Missouri sophomore Jimmy McKinney remembers his previous trip to Boulder, Colo.
After Colorado defeated the Tigers 89-68 on Feb. 22, he left Coors Events Center with a headache.
Maybe it was the altitude, but it’s more likely McKinney was dizzy from watching Buffaloes’ guard Blair Wilson drill six 3-pointers.
Whatever it was, McKinney knows the Tigers’ perimeter defense cannot afford to slack tonight when the Tigers meet the Buffaloes (10-6, 2-3 Big 12) at 8 at Coors.
“If you don’t come to play, if you slack on defense, we’re going to have some problems,” McKinney said.
The Tigers improved to 8-7, 3-2 after a huge win against Nebraska on Saturday, but winning back-to-back games hasn’t been easy. Since opening the season with three straight wins, the Tigers lost six of nine and haven’t produced consecutive victories.
Building a winning streak on the road is more demanding.
“This game right here (against Nebraska), we just took another step, but this next game, if we pull this one off, I think we’ll take three steps,” McKinney said. “That’s a big win for us, and too many people don’t go out there and win.”
Colorado coach Ricardo Patton isn’t about to let his squad dismiss the Tigers’ threat despite their early struggles.
“They’ve had their moments where they’ve not played as well, but I think that may be behind them, and when you prepare for an opponent, you have to prepare to receive their best shot,” Patton said. “I think most coaches around the country would agree Missouri is as talented as any team in the country right now, I know for certain of any team in the Big 12.”
The Buffaloes are eager to be back in familiar territory after dropping two games on the road.
“Everyone realizes how important it is to not lose at home,” Patton said. “We’ve got to put those two (road) losses behind us and make sure we take care of home court.”
Missouri coach Quin Snyder knows it’s not the optimal location for his team to dig its way out of .500 territory, but if the Tigers stick with the defensive intensity they have shown in their past three games, venue won’t be a factor.
“Winning in there is incredibly difficult,’’ Snyder said. “We’ll get out there and see what happens, but I think we have to keep our focus on where it’s been the last couple weeks and that’s guard. If we guard, we’ll be in games like we’ve been in. We’ve lost a couple, but we’ve grown. We’ve been right there in our league games.”
Despite Wilson’s threat outside, the teams’ biggest battle should be under the basket.
Center David Harrison, the Buffaloes’ leading scorer, will test the Tigers’ big men if he can stay out of foul trouble. The Tigers found success punching the ball inside in their past three games, but for post play to be effective tonight, senior center Arthur Johnson cannot hold anything back.
Johnson started the season with an uncharacteristic lack of emotion and hasn’t driven to the basket the way Missouri fans are used to.
If Johnson can attack Colorado’s interior defense, the Tigers’ offense will be most effective.
Harrison picked up early fouls and added season lows of five points and two rebounds in 14 ineffective minutes against Kansas on Sunday. He fouled out with 10:33 left before the Jayhawks toppled the Buffaloes 78-57.
Patton knows at least one statistic the Buffaloes can’t let the Tigers have in their favor: rebounding.
The Tigers have outrebounded their opponents by 7.2 per game, but the Buffaloes lead the league in defensive rebounds, averaging 27.9 per game. Every second-chance shot the Buffaloes thwart for the Tigers’ offense is crucial.
“We’ve got to not allow them to dominate the glass. We can’t give them open looks and second shot opportunities, which we’ve done in the past with some teams we play,” Patton said. “We got to make sure we rebound the basketball and give them one crack at it.”
McKinney isn’t concerned about who’s making the biggest contribution or where, as long as the Tigers play focused and confident for 40 straight minutes.
“We’re going to have to bring the A-plus game,” McKinney said. “If we don’t bring the A-plus game, we can get beat easy. A-minus will not do it. We’re going to bring the A-plus game because we’ve got the confidence now. Everybody believes now.”