Despite climbing all the way to No. 2 in the country behind Kentucky at this time a week ago, Missouri was still chasing a Big Blue team of another color, in Kansas, in its own conference.
Three games stood ahead of a showdown with surging, defending conference-champion Kansas on Missouri's schedule as the Tigers headed to Stillwater, Okla., last week for what appeared to be a very winnable road tilt against Oklahoma State. Frank Haith's high-scoring Tigers didn't need to be reminded that in their four previous trips to Stillwater as a ranked team they had left with a loss. It didn't matter. Make it five, now.
Missouri let a seven-point lead with six minutes to go evaporate in suffering its second defeat of the season and first since a conference-opening loss to Kansas State. The Tigers rebounded with a fairly easy win over the weekend against cellar-dwelling Texas Tech, handing the Red Raiders their eight conference loss in a row. And thanks to some Hilton Coliseum magic that delivered an Iowa State victory Saturday over Kansas, Missouri drew back within one game of the Jayhawks in the standings.
What that does is set up perhaps the biggest game of the year so far in the conference race this coming weekend when coach Bill Self and his Kansas team make what could be their final trip to Mizzou Arena for the foreseeable future. The full importance of this Saturday night's Border Showdown is dependent, however, on Missouri taking care of business tonight in a Big Monday matchup at Texas on ESPN. Kansas is expected to have little difficulty in rebounding from its loss at Iowa State when the Jayhawks host Oklahoma on Wednesday.
The Tigers are hoping to get their leading scorer, senior guard Marcus Denmon, going again from the field, where he has struggled over the last seven games. After averaging 18.8 points on 51 percent shooting in his first 14 games, Denmon, from Kansas City, has fallen off to 32 percent shooting from the field, despite still scoring at a 15.4 clip. He has managed to keep his scoring average in the double digits, thanks to a 90-percent-plus average from the free-throw stripe.
For the Tigers to escape Austin with a win, they are going to have to do a better job than most teams have done stopping the conference's leading scorer, J'Covan Brown, who is averaging 18.4 points in Big 12 play and 19.7 for the season. Missouri (19-2, 6-2) defeated the Longhorns by 11 points in Columbia a couple of weeks ago, but has dropped 10 of the last 13 meetings between the two teams, including five of the past six in Austin. The Longhorns, 13-8 for the season, come into tonight's game tied for sixth with Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, all with 3-5 conference records.
With Missouri leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference after this season, the game Saturday in Columbia takes on special significance. Missouri and Kansas have met 265 times on the basketball court since the first game in the longtime rivalry was played in 1907. Kansas leads in the series 171-94. The Jayhawks have won the last five games and two of the last three played in Columbia. One statistic that will play heavily in Missouri's favor in the first of its two regular-season meetings this season with its hated rivals from Lawrence is a perfect record at home, where the Tigers are 12-0. Three of the Jayhawks four losses this year have come away from Allen Fieldhouse.
The area's other local team, Kansas State, sits fifth in the league standings at 4-4 after a stunning 63-60 loss to visiting Oklahoma over the weekend, completing a season sweep for former K-State head coach and player Lon Kruger over his alma mater. This week, the Wildcats head to Iowa State (15-6, 5-3), where they hope to fare better than Kansas did this past weekend, before returning home to host Texas A&M. Kansas State, with two conference road wins already, trails Iowa State by a game in the conference standings.
"We only have one guy that makes perimeter shots; it's hard to win against a good team," Kansas State coach Frank Martin said after Saturday's game with OU. "They dug up and got after us, they made a real physical game. Obviously, we did not respond. Defensively we held our ground, offensively we did not."
Despite losses last week by both Missouri and Kansas, the Big 12 will still likely have three teams (Missouri, Kansas and Baylor) in the top-ten in both major polls, the most of any conference. If this holds true, It will be the 39th week in league history that this has happened.
It shapes up as another big week of conference action as the 2011-12 Big 12 men's basketball race heads into the critical second half of the league season.
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