Tigers Kick Off Conference Play With a Bang

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The Missouri Tigers did to the Oklahoma Sooners last night what they've done to most of their opponents this year: they beat them, and handily. 

Actually, it was more than just handily. The Tigers curb-stomped the Sooners last night in Columbia, beating up on Lon Kruger's squad to the tune of an 87-49. 

I'll be the first to admit, I did not see that final line coming. Oklahoma was projected to be way down this season coming in, but they were actually off to a fairly strong start, ranking high nationally in several offensive categories. Frank Haith's Tigers were coming off a pair of very close calls, to a good Illinois team and an Old Dominion squad that always seems to play tough. Still, it looked as if the Tigers were a bit exposed in those games, and I honestly thought last night could present a chance for a big letdown for Mizzou. 

Letdown averted. 

Really, the Tigers played as clean and flawless a game as you could possibly expect, and there probably wasn't a team in the nation that could have beaten them last night. They shot 57% from three-point range and close to 60% from the floor overall. This Mizzou team is an outstanding shooting team, yes, but those just aren't the sort of numbers you can expect to see replicated on a regular basis. 

On the other hand, even without an absurdly hot shooting night, the Tigers dominated in enough ways to put the hurt on the Sooners. They held Oklahoma to just 33% shooting on the night, forcing the Sooner players to take bad shots time and time again. Oklahoma's talented (and big), forward Andrew Fitzgerald played well early on, netting 16 points in the first half, but Mizzou put the screws to him in the second half, allowing him just two more on the evening. 

Where this game really differed from many of the others we've seen from Mizzou so far this season -- and what will ultimately determine just how far this talented team can go -- was in the rebound column. Oklahoma has a huge height advantage, as do most opponents against the undersized Tigers. In spite of the size difference, though, Mizzou managed to out-rebound the Sooners 38 to 23, with Kim English making the biggest impact with 9 boards on his own. 

More than any other single factor, rebounding looms as a real make or break area for the Tigers I think. Mizzou has brilliant guard play, they shoot the lights out of the building most nights, and they play defense nearly as tight as the Mike Anderson "40 Minutes of Hell" teams. Rebounding, though, doesn't come as easily to this team as most other aspects of the game. It's a smallish team, and they get outplayed under the rim most nights.

Last night, though, the Mizzou players stepped up and played tough, aggressive basketball down low, and the results speak for themselves. Oklahoma may be down this year, but 38-point victories over conference opponents don't happen by accident. 

The biggest key for the Tigers going forward is going to be that rebound number. If they can prevent opponents from getting second and even third chances on their shots there isn't a team in the nation that's better than Mizzou. They have enough elite players and enough ability to play with pretty much anyone. When the opposition pulls down rebound after rebound, though, (getting two or three chances at every shot) things get tough in a hurry for the Tigers. It's enough to make one wonder just how good this team might be right now if Laurence Bowers hadn't blown out his knee back in October. Bowers was exactly what this team is lacking, a powerful forward capable of coming down with tough balls in the paint against any and all opposition. 

Maybe the university can talk the NCAA into giving DeMarre Carroll another year or two of eligibility. Bringing back the Junkyard Dog would certainly give this Tiger team all the rebounding acumen they could ever hope for. Unfortunately, neither Carroll nor Bowers is walking through that door anytime soon. The Tigers are just going to have to find a way to play up their rebounding to a level that matches the rest of their game with the players already there. 

Threatening to double up a Big XII opponent is certainly a good start. The road only gets tougher from here, though, with Missouri traveling to No. 22 Kansas State on Saturday.
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