Going into the season expectations were high for Missouri basketball. Most saw the weak league, talented transfers, and return of Phil Pressey and saw a bright future. The results, however, missed the mark of those expectations. After a sixth place finish in the SEC, several blown late-game leads, and a tough exit from the SEC tournament, Missouri found themselves in the dreaded eight-nine seed line with number one overall seed Louisville looming in the Round of 32. There are plenty of ways to look at the situation Missouri is in, get depressed, and then decide to punt the NCAA tournament and start focusing on the return of Henry Josey. Before you do that, I ask answer theses three questions (and my responses) before officially ending your Tiger basketball hopes.
QUESTION #1: Missouri lost 10 games and finished sixth in the SEC. Are they really good enough to be in the NCAA’s?
Seeding in the NCAA tournament is judged by the body of work a team puts together in the regular season, not necessarily by which team is better than another in terms of talent. If it was about talent Kentucky would be in and Middle Tennessee would be out. This isn’t a news flash to any of you, but it is important to keep in mind when trying to project what a team will do in the tournament.
By talent, Missouri is better than Colorado State, Creighton, Memphis, and St. Louis, and there really wouldn’t be much dispute about this. Oklahoma State has the better top player, Marcus Smart, but I’d rather have the Tigers roster from the second best player down than OSU’s. It is when we start looking at the top three seeds in the Midwest – Louisville, Duke, and Michigan State – when Missouri’s roster begins to even out or dip below the opponent.
Mizzou has the talent to be a top sixteen team in the country, but their body of work knocked them down twenty spots. A loss is a loss when it comes to resumes, RPIs, and committees, but truth is a lot can be said about how a team loses because not all losses are equal. The Tigers lost 10 games this season and seven of them were decided by one possession or overtime. Think about that: Seven more good possessions this season and the Tigers could potentially have been a one or two seed. Seven possessions. That’s less than five minutes of basketball.
To further the late losses issue, consider this stat: The Tigers have had a halftime lead in 12 of their road and neutral site games this season, but have just a 6-6 record in those games. Missouri isn’t getting blown out on the road, and they certainly don’t appear to be outmatched or intimidated in most of their road games. The problem lies in those final possessions.
Reality is Missouri is a top 15 team that doesn’t know how to close. Whether or not the Mississippi game was the final lesson they needed to learn, I don’t know. If/when Missouri does lose in the tournament it likely won’t be because they were not talented or good enough to win but because they do not know how to finish games.
QUESTION #2: Has it clicked for Phil Pressey?
“We’re going to win it all.” – Phil Pressey
Warning: I’m going to read into this quote and speculate. Yes, I know it came after a devistating loss to Ole Miss. Yes, I am aware of the “what else is he supposed to say” factor. And yes, I know he prefaced the quote with “Next game is for all the marbles” and nobody plays marbles anymore so he sounds like he’s sixty years old.
What if Pressey is motivated? What if everything for the next few weeks isn’t about “Pressey” but about “winning”? What if he knows he is leaving for the NBA and he doesn’t want to go out as the guy who tanked a promising Missouri season? What if Pressey finally gets it?
Pressey is the guy who can scored 20 points, dish out 20 assists, and then set it all on fire by throwing the ball into the stands five times in the last 10 minutes (see: UCLA game). He is the most talented player Missouri has on the court, but he is also the player most likely to lose the game in the final minutes. There has been argument after argument about how Missouri wouldn’t be in games without Pressey, which is true. It is also true that Pressey will play Missouri into games they should win only to lose it at the last second. Of all “BCS” teams in the NCAA, no other team is as heavily influenced by one player as Missouri is. How Pressey handles himself dictates whether or not Missouri will win or lose, no matter how well or poorly the rest of the team played.
The three biggest factors in most NCAA tournament games is rebounding, defense, and guard play. Because so few people can score in this tournament, those factors may change for one year to rebounding, offense, and guard play. Missouri can do the first two very well and at a near elite level. The question is guard play. If Pressey is motivated and makes good decisions with the ball, he will be one of the best guards in this tournament. After all the close losses and criticism, after the realization his next college game may be his last, after having to deal with the reality of his late game play, Pressey has it figured it out. And if that’s the case, Missouri is not a team Louisville wants to face in the second round.
QUESTION #3: How reasonable is it to think Missouri can beat Louisville?
This is a simple and obvious question, but it is the most pertinent to any kind of deep run by the Tigers.
The question becomes whether or not Missouri can beat Louisville. The Cardinals crushed Mizzou in the Bahamas very early in the season, forcing 23 turnovers (eight by Pressey) and shooting three’s a pace one would expect of Florida. Louisville may not be a dominate team but they are certainly a very good one, and that’s good enough to be near unbeatable this season.
But Louisville is beatable. They are not Kentucky from last year. What they are is a team that can beat itself and has a lot of problems rebounding on the defensive end. This is a recipe that could very much play in Missouri’s favor.
While Louisville’s biggest strength is their defense, Missouri can counter it with one of the best offenses Louisville has seen. In November game, turnovers were more of the reason why the Tigers only had 61 points, not their inability to run the offense. Pressey was responsible for a third of the turnovers while Negus Webster-Chan and Tony Criswell combined for six turnovers in 56 minutes of playing time. And let’s be honest, if Missouri gets the chance to Louisville and has to player Webster-Chan and Criswell for 56 minutes the Tigers have no chance at winning.
If Missouri can cut their turnovers in half, something that is very possible for them to do, the Tigers can compete with Louisville and potentially steal the game. Missouri out-rebounded Louisville 37-32 in November, and the Cardinals haven’t really gotten better on the defensive boards since then.
Earnest Ross, Keion Bell, and Jabari Brown have the size to pressure Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, who are each four to five inches shorter than Ross, Bell, and Brown. Containing the damage caused by Smith and Siva, limiting the turnovers, and maintaining the rebounding edge are all things Missouri can do, and it happens to be the best formula to beat Louisville.
So is it possible for Missouri to beat Louisville? Yes. Does Missouri have the talent to make a deep run in the NCAA’s? Yes. Will they beat Louisville and make that run?
It’s up to Pressey.