Coming into the season, Missouri fans figured their team was talented, with or without 5-star enigma Tony Mitchell in the fold. Whether or not Mizzou was as complete and mature as necessary remained a subject of debate.
Mizzou's lofty preseason expectations were not merely a function of the returning group being bolstered by a strong freshman class. In losing three seniors from 2009-10 -- J.T. Tiller, Zaire Taylor and Keith Ramsey -- the Tigers didn't lose much in the way of quantifiable production, so the absence was easily written off by stats-driven media members. But what Tiller, Taylor and Ramsey lacked in eye-popping numbers they more than compensated for in senior leadership by flat out willing the Tigers to victories in adverse situations.
Citing intangibles like leadership can be a slippery slope, but at times this season, Missouri looked rudderless in certain situations. It stumbled in game one against Western Illinois. It couldn't recover from The Ball That Should Never Have Been Saved™ against Georgetown. It looked bewildered as Oregon frantically fought back in Eugene. It wasn't until Marcus Denmon took an overtime steal the length of the floor against Vanderbilt that Missouri finally appeared to have an individual player ready to ascend to the level demanded by the stage.
Much has been made in game recaps of Missouri's eight-point run in nine seconds to effectively ice a 75-64 win against Illinois in St. Louis last night. Observers commented that Missouri's ability to close was vindication for failing to do so against Georgetown, and while that may be moderately true from a tournament résumé standpoint, the larger question at play was whether or not Missouri "grew up" after the Georgetown loss and learned how to close a tight game.
But while Mizzou's second consecutive win against Illinois is a black and gold present under many fans' Christmas trees, in and of itself, it doesn't answer the question at hand primarily because of the lurking variable: this is simply Missouri's style of basketball.
For better or worse, Missouri basketball is built on instinct. The same instinct that told Kim English to hustle to save the ball under the basket against Georgetown has to be trusted as much as the instinct that told Marcus Denmon to push the ball up to Laurence Bowers on the game-clinching six point play instead of walking the ball up the floor.
Through 12 games, Missouri may not be fully matured, but it's trusting its instincts in tough situations. At times, it's incredibly frustrating (Exhibits A and B: Matt Pressey's shot selection and Ricardo Ratliffe's corner three). At other times, it's immeasurably rewarding.
It's the Jekyll and Hyde of Missouri basketball, but it's all part of the system. Missouri has inconsistently alternated between an incredibly sexy brand of basketball and an abominably ugly brand of basketball. But as the Tigers head to the holidays at 11-1 and ranked in the top ten in the country, it's their instincts, not their maturity, that has carried them.
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