As the saying goes, home is where the heart is.
If you want to dispute the age-old adage, don't look for any help from the Missouri basketball team. Because, if you do, you'll probably receive a frustrating number of blank stares and responses that start with the words "well" and "umm."
After all, the Tiger players aren't likely to have any definitive explanations to qualify their struggles away from Mizzou Arena.
But it's not like they're not trying.
With just one victory away from Columbia this season, the Tigers' road woes have become enough of an early-season concern that players and coaches alike are taking a stab at figuring out what's wrong.
“I think it’s just a mental thing,” senior guard J.T. Tiller said. “We just come out and we get caught up in their kind of game.”
Tiller's comments would be in reference to the tactics of Missouri's road opponents, who have seemingly done a noteworthy job of slowing down the pace of the game and thus bringing the Tigers' break-neck style of play down to a grinding halt.
The truth is in the numbers. At Mizzou Arena, where the Tigers are a spotless 4-0, MU has averaged 97 points a game, including a season-high 106 in a 37-point blowout of Pac-10 opponent Oregon on Dec. 5.
At home, Missouri plays with passion, urgency, and a conviction that no team has even come close to matching.
Take the Tigers out of their comfort zone, however, and things go all to hell. Thus far this season, in four games on the road—two of which were played at a neutral site—MU has averaged only 63.7 points. In all, MU has scored more than 60 points only twice away from home.
Like Tiller, head coach Mike Anderson seems to think he has pinpointed the problem.
“Right now, we’re kind of at a snail’s pace, especially on the road,” said Anderson, whose team is winless in three of its four games away from Columbia this season. “It’s amazing. At home we’re totally different.”
And the disparage defining MU's split personality was never more evident than in its last two games.
Against the Ducks, the Tigers imposed their high-tempo will en route to a sensational shooting performance. As a team, Missouri shot nearly 60 percent from the floor (37-for-64) and knocked down almost half (14-of-29) of its attempts from behind the three-point arc.
Furthermore, Missouri racked up 28 assists, leading to six players finishing with double digits in points.
The blueprint for victory was carried out just as efficiently on defense, as the Tigers flummoxed Oregon into a season-high 19 turnovers while collecting seven steals and five blocks.
Four days later, in Tulsa, Okla., Mr. Hyde came out to play, as the Tigers lethargically went through the motions in a 60-59 loss to an inferior Oral Roberts team that is currently down to seven scholarship players because of injury.
Like Richmond and Vanderbilt before them, the Golden Eagles took the Tigers out of their game from the opening tip. With the pace of the contest slowed considerably, Missouri misfired on 24 of its first 31 shots and scored only four points during the final seven minutes.
And though there were times when the home version of the Tigers came to play, Anderson noted that it didn't happen with substantial frequency.
“At times I thought the game was going in our direction,” Anderson said. “We disrupted what they wanted to do, and it gave us kind of a rhythm, an even flow in the offense. But we didn’t do it enough.”
Some MU fans are quick to acknowledge the team's glaring lack of an inside presence as at least a partial reason for this season's struggles. Others may point out the Tigers' lack of senior leadership, a role that was well-suited for the trio of DeMarre Carroll, Leo Lyons, and Matt Lawrence a season ago.
If that's so, then how do you explain how dominant the Tigers have been at Mizzou Arena, albeit against arguably lesser competition, while rolling out the same personnel for road games?
And it's not as if we haven't seen this before.
Missouri's last nine regular season losses have all come away from Columbia. During the magical run of last season, the Tigers were a modest 5-4 away from home in true road games. (MU was 2-2 in games played at neutral sites in 2008-09)
Conversely, the Tigers are 12 wins away from breaking a school record , having won 23 consecutive games at home dating back to the end of the 2007-08 season, including a perfect 18-0 mark at Mizzou Arena last season.
The drop-off in intensity, focus, and production between games at home and on the road is discouraging. In just the last two games, the Tigers have shown us how good or bad they can be on any given night.
Needless to say, changes have to take place. But with six of their next seven games at home—the lone exception being the Dec. 23 Bragging Rights game versus Illinois in St. Louis—we won't get to see the Tigers play in a true road environment until Jan. 13, against Texas Tech.
But, depending on how Missouri chooses to look at it, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Photo credit: Parker Eshelman/Columbia Daily Tribune