COLUMBIA — Toughness.
It's a word that means a lot more to basketball coaches than just being able to take a hit. It's about setting good screens, diving for loose balls, taking charges, picking up teammates and much more.
No. 4 Missouri (20-2, 7-2) vs. No. 8 Kansas (17-4, 7-1)
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM; KCMQ/96.7 FM
As Missouri men's basketball coach Frank Haith puts it, it's "about doing the little things all the time."
ESPN college basketball analyst and former Duke guard Jay Bilas explained this kind of toughness in a 2009 article he wrote defining what the term means to college basketball.
Since then, coaches from "all over the world" have shown the article to their teams, Bilas said, including Cincinnati football coach Butch Jones.
In early January, Haith brought the article to his team's attention. Haith uses a "classroom setting" to teach his team, and after the Tigers 75-59 loss to Kansas State, their first of the season, Bilas' article was the assigned reading for the class.
"When we went to Manhattan we were not tough," Haith said. "As a coach, as a man, that's a tough thing to accept. I mean, you got out-toughed."
True toughness is something that Bilas said he learned the hard way as a player.
"I think it's something that former players understand, but guys coming up haven't learned yet," Bilas said.
Since they read the article, the No. 4 Tigers (20-2, 7-2 Big 12) have gone 6-1 and are second in the Big 12 heading into a game against No. 8 Kansas (17-4, 7-1 Big 12) on Saturday.
Bilas got a chance to see Missouri play live in a December win against Villanova and said he has watched a lot of video of the team. By his standards, he "absolutely" considers Missouri a tough team.
"That's an impressive group," Bilas said. "They're a tight, together unit. They're fearless."
The way the Tigers work together reminds Bilas of the Villanova team that made the 2009 Final Four and the University of Florida teams that won championships in 2006 and 2007.
"They have a we-first attitude instead of me-first attitude," Bilas said.
The unselfish attitude is a big reason Missouri only has two losses, despite losing senior forward Laurence Bowers in October to a season-ending knee injury. The Tigers shoot 49.8 percent, ranking fifth in the country, something that comes from being able to make one or two extra passes to get the best possible shot.
"A lot of teams across the country, I don't think they have what we have," senior Matt Pressey said. "There's not one guy on the team that doesn't play well with each other. On and off the court, we just love each other."
Without Bowers, the Tigers rotate just seven players and only two forwards, which often makes for a height disadvantage.
"There are mismatches in their game and they force those mismatches in their favor," Bilas said.
Even though Baylor was taller at every position, Missouri beat the then-No. 3 Bears in Waco, Texas on Jan. 21. The Tigers face that same problem this weekend against a tall Kansas team. In those types of games, senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe has shown his toughness by hustling down court to get position on offense and by making sure his opponents don't get rebounds.
"Sometimes you might have to keep driving them out and not try to get the rebound," Ratliffe said. "Just make sure they don't get the rebound. That's probably gonna be my game plan for a player like (Kansas forward) Thomas Robinson."
What Missouri lacks in size, its guards make up for in speed. The Tigers force 9.3 steals per game, ninth in the country, and their 1.5 assist-turnover ratio ranks second.
Their quickness and in-your-face defense makes them not only a tough team, but also an exciting team to watch.
"It's a pleasure to watch that team play," Bilas said. "I would buy a ticket."
On Saturday, he'll see them play but won't need a ticket. Bilas is a member of the ESPN College GameDay crew, which will be at Mizzou Arena for the first time on Saturday. The show airs from 9 to 11 a.m. and is open to the public.
Bilas said he's excited to be in Mizzou Arena for the first time and to get another chance to see the Tigers play in person. He's been impressed by Missouri's toughness so far this season and thinks they could be a championship contender come March.
"There's not another team out there that Missouri cannot beat," he said. "I think this is a special basketball team. There's not another team like it."