By Darren Hellwege
The Missouri Tigers men’s basketball team came into Monday’s opener of the CBE Classic with a mysterious 3-0 record. The Tigers had won all three games under new coach Frank Haith, but had beaten some pretty weak competition and nobody could be sure of just how good they were. This was the night we would see if the Tigers really were as good as we thought they might be. Were they for real, or a fraud?
After Mizzou’s 87-58 waxing of Notre Dame we can be sure, this is no Cubit Zirconium, no fake Rolex no bootleg DVD. The things this team has to do to compete with the Big 12 in their final season in the league—like playing tough defense, inside/out play on the offensive end, keeping mistakes to a minimum and perhaps most importantly of all, energy and consistency—were all on display for the nation to see on as the Tigers dominated the game throughout.
“We played great tonight,” an enthusiastic coach Frank Haith said afterwards. “Plus 14 on the boards? They shoot 37 percent? Those things excite me!”
And he had reason to be excited. Yes, the Tigers out rebounded the Fighting Irish 38-24 after having an edge of just two at halftime in that stat. Yes, they kept Notre Dame from shooting well. But really, what made this game exciting for those looking for signs that this could be a much better team that had been expected weren’t on the stat sheet. Maybe Notre Dame’s coach Mike Brey summed it up best.
“It was flat out men against boys. It was like the varsity versus the J.V.”
Brey added, “This group is on their way to being the winningest bunch in their school’s history, and they play with a lot of confidence. I’m impressed with them.” And while Notre Dame is trying to rebuild with three new starters off last year’s 27-7 team, the Irish are a team that is larger than Mizzou and gave them a much tougher challenge than the Tigers’ previous opponents, Niagra, Mercer and Southeast Missouri. But even the size advantage might not have been such an advantage.
“I guess it works to our advantage,” said Tiger point guard Phil Pressey. “Being small means being quicker. We know we’re going to have a lot more quickness than the other team, so we prepare for that and it helped us out this game.”
While several Tigers merit notice for playing well, Marcus Denmon stood head and shoulders above the rest, shooting a remarkable 9-11 for 26 points, above and beyond his already impressive average of 18 points a game, which was good enough to be tied for fourth in the Big 12 with Baylor’s Quincy Miller. It was especially important for Denmon, who played for Hogan Prep in Kansas City and had a contingent of about 30 friends and family among the heavily pro-Mizzou crowd in what was ostensibly a neutral-court setting at the Sprint Center.
Pressey continued to show marked improvement at point guard. After a career high of 22 points against Mercer last week, Pressey put up 17 against the Irish and showed a lot of skill running the Tigers offense. Ricardo Ratliffe had 12 points along with eight rebounds.
Mizzou will face California Tuesday evening. Former Tiger Ricky Kreklow is now on the California team but will not play as he sits out a year following his transfer from MU to Berkeley. Kreklow is a Rock Bridge graduate and the son of Tiger volleyball coaches Wayne and Susan Kreklow.
Haith considers tomorrow’s game to be of great importance. “Notre Dame’s a really good team, they’re going to win a lot games in the Big East. To have a performance like that, tonight, obviously has got to give these guys a lot of confidence. We’re going to play again tomorrow, and you look across the country this time of year, and there’s going to be a lot of champions named this week. When you want to have a championship program, winning a championship like tomorrow, winning the CBE championship, is important. We want to get our mentality about winning championships. There’s no doubt, we’ll play a great team tomorrow, from a BCS conference, and we’ll be excited about the opportunity.”
And at least one other person thinks the Tigers are capable of being champions. Notre Dame’s Brey wrapped up his comments after the game saying “I’m glad they’re not in our league. I don’t want to see them again.”