One year ago, Missouri basketball was in a simple spot. It was a good – not great – team less than a year removed from an Elite Eight run. The goal for the season was simply an NCAA Tournament berth and avoiding too much regression from the previous year.
Missouri morphed itself into a solid but not spectacular unit a year ago, but it was obvious some deficiencies remained. Despite the highlight reel dunks of Laurence Bowers and the criminally-underrated contributions of Keith Ramsey, Mizzou just couldn't find a way to replace what it had lost when DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons no longer inhabited the post.
There was zero doubt that both Missouri fans and the Missouri program lusted after a 6'8" JuCo All-American forward out of Florida. Then came one brief tweet from graduate assistant Mike Anderson, Jr. to guard Kim English about ten months ago:
@englishscope24 finally got that horse u been wantin
That horse, forward Ricardo Ratliffe, has been more than what Mizzou wanted; he's been exactly what Mizzou needed.
Ratliffe posted 12 points, six rebounds, six blocks and three assists in Missouri's rout of Iowa State at Mizzou Arena on Saturday, but it was an effort in which his statistical output in 24 minutes of play didn't seem to do his impact justice. In Sunday's Study Hall recap, Rock M Nation's Bill Connelly had this note on Ratliffe's play to date.
Thank You For Choosing Missouri, Ricardo
When I saw Ratliffe's junior college stat lines, I envisioned some bull on the inside, a guy who dunked a lot and pulled down rebounds with authority. Instead, he is a player who almost never dunks (successfully) and gets his points and boards through positioning, craftiness and pure activity. And now at 12 points, eight rebounds and almost two blocks per game, he is producing exactly what I hoped he would. He continues to prove that he is exactly what last year's team was missing, and the fact that he produces at a higher level against "real" teams (13.4 PPG with the same rebounding and blocks) is a lovely bonus.
In the same way DeMarre Carroll's frenetic defense on the press was a perfect fit for Missouri, Ratliffe's odd blend of athleticism and inside presence seems purposefully engineered for The Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball.
As the season approached, Mike Anderson noted that Ratliffe was beating Missouri's guards down the floor on the break in preseason practices. That guard-like athletic ability was on display Saturday, when Ratliffe took the ball end-to-end on the dribble, beating several defenders into the lane and finishing a contested layup at the rim. In similar fashion, Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg managed only futility as he tried to find any kind of forward in his limited rotation capable of keeping Ratliffe from beating the Cyclones from his first step underneath the basket.
But just as encouraging as Ratliffe's physical abilities are the glimpses he has shown of his makeup as a competitor. In non-conference, he had a tendency to disappear against "lesser" opponents, opting to blend into the background instead of asserting his will or forcing his play. But, as noted above, Ratliffe seems to possess an extra gear or extra intensity against the stronger opponents on Missouri's schedule thus far.
Though Missouri still has a number of issues to address, it has been Ratliffe's addition that has possibly answered Mizzou's biggest question mark from a season ago.