Week award on Monday.

"I hope it’s consistent," Bowers said. "He’s playing great — him and Ricardo as well."

Ricardo Ratliffe is second in scoring with 12.4 points per game, but his rebounding presence is more noticeable. He leads Missouri in rebounding with 8.3 per game. Monday, the junior college transfer from Central Florida Community College was named Big 12 Rookie of the Week for the second consecutive week.

Close games come down to free throws

Missouri’s first loss of the season came in overtime to Georgetown, 111-102. The Tigers missed three of four free throws in the final 20 seconds of the second half and watched their four-point lead vanish.

As a team, Missouri shot 74 percent on free throws, but sophomore guard Michael Dixon shouldered the blame. He went 8-for-11 from the line and missed a free throw in the final minute that would have put Missouri up by four again. The miss left the lead at three. Georgetown then tied the score with a last-second 3-pointer, eventually winning the game in overtime.

"He personally took it tough," Anderson said. "I was proud of how he responded, going out and playing against Oregon."

Just two days later, in an eerily similar situation, Dixon found himself at the free-throw line again. Oregon had mounted a strong second-half comeback, and Missouri led by four with less than a minute to play.

"You’re gonna be in that situation again," Anderson said. "How will you respond? I thought at Oregon it took place again. The experience you gained, how do you use that?"

Dixon delivered. He made nine of 10 free throws, five within the final minute of Missouri’s 83-80 win.

Phil is fine

Against Oregon, Phil Pressey left the game after being fouled hard underneath his own basket. Pressey, rising for a layup, crashed to the floor and landed directly on his tailbone. He was helped off the court by trainers. Anderson said Pressey practiced Saturday and Sunday.

"Phil’s fine," Anderson said. "He’s really sore. I guess we won’t know unless he gets hit on there or falls on it again, but he’s a tough little cookie."