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December 8, 2009Every time Missouri takes the floor this season, it sparks a renewal of one of basketball's biggest debates.
Can speed really trump height?
The answer could determine whether the Tigers return to the NCAA tournament.
Missouri overcame a lack of size last season to reach the West Regional final, but faces a bigger frontcourt deficiency now that DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons have completed their college careers. The Tigers don't have a player taller than 6 feet 9, and they have been outrebounded in four of their past five games.
"We don't care how big [opponents] are," Missouri guard Kim English said. "They can outrebound us all they want. You don't win games by outrebounding people. You win games by scoring more points than the other person, stopping them and getting turnovers.'
And that's exactly what Missouri plans to do.
Missouri (5-2) -- which next plays Wednesday at Oral Roberts -- is relying on the same strategy that got the Tigers to the Elite Eight last season. The team that bills itself as playing "the fastest 40 minutes in basketball" thrives on a swarming defense that eventually wears down opponents.
It's the style Missouri coach Mike Anderson learned as a longtime assistant on Nolan Richardson's staff at Arkansas, which won the 1994 national title and reached the Final Four in '90 and '95 with an up-tempo approach branded as "40 minutes of hell."
"In Coach Anderson's system, you're never too far down to come back with the way we play," Missouri guard J.T. Tiller said. "You can come back when you run like we do and with the pressure we put on."
The Tigers average 13.1 steals per game to rank second in the nation, behind only Syracuse. And a deeper look into the numbers shows just how much Missouri's assembly line of ball-hawking guards bothers opposing defenses.
Missouri went 31-7 and set a school record for victories last season by forcing 18.3 turnovers per game and averaging 21.2 points off those takeaways. This season, they're forcing 22.3 turnovers per game and averaging 29.7 points off them.
College basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy keeps track of turnover percentage on his Web site (www.kenpom.com). His figures show that Missouri has forced opponents to turn the ball over on 29.4 percent of their possessions. Only Army (31.3) and Memphis (30.9) have forced opponents to turn the ball over a higher percentage of times.
"They force you to play in a way you're not accustomed to playing and in a way that most people aren't comfortable playing," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said last week after his team committed 24 turnovers but still managed an 89-83 victory over Mizzou.
The loss to Vanderbilt exposed everything good and bad about Missouri.
Their lack of frontcourt beef caused the Tigers to get outrebounded 47-26. Vanderbilt big man A.J. Ogilvy had his way all night and scored 25 points as the Commodores built a 14-point lead with 5:29 remaining.
Missouri would go on to cut the margin to a single point before falling short. Missouri never managed to solve Vanderbilt's frontcourt advantage, but the Tigers compensated with an aggressive full-court defense that forced Vanderbilt into numerous mistakes.
"The game's not over until it's over," Anderson said. "We've played games where we've been 16 down, or five down with a minute to go. You never give up. That's the thing I like about our guys."
Missouri never is out of a game because it can continue applying pressure for the full 40 minutes with its abundance of experienced guards.
Tiller, a 6-3 senior, has started since the midway point of the 2007-08 season and was named the Big 12's co-defensive player of the year last season. Zaire Taylor, a 6-4 senior, ranked fifth in the nation in assist-turnover ratio last season. English, a 6-6 sophomore, made 13 starts last season and leads the Tigers in scoring at 16.6 points per game this season. The presence of 6-3 sophomore Marcus Denmon and 6-1 freshman Michael Dixon off the bench gives Missouri five guards averaging at least eight points per game.
If only the Tigers had that much depth in their frontcourt.
Missouri doesn't have anyone averaging as many as six rebounds per game. Laurence Bowers, a 6-8 sophomore forward, is the only frontcourt player to rank among the Tigers' top six scorers. Although Missouri has five players at least 6-8 on its roster, nobody is taller than 6-9.
The lack of height didn't particularly bother Missouri a year ago. The Tigers didn't have anyone taller than 6-9 last season, but the 6-9 Carroll and 6-8 Lyons still gave the Tigers an imposing and athletic frontcourt. Carroll and Lyons each ranked among the Big 12's top 15 scorers and rebounders last season, though Missouri still ended up with a negative rebound margin. Carroll was selected by the Memphis Grizzlies with the 27th overall pick in the NBA draft.
The Tigers can afford to get outrebounded as long as they're competitive on the boards. But they can't allow themselves to get dominated on the glass the way they did at Vanderbilt.
Give the Tigers credit for this much: They don't use their lack of height as an excuse for their rebounding deficiencies.
"I don't think rebounds come down to size," Taylor said. "You see guys like Charles Barkley and Dennis Rodman that did amazing things [despite their size]."
Nobody's expecting anyone on Missouri's roster to turn into the next Barkley or Rodman. Heck, assuming one of them will develop into the next Carroll or Lyons may be asking too much.
Of course, recent history suggests not to make too much of that preseason poll.
"That Elite Eight team was picked seventh last year," Tiller said. "We've always got to prove ourselves day in and day out anyway. Every team does."
This team still hasn't quite proved itself. Even though Missouri returns seven players who averaged at least 9.4 minutes per game last year, the departures of Carroll and Lyons created a leadership void. Although the Tigers' starting lineup includes three seniors, 11 of their 13 players are in their first or second year in the program.
Old Dominion and Richmond bothered Missouri in the South Padre Island Invitational by forcing the Tigers into slow-paced games. Missouri still managed to beat Old Dominion, but back-to-back losses to Richmond and at Vanderbilt gave the Tigers their first two-game skid since the 2007-08 season. The Tigers bounced back Saturday with a 106-69 blowout of Oregon.
"We're still learning," Anderson said. "We're a young basketball team."
This isn't the year to be young in the Big 12. The top two teams in the current national rankings -- Kansas and Texas -- are Big 12 members. Nine Big 12 teams already have entered the national rankings or at least have received votes at one point this season. The Tigers conceivably could have a worse record this season even if they have a better team.
Missouri looks forward to the challenge.
"We just fight," English said. "That's an extension of our coach. We're just going to fight to the end every time we step on the court."
While Mizzou could fall short of its goals because of its lack of height, it certainly won't be because of a lack of effort.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.