With the 2012 NCAA tournament right around the corner, it's time to start evaluating title contenders, and Missouri is first on slate.
The Tigers—in Frank Haith's first year at the helm—vastly exceeded early expectations. From the questionable hiring of Haith to the season-ending injury of Laurence Bowers, Missouri shouldn't have morphed into a Top 10 squad.
But they did, ranking as high as No. 2 in the national polls.
The Tigers arguably have the nation's best offense, but we've all heard the old adage, "defense wins championships." Can their offense, defense and other characteristics create a winning recipe?
Read on for an evaluation of the Missouri Tigers as title contenders.
As you'd expect of a team averaging nearly 80 points per outing, several Tigers average double-figures in scoring. Marcus Denmon leads the way with 18.2 points per game, and Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe and Michael Dixon all contribute more than 10 points.
(Ratliffe holds the nation's second-best field goal percentage, and Dixon is one of the most potent sixth men in college hoops.)
Though his 9.8 ppg exclude him from the aforementioned group, Phil Pressey is the engine behind the Mizzou offense. There are few point guards fit to push the ball as effectively as Pressey does, and he's averaging 6.2 points and 2.5 turnovers per game.
Pressey is unbelievably quick, especially on the break and in the lane.
Missouri is seventh in the nation in points per game, but the Tigers also lead the country in offensive efficiency, as measured by Kenpom.com. In other words, they not only score more than nearly every D-1 team—they also maximize each offensive possession better than their counterparts.
The Tigers are so efficient because they are the nation's quickest team, featuring five guards and just two big men. One of those bigs, however, is dominant around the rim.
Ricardo Ratliffe has the second-highest field goal percentage in the nation, and though he thrives as a result of the guards' penetration, he's still strong enough to bang in the paint.
Marcus Denmon and Phil Pressey are particularly good at knifing through defenses, but so are Kim English and Michael Dixon. When one of them drives, others lurk beyond the arc, where Missouri averages about 21 three-point attempts per game.
The Tigers shoot a commendable 38.4 percent from long range.
Three-point shooting isn't the team's sole strength, though. In fact, the Tigers rank higher in overall field goal percentage—only three other teams score at a higher clip than Mizzou's 49.7 percent.
Offensive juggernauts tend to lose steam in the tournament. Instead, the dominant defensive teams prevail more frequently.
For proof, check out Kenpom.com. From 2004-2010, not a single team ranking below No. 30 in defensive efficiency reached the Final Four—we'll exclude last year's whacky tournament.
Missouri's defense surrenders 95.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranks No. 80 nationally. If you don't trust Kenpom, though, the traditional percentages also don't favor the Tigers—they're dead last in the Big 12 in field goal percentage defense and three-point defense.
Although Mizzou allows teams to score efficiently, Frank Haith's defensive pressure forces eight steals and 14.8 turnovers per game, which in turn leads to easy buckets on the break.
Still, even if the Tigers force 15 turnovers in each round of the tournament, their tendency to be inefficient defensively could be the bane of their title run.
When Laurence Bowers tore his ACL in the preseason, Missouri lost a key forward for the season. Not only did Bowers average 11.6 points per game as a junior, but he also led the Tigers with 6.1 rebounds per game.
Without him, Frank Haith was left with two rotation players taller than 6'6"—one of whom, Steve Moore, averaged just 2 ppg and 2.3 rpg in 11.5 minutes per game a season ago.
Moore still only averages 16.4 minutes per game this year, and his production on the offensive end and on the glass remain minimal. Defensively, he and Ricardo Ratliffe are dealt the task of defending opposing bigs without fouling—if they both hit foul trouble, Haith would practically have no option other than playing five guards.
Though Marcus Denmon and Kim English mitigate the size disadvantage by rebounding at a high level, the Tigers rank No. 8 in the 10-team Big 12 with a plus-one rebounding margin on the season.
Missouri has been out-rebounded in three of its four losses.
Everyone always points to Memphis as the archetype of a team that lost because of foul-shooting. Those Tigers couldn't close out the 2008 championship against Kansas, as Chis Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose combined to miss four foul shots in the final 1:15 of regulation.
The Missouri Tigers, on the contrary, shouldn't deteriorate in late-game foul-shooting situations. Two Tigers—Marcus Denmon and Michael Dixon—rank in the top 15 nationally in free throw percentage, while Phil Pressey and Kim English each shoot over 70 percent from the stripe.
With two elite options and two other solid choices, Missouri has a few guys who can close out games by sinking foul shots.
Additionally, Denmon has proven to be one of the more "big moment" players in college basketball this season, stepping up when his team needs him down the stretch.
In both games against Kansas, Denmon performed like a Player of the Year. He scored the first nine points of Mizzou's game-ending 11-0 run the first time around, and then he dropped eight of the Tigers' 11 overtime points—including what could have been the game-winner—in the rematch.
Any team that has such reliable foul shooters and a go-to player like Denmon would be tough to beat in March.
Two games per weekend over the course of three weekends. That's the NCAA tournament in a nutshell.
Missouri has won six straight in a similar span a few times this season, but Frank Haith only uses seven players, making fatigue a concern.
Additionally, what happens if one or two players find themselves in early foul trouble?
Clearly, Frank Haith is a better coach than everyone initially thought. He transformed a borderline preseason Top 25 team into one of the nation's best squads.
However, Haith has just two NCAA tournament games under his belt. His Miami Hurricanes beat Saint Mary's in 2008's first round, but they fell to No. 2 seed Texas two days later.
Experience is certainly crucial for coaches, but Haith has done such a remarkable job this season—I think we can believe in him, though there are definitely better coaches out there.
So Missouri is an elite offensive force, but its defense, size and depth are pressing concerns.
Regardless of those issues, the Tigers have had a tremendous season, and they should be fine in the early rounds. Teams like Weber State, New Mexico and Washington—the three teams Mizzou would play in the opening weekend, according to Joe Lunardi's latest bracketology—could all beat the Tigers on a good day, but Mizzou should win those games.
If they somehow get matched with a mid-major like Iona, though, they could be ousted early.
The Gaels are essentially mid-major Missouri—with a deeper rotation. They shoot at a higher clip from the floor and long range and rank No. 13 in offensive efficiency, but they also don't have much size. They'll force turnovers, but, like the Tigers, they aren't efficient defensively.
In later rounds, any lengthy defense that can also score should have a good chance of beating Missouri.