I think it's time to re-readjust our expectations for the 2011-2012 Missouri basketball team.
The first readjustment of expectations was a negative one. It came in the preseason when Laurence Bowers went down with an ACL injury in a pickup game, decimating what little depth the Tigers had in the post. Missouri was forced to start the season mostly featuring a four-guard lineup, a move the majority of local and national pundits (including myself) thought would hurt more than help because of the rebounding advantage they would give up.
Who could blame the experts? Even with Bowers and now-departed forward Justin Safford last season, the Tigers were constantly dominated on the glass and it was one of the major reasons the year didn't turn out like they hoped it would.
Surprisingly, the Tigers have held their own on the glass through four games this season, accentuated by their dominating 29-point win over Notre Dame in Kansas City on Monday.
Maybe the early success is because of new coach Frank Haith and his system. Closing out possessions with rebounds wasn't overly emphasized in Mike Anderson's "Fastest 40 Minutes" style of play. Instead, Missouri did all they could to force turnovers and turn those into quick points. It worked for the 08-09 Tigers that made the Elite Eight, but the rest of the league finally caught on and Missouri ended with a mediocre 8-8 Big 12 record last season.
With more of a focus put on their forwards and Kim English closing out the lane while quick guards like Phil Pressey, Michael Dixon and Marcus Denmon chase down loose rebounds, the Tigers have seemingly erased their rebounding problem, even against teams with a large height or length advantage at every position, like Notre Dame and Mercer.
This is largely the same roster that the Tigers had last year, but its pieces are being used in a smarter fashion than last year and it looks like Missouri is putting forth way more effort on the glass so far this season. That is translating into more closed out possessions and the ability for the Tigers to use their biggest strength - quickness - by pushing the ball up the court after a rebound.
Multiple times in the game against Notre Dame, a guard like Phil Pressey or Michael Dixon grabbed a loose rebound and took the ball coast-to-coast for an easy two points or an and-1 attempt. Ricardo Ratliffe even joined the party by going the length of the court for a layup.
It doesn't hurt that the Tigers are shooting nearly 50% from 3-point land so far this season, either. That number will obviously not stay that outrageously high all season, but this is a good shooting team and with an actual offense in place, their shooters are getting consistent open looks and knocking them down.
If Missouri can continue to put the majority of their defensive effort on clearing out the lane on rebounds, they will be able to beat taller teams by creating a mismatch on the offensive side of the ball like you saw against Notre Dame. Breaking even on the defensive glass against these taller teams will be more than enough for the Tigers to exploit the huge disparity on the other end that is created by their quickness.
Notre Dame was the first true test for Missouri and they passed with flying colors. That win doesn't mean that the Tigers will dominate the Big 12 this season, but it has to be encouraging for Missouri fans who were lamenting the prospect of watching their team get dominated physically for the majority of the year.
There are a lot of things to hit on when talking about this Missouri team, including the continued development of Phil Pressey, the absolute dominance of Marcus Denmon on a nightly basis and Ricardo Ratliffe's improved offensive game, but we'll save those topics until we see more games from this team.
Missouri will face No. 18 California in the CBE Championship tonight on ESPN2.
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