Even as they've won 23 of their first 25 games and soared to No. 3 in this week's Associated Press college basketball poll, the Missouri Tigers have sometimes struggled to show their critics that the pride of the Show Me State is a serious national championship contender.
They're too short (no starter over 6-foot-8 and three under 6-4). Too thin (only seven players average at least 15 minutes a game). The school has never reached the NCAA tournament's Final Four in the 73 years it's been staged.
"I still think they're just below that top tier of Syracuse, Kentucky, Ohio State and North Carolina," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said this past weekend. "That doesn't mean they're not really good. They could definitely win the national championship. But I think their margin of error is probably a little smaller than those other schools."
Added fellow "GameDay" veteran Hubert Davis: "I don't have them in my Final Four, but there's no question they could get there. Missouri is so hard to defend. Very unorthodox. They have so many guys who can create their own shots. But can their bigs play big against the best teams?"
When a team's average rebounding edge is less than one a game (32.4 to 31.8) and opponents shoot better than 43 percent from the field, those concerns are legitimate.
Just don't try selling that belief to the Big 12 schools that have fallen to the Tigers in their final year in that league before they jump to the Southeastern Conference.
"All five of their guards can shoot the ball," Baylor forward Anthony Jones said after the Bears lost 72-57 at Mizzou this past weekend. "And once one gets hot, it seems like all of them get hot."
Said Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy after watching the Tigers go on a 28-2 run in a 19-point win over the Aggies: "They have another gear in them, and that's what makes them so good."
This is how well they shoot the ball: They hit 50 percent of their field goals and nearly 77 percent of their free throws. They also knock down almost 39 percent of their 3-pointers.
Even first-year Missouri coach Frank Haith -- who was at Miami this time last year -- said of his offensive attack, "We have really good guards. We can drive the ball. Our free-throw numbers -- we get to the line a lot more than our opponent -- that's an area that we stress with this team. And then we can play inside-out. So I think we're pretty good."
The guards are incredibly good and incredibly experienced, led by seniors Matt Pressey, Marcus Denmon and Kim English, junior super sub Michael Dixon and sophomore Phil Pressey, Matt's younger brother. (The Presseys' father, Paul, is a former NBA great).
Throw in 6-8 senior post player Ricardo Ratliffe and 6-9 senior reserve Steve Moore and you have perhaps the most polished and balanced offensive team in the land.
For proof merely consider that six Tigers have led the team in scoring and six have led or tied for the lead in rebounding.
"And their pressure defense can take it to another level," said A&M's Kennedy. "That's why they are so good. Frank has done a tremendous job of getting those guys to play together and buying into how he wants to play. Being a [fellow] first-year coach with a new program, that's something we are still struggling to find."
Indeed, when Mike Anderson left Mizzou for Arkansas a year ago, most experts panned the selection of Haith, a former Texas assistant. But from the beginning of the season -- through a 29-point win over Notre Dame and 39-point victory over then-ranked Cal, through a sweep of Baylor and an emotional 74-71 comeback victory over Kansas 10 days ago -- the Tigers have seemingly defied all odds.
Pointing to Denmon's team-high 18 points a game, the versatile Ratliffe's 14 points and seven rebounds and Dixon's 12.4 points, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said earlier this season, "They trust each other and have confidence in each other to make plays. All coaches would like to see that in their team."
Yet Haith still sees room for improvement.
"I want to be a really good team defensively," he said. "Then you can be a complete ballclub."
Apparently when it comes to Mizzou, everybody's a critic, even its own coach.
Email Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com or 423-757-6273.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...