Tigers to Open SEC Schedule Against 'Bama

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The Alabama Crimson Tide, and fans of the same, have had a pretty good 24 hours. A third national championship in four years last night, achieved by stomping an over-hyped Notre Dame team into the turf, and a future that looks to hold preseason number one status for next year as well. No doubt about it: Alabama is the undisputed king of the college football world. The giant crimson 600 pound gorilla in the room, as it were. 

On the other hand, in basketball...'Bama isn't quite the powerhouse they are on the gridiron. And it will fall to the Missouri Tigers tonight, making their SEC debut, to drive home the point. It's an historic night for the Mizzou program as Frank Haith and Co welcome their first conference opponent to Columbia tonight; let's just hope it doesn't end the same way Missouri's first football meeting with the Tide did. 

The Tigers come into tonight with an 11-2 record, having lost one game to a very good -- and remarkably tough -- Louisville team back in the early stages of the season, and then dropping a heartbreaker on the road to UCLA in overtime. Neither loss really exposed any glaring flaws in this Mizzou team, nor did a squeaker played against Bucknell to close out the nonconference portion of the schedule. This is a very good Missouri team; one that should at least be somewhere around the top ten all the way this year. 

Alabama, on the other hand, is a decidedly mediocre team -- and that might be a little generous. They average just 65.5 points per game, 226th in the nation, and don't play exactly suffocating defense to go along with it. (Although it should be said they are a stronger squad on the prevention side of the ledger.) Contrast that number against Mizzou, scoring 78.5 points per game, good for 30th overall. This Tiger team doesn't play quite the nightmarish, claustrophobic defense we saw during the Mike Anderson full-court press era, but it's still a solid unit. 

Missouri's biggest advantage in this game -- and pretty much every game they'll play this season -- will come on the boards. The Tigers lead the nation in rebounds, pulling down an average of 46.7 per night. The combination of Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers is a force on the boards the likes of which you rarely see. It's made Mizzou almost unrecognizable compared to the frenetic, undersized group we've seen in Columbia over the past several years. 

The Crimson Tide do have one serious weapon the Tigers will have to account for: Trevor Releford. Their leading scorer, the junior guard (from Kansas City, no less), is averaging 15.6 points per game, and provides the kind of dynamic possibility that can change the outcome of a game. If the Tigers want to start off life in the SEC on the right foot, Releford is the number one target they'll need to gun for. It's a shame Kim English did that whole 'graduating' thing; he would have been the ideal choice to stick on Releford and shut him down. It's always tough to predict how a player's emotional state is going to translate to the field of play, but Releford will be playing close to home, likely with plenty of family and friends in attendance; the Tigers need to be very careful to hold him in check. 

On paper, this is a mismatch. Mizzou should roll the Tide, so to speak, and open the conference season on a high note. Should, I said. Frank Haith has kept the letdowns to a minimum so far in his coaching tenure in Columbia, absent the upset loss to Norfolk State in the tournament last year, but this is a dangerous game. Overall, the talent levels aren't that close, and the Tigers clearly outclass Alabama. The emotion, though, of a dynamic player coming home and a team whose football program is splashed across the front page of every sporting website in the world right now, will be something Mizzou will have to control. 

Still, in the end, this is a remarkably good Missouri team, taking on an underpowered 'Bama bunch. The Tigers should win, and it shouldn't be all that close. Tomorrow's headline should be all about expected performance and a good start to the SEC era in Columbia. 

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