Mizzou entered its Wednesday night win against Nebraska sporting only two losses on the season, but the second of those losses -- an 89-86 conference opening loss in Boulder on Saturday -- highlighted an interesting trend. With the loss, Mike Anderson fell to 1-4 in conference road openers as coach of the Missouri Tigers, including the following body of work:
2007: Texas, 88-68 L
2008: Iowa State, 72-67 L
2009: Nebraska, 56-51 L
2010: Texas Tech, 94-89 (OT) W
2011: Colorado, 89-76 L
So what's the cause? I'd submit it's the lack of true road games in the non-conference. Granted, most teams don't spend a ton of time away from home, and often play their marquee non-conference opponents at neutral sites. Mizzou has played 8 true road games in the non-conference with Anderson as coach, and only 4 the past 3 seasons. This isn't so far removed from other programs, for example, Pitt hasn't played a single one since 2008! However, as a team that feeds so much off the entire game environment, the crowd, the pace, and the ebb and flow of each possession, I think it's more crucial for Mizzou than others to acclimate themselves to different environments.
So how else might the road opener struggles be explained? Two theories are listed below:
Road struggle theory No. 1: Winning on the road in the Big 12 isn't easy
Missouri's struggles in Big 12 road openers may speak far more loudly about the strength of Big 12 teams on their home floor than it does about Mizzou's weakness on the road. And if you don't want to ask league coaches how tough their league is, ask the rest of the country.
During the last two seasons, Big 12 teams have posted a combined 217-6 home record in non-conference play, including 172 of the last 177 dating back to last season. Come NCAA Tournament résumé time, the collective strength of the Big 12 is quite a coup for the member institutions. When it comes time for Big 12 teams to go on the road in conference play, it's not quite as warm and welcoming.
Road struggle theory No. 2: Road officiating
This isn't meant to be controversial or subversive in any way, but basketball officials aren't exactly immune to home court advantage, especially in the Big 12. Missouri's brand of basketball inherently tests the limits of physicality and aggressiveness on a nightly basis. A year ago, Mizzou generally avoided the calls at home but got whistled on the road:
Road games: 20.5 fouls per game
Home/Neutral games: 18.7 fouls per game
Mizzou never looks truly at ease in road games. Mizzou thrives on momentum as much as (if not more than) any other team in the country, which has generally meant good things for Mizzou at home and at neutral sites. But Missouri has some trouble adjusting to road officiating, whether it be the conference opener, the conference finale or any game in between.
As for the non-conference scheduling idea, another two theories are listed below:
Non-conference theory No. 1: Mizzou's style doesn't exactly attract suitors
Even though the term itself is one that evokes disgust, many observers and coaches think Missouri's Fastest 40 Minutes style of play is a "gimmick." That may be an argument of semantics, but whatever you call it, it's not a system you're likely to face on a weekly basis.
It's somewhat similar to scheduling a service academy in college football. Coaches are tasked with spending an entire week preparing their teams to face a system which they most likely won't see again for the rest of the season. Winning against such a team may be a nice accomplishment, but you've created a perhaps unnecessary hardship on your football team and taken a week away from preparing a defense for more universal offenses. Though much can be gained from playing Missouri (especially seeing forwards' conditioning and guards' nerves under fire), it's likely a risk many coaches aren't willing to undertake.
Non-conference theory No. 2: They likely weren't invited
It's simplistic and charmingly naive, but are teams simply weary of inviting Missouri into their place for a non-conference game? At this point, Missouri has established itself as a solid basketball program for the time being, enough so that most teams in America would expect, at the most optimistic, a hard-fought win. At the worst, they're inviting themselves to a deflating non-conference home loss. Furthermore, Mizzou has reached a point where it's within its rights to demand home-and-homes, leaving many of the elite programs ready to balk at the required return trip. Mizzou isn't in position to give away those road games for free, no matter what it means for strength of schedule.
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