LAWRENCE, KAN. • One of the more fun aspects of the college basketball season is that it has two distinct and occasionally unrelated lives. The regular season is the lengthy preamble to a shorter, but more impactful postseason. Teams that plunder their way through the winter in dominant fashion are promised nothing by the time they march into spring. Others who spend the entire regular season searching for a glint of prosperity can suddenly discover a miraculous streak of good fortune once they get into the tournament season.
Isn't that why they call it March Madness, that giddy state where logic can be suspended, shocking upsets can happen and crazy dreams can live?
So now here we are with less than a month to go in the Big 12 regular season, and it is fairly clear how it will all play out. The conference has turned into a two-team upper class (Texas and Kansas) and a muddled mess in the middle where eight teams have yet to distinguish themselves from one another.
That muddle is where we find your Missouri Tigers. The 18-6 Tigers are ranked 19th in the country, but they are tied for sixth place (4-5) in the Big 12 with seven games to go in the season. That's pretty much where they were projected to finish in the coaches' preseason poll. So that's why it is so amusing to listen to the shrill voices in the distance who somehow think that it's time to proclaim Missouri's basketball season as some sort of lost cause.
Even in the aftermath of Monday night's 103-86 loss to KU, a show of hands of all the people who realistically thought at the start of the regular season that Mizzou would challenge the loaded Jayhawks for the conference title?
This Missouri team doesn't appear to be built for the regular season to challenge either KU (ranked No. 2 in the country) or Texas (No. 3). Way too many noticeable flaws to cope with either of these strong, front-court dominated squads, particularly on their home courts. But what happens over the course of the next few weeks to the Tigers will begin to show us if Mike Anderson's team is developing into a team that could be a lot of trouble when tournament time comes.
The Tigers need to do a lot of things better if they do hope to straighten up and fly right into March. But the good news is there's time to get some of this stuff straight.
It is amusing to listen to some of the frantic voices as they come up with reasons Missouri is having such a hard time on the road. The one that needs to be dispelled once and for all is the ridiculous notion that Anderson has hurt his team with a weak nonconference schedule.
According to Real Time RPI.com, the Tigers have the third best RPI ranking in the Big 12, and the fourth-most demanding strength of schedule (58th in the country) in the conference.
How can anyone think that the Tigers were not challenged when they faced 11th-ranked Georgetown, 23rd-ranked Vanderbilt and an Illinois team that was ranked in the Top 25 at the time? They went on the road to Oregon and also played an 18-6 Old Dominion squad that could be on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Three years ago when Anderson led MU to a school-record 31 victories and a trip to the Elite Eight, the nonconference schedule included games against Prairie View A&M, Chattanooga, Xavier, Fairfield, USC, Oral Roberts, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, California, Murrray State, Stetson, Illinois, SIU-Edwardsville, Centenary, Georgia and Coppin State.
This year, it was Western Illinois, North Florida, Wyoming, LaSalle, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Georgetown, Oregon, Vanderbilt, Presbyterian, Oral Roberts, Central Arkansas, Illinois, Northern Illinois, Old Dominion and North Alabama.
It's not the schedule, it's the talent.
The '08-09 squad that went 4-4 on the road was a more mature, more experienced team that was dominated by two professional caliber big men in DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons and completely bought in to Anderson's relentless style of baseline-to-baseline defense.
This year's squad does not have the same low-post presence, nor does it play anything remotely close to the style of defense that Anderson desires.
Though he'll never admit it publicly, Anderson must have realized from the start that this team probably wouldn't be ready to compete for the regular-season title. But that doesn't mean he can't get them ready for the shorter bursts of excellence required to make a significant run during conference and NCAA tournament time. The objective is very simple for Anderson: continue to use the rest of this regular season as an incubator to hatch a tournament-tough squad that can give opponents the blues in March.