The biggest game of the Big 12 basketball season will be played Saturday in Columbia, Mo., when conference-leader and defending champion Kansas comes calling at Missouri for the first of two Border Showdown games this season between these two longtime rivals.
The fact that this will be the final game for the Jayhawks at Missouri for the foreseeable future because of Missouri leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference next season only adds to the drama of this battle for first place in the Big 12 standings. The Tigers are at 7-2 in conference play and hot on the Jayhawks' heals. A loss early last week to Oklahoma State prevented the Tigers from entering this game with the same record as the 8-1 Jayhawks.
Kansas, ranked eighth in the country this week, is the more physical of the two teams, with National Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson manning the middle for the Jayhawks and senior guard Tyshawn Taylor giving Bill Self's guys experience and a talented presence in the backcourt. Despite its serious size deficit, with four guards in the lineup, Missouri has turned that disadvantage into an advantage with a team shooting percentage of almost 50 percent per game and an offense that averages a league-best 81 points a game, led by guards Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Michael Dixon, who are averaging 17, 14 and 12 points, respectively. Meanwhile, the Tigers' defense, while not shutting down opponents, has been stingy giving up points, yielding just 63 points per game.
The Tigers are 12-0 this season at Mizzou Arena, where their closest margin of victory was 11 points against Texas in mid-January. Kansas poses Mizzou's toughest home test thus far, but the Jayhawks have shown some cracks this season when playing away from home, especially against good teams. It has been a different story, though, when teams visit Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, which Missouri will get to do in three weeks.
The keys to this game are fairly simple. Kansas needs to jump out to an early lead and take what is expected to be a large and very vocal Mizzou crowd out of the game. For the Jayhawks to win, they will have to play tight defense, control the boards and force the quicker and better-shooting Tigers into turnovers that Kansas can convert into points at the other end. For Missouri, the game plan will be to hit their shots and not be hesitant to attack the basket, regardless of KU's distinct height advantage inside.
Missouri will get off to a good start, but Kansas will respond, and because of their deeper bench, the Jayhawks will keep the game close. The Tigers won't disappoint the partisan home crowd, putting together a run at the end that will give them a four-point winning margin and a share of the conference lead with their neighboring-state archrivals. Missouri 78, Kansas 74
The other local team, Kansas State, is back home on Saturday, where the Wildcats will host 12-9 Texas A&M. After suffering back-to-back losses, to Oklahoma at home last weekend and against Iowa State on Tuesday in Ames, I see Frank Martin's crew rebounding in this one and handing the SEC-bound Aggies their seventh conference loss in ten games. Look for leading Wildcat scorer Rodney McGruder and Will Spradling, a product of Shawnee Mission South High School, to have big games, as K-State wins by double digits and evens its league record at 5-5. Kansas State 68, Texas A&M 54
Elsewhere around the conference this weekend:
Baylor @ Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State has been playing better of late and is a much better team at home (8-2 overall this season; 3-1 in the Big 12), but sixth-ranked Baylor is a better team. The Bears went 17-0 to start the season before losing two of its last three (to Kansas and Missouri). The taller and longer Bears will not be denied in this one and will leave Stillwater with their 21st win of the season and in a three-way tie with Missouri and Kansas. Baylor 73, Oklahoma State 60
Iowa State @ Oklahoma
The Cyclones are on a roll and are just four wins shy of reaching 20 for the season. They beat Kansas and Kansas State in their last two games and looked good in doing so. Iowa State has also proven it can win on the road, with two conference wins away from Hilton Coliseum already. Oklahoma, on the other hand, is playing solid basketball and has actually overachieved a little under new head coach Lon Kruger, including a giant road win last weekend at Kansas State. The Sooners have lost at home this season to Kansas and Baylor, and on Saturday, Iowa State will be the third opponent to leave Norman with a win. Iowa State 68, Oklahoma 60
Texas Tech @ Texas
Not much to say about this contest, other than mismatch. Texas Tech is dreadful, and having to go to Austin after Texas lost there on Monday in a heartbreaker to Missouri is sure to only make matters worse. Texas and its freshmeen diaper dandies will roll big over a severely outmanned Red Raider team. Texas 81, Texas Tech 63
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