Regardless of whether Missouri is ready, the big boys are coming.
Even though the Tigers (6-5, 1-1 Big 12 Conference) have not consistently found their stride offensively or defensively, they have reached a crucial stretch of games. It begins tonight at 8 at Hearnes Center when defending national champion Syracuse meets the Tigers.
“I think we’re capable of playing with people,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. “We haven’t, in my estimation, hit our peak yet. I think anytime you’re forced to play against good teams it challenges you. That’s been our theory in scheduling the way we have.
“It continues to season you. I think there’s no question we’ve been knocked back by the early part of the year. I think there are a number of explanations for that, none of which are excuses. (Tonight), we kind of get a chance to face our demons, in some respect, with the 2-3 zone.”
Several teams, including Coppin State, Illinois and Iowa State, used zone defenses to stifle the Tigers’ offense, and No. 17 Syracuse (11-1, 2-0 Big East Conference) has become famous for its 2-3 zone.
“There are a lot of thoughts on how to attack the Syracuse zone, but their zone is different than most people’s because it is more aggressive,” Snyder said. “We cannot be afraid and that’s the biggest thing for us. When we’ve seen different defenses, it has made us tentative, and we can’t be tentative against pressure, particularly against their zone and their pressure.”
The zone pressure has allowed Orangemen opponents 69 points per game, and Syracuse has been equally as effective on offense. It averages 82.5 points, which is second in the Big East.
After tonight’s game, the Tigers face No. 6 Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., on Saturday and hosts No. 18 Texas on Jan. 20. Despite the big names, Snyder said if the Tigers want success, it is imperative they not overlook the importance of tonight’s game.
“I think we need to play well against Syracuse,” Snyder said. “I think that what this team needs. We needed to win (Saturday), and we need to get better. We just need to keep plugging.
“It’s obvious when you watch our team we’re not hitting on all cylinders all the time. I don’t think for any lack of want or will of our kids. We just got to keep working on it and keep fighting, and hopefully, it continues to come. There were stretches (Saturday) that I thought were better.”
The Tigers held off a resilient Texas A&M team for an 82-77 victory. In a 16-4 run midway through the second half, the Tigers displayed what they could be when they hit on all cylinders. During the 4:59 span, the Tigers hit 6-of-11 shots, committed no turnovers and forced four Aggie turnovers.
Senior center Arthur Johnson led the Tigers with 19 points, which tied a season high, and grabbed 12 rebounds. Senior guard Rickey Paulding and sophomore guard Jimmy McKinney also had double figures in points.
The Orangemen opened their season with a 96-92 home loss against Charlotte on Nov. 26 but have since won 11 in a row. The Orangemen also lost the first game of last season, a 70-63 to Memphis in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic on Nov. 14, 2002. After that loss, the Orangemen won 12 games in a row.
The final game in Syracuse’s 12-game winning streak was its 76-69 defeat of Missouri on Jan. 13. Hakim Warrick had a team-high 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Syracuse had four others score in double figures. Former Tiger guard Ricky Clemons scored a game-high 26, including 6-of-13 from 3-point range.
“(Tonight’s game’s) special because they got us last year,” Paulding said. “They’re a tough team.”
Warrick leads the Orangemen in scoring with 19.5 points per game, and three others, sophomore guard Gerry McNamara, sophomore guard Billy Edelin and junior forward Josh Pace, also average double figures in scoring.
After playing its first 12 games in New York, Syracuse’s trip to Columbia will be its first outside of New York. In its only other road game, it beat St. Bonaventure 87-78 in Rochester, N.Y.
The game against the Tigers is the first of a three-game road trip for Syracuse, which will conclude with games at Notre Dame on Saturday and at Seton Hall on Jan. 20.