COLUMBIA — Mike Anderson’s message was one of optimism.
“I think this team has a great run in it,” the Missouri men’s basketball coach said. “It’s a tournament format. It’s one that we’re familiar with. Our teams have done well over the years.”
Eleventh-seeded Missouri Tigers (23-10)
vs. sixth-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats (25-8)
WHEN: 8:50 p.m. CT
WHERE: Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM
Anderson’s confidence is fitting. It is the same upbeat outlook he has maintained since the season started. His team struggled on the road during the Big 12 Conference season and finished at 8-8 in the league. Then it turned in perhaps its worst performance of the season when it fell out of the conference tournament Thursday in a 86-71 loss to Texas A&M. Still, Anderson’s enthusiasm for what his team could be has never strayed.
Anderson has no doubt in his team's ability to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. After Missouri’s seeding was announced on Sunday, the coach said he is not just happy with simply making it to the dance. He plans on his team actually dancing once it gets there.
But if the Tigers are going to enjoy the madness that encompasses March for more than one game, they need to tighten up some areas before they take the stage against Cincinnati on Thursday in Washington, D.C.
RETURN TO DEFENSE
Justin Safford doesn’t want to talk about offense.
“It’s not so much on offense," he said. "We’ve got to stop people."
More than anything, Missouri’s defense will be the key to the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament success.
“Defensively we need to get better, but that’s something we’ve been working on these past few days in practice," Safford said.
A staple of Anderson's postgame press conferences is telling the media that Missouri will “hang its hat on its defense.” But there have been points this season where the hat would have fallen to the floor.
Offensively, Missouri is ninth in the nation with 81.4 points per game. But the Tigers’ inability to play steady and reliable defense let Missouri's Big 12 opponents average 71.4 points against them.
This year, fast-break layups and full-court passes have punctured holes in Missouri’s defensive pressure. At times Missouri has found itself simply trading baskets with other teams.
“I think we’ve got to defend and be consistent with it,” Anderson said. “I think we’ve got to be a team that does not give up easy opportunities.”
Safford admitted that the Tigers' defensive focus has not been at the level that it needed to be in past games.
“You could say that, yeah," he said. “As not as much as it has been, but that’s something we can correct.”
The first step came this week at practice. Both Safford and his coach mentioned a tournament-style toughness to the scrimmages taking place inside Mizzou Arena.
“It’s been really physical, very physical, and that’s something that we will carry into the tournament,” Safford said.
If not, Missouri's trip to the capital could likely end after one game.
CRASH THE GLASS
Missouri was easily out-rebounded by Texas A&M on Thursday, and poor rebounding has become a trend for the Tigers this season.
“I think we’ve got to be a little tougher at the rim,” Anderson said.
Missouri junior forward Ricardo Ratliffe agreed. After noting the need for better team defense and more aggressive play, he mentioned the importance of putting a dent in the lopsided rebounding margin.
“Matching or doing better than the other team on the glass, because that’s been one of our weaknesses all year,” Ratliffe said. “Especially when we’ve played against big, physical teams like Cincinnati.”
But a commitment to rebounding can also come at a price. Missouri has been in games this season where its two best big men, Ratliffe and junior forward Laurence Bowers have had to spend time on the bench after falling into the foul trouble.
“We’re just going to have to play smarter and make sure that we don’t get unnecessary fouls, little stupid ticky-tack fouls,” Ratliffe said. “We are just going to have to keep our head in the game. Be aggressive, but be smart at the same time.”
FEED THE BIGS
Missouri’s best 20 minutes of basketball this season came Feb. 7 in Lawrence, Kan., against a team that went on to become Big 12 Conference champions and grab a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers put together a first half that ended with Missouri trailing Kansas 46-42. More impressive than the halftime score was the way Missouri moved the ball.
Passes flew often and dribbling was scarce as the ball sped its way around the corners of the court until an open man was rewarded with an easy shot.
“When we are moving the ball well, we get good shots, and good looks, and we get inside and get easy baskets,” Missouri sophomore guard Michael Dixon said. “And when we’re not, we’re just not successful.”
Settling for 3-pointers early in the shot clock leads to long rebounds and fast breaks for opposing teams. It also prevents Missouri from getting the ball into the post for its forwards.
“If you’re a big man and you’re getting the ball in scoring position and doing well, it feeds you,” said Missouri guard Kim English after the loss to Texas A&M. “It’s like fuel in a car. It keeps you going.”
Against Texas A&M, Ratliffe and Bowers only shot the ball five times each. Missouri will look to change that in the tournament.
“We have very versatile big men and when they’re all clicking, we’re dangerous,” English said. “We want to start inside out.”
Call it grit. Call it determination. Call it toughness.
Whatever you call it, Missouri needs more of it.
“We’ve got to play with a lot more physicality,” said Bowers after the loss to Texas A&M. “When we get down we can’t drop our heads, we’ve got to fight through it.”
Bowers says his responsibility is greater now. As a junior on the team, he said his leadership role increases. He has been to this tournament before, and he is not the only one.
As much as Anderson has talked about the inexperience of the new players on this year's team, he has a solid group of tournament veterans who have experienced March Madness before.
“I think we’re going to draw on those guys’ experience, when you talk about Justin Safford, Kimmie English, Marcus Denmon, Laurence Bowers,” Anderson said.
The criticisms have been popping up all season. Many say Missouri is missing the toughness that former players brought to last year’s team.
“There may be a little truth to that, just because we lost three of the better defensive players that Mizzou has probably had on one team," Bowers said.
But graduates J.T. Tiller, Zaire Taylor and Keith Ramsey were just as important to Missouri’s mental toughness as they were to its defense. Their workman-like play set a tone, and many have said this year’s Tigers are not as tough. Bowers has heard it before.
“We all take heed to that, “ he said. “Constantly hearing about previous teams does motivate us to try to be better than they were."
As Missouri’s first tournament test approaches, the Tigers should be less concerned about who they play than how they play.
Shore up what is lacking and play its style of basketball to the best of its ability, and Missouri will give any team in the bracket an uneasy feeling.
“It doesn’t really matter who we play. If we do what we do, and are successful at it, we usually come out and win the game," Dixon said. "When we get guys out of their comfort zone and get them to play our speed of game, we are usually successful."
Dixon knows the other side, too.
"When the team is playing their kind of game, we usually don’t tend to do too well.”
The question lingers: Will the Tigers be able to make the necessary changes?
Anderson and his players seem confident.
But the answer won't come until Thursday.