Excitement is always high when Missouri visits Allen Fieldhouse. This time, so are the stakes.
Nothing less than a chance for the Tigers’ first men’s championship in any Big 12 sport will be on the line Sunday when No. 11 Missouri (24-4, 11-2 Big 12) goes after a season sweep of archrival Kansas.
To the No. 15 Jayhawks (23-5, 12-1), conference titles are old hat. They’re gunning for their fifth straight and ninth in 13 years. A touch of revenge for a disheartening 62-60 loss at Missouri last month when they let a 14-point lead evaporate in a hail of turnovers would also please the 16,300 fans who will put up a deafening roar from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
But for Jayhawk followers who figure Missouri’s pressure defense will be harder to run in Allen Fieldhouse, coach Bill Self has sobering words.
“I told our guys as soon as the game (at Missouri) was over, that it will be harder to beat Missouri at home than it was beating Missouri in Columbia,” Self said. “Missouri didn’t play well against us in Columbia. They scored 16 points in the first half, and this is a team that’s averaging 80 points a game.”
It’ll be a showdown between two of the nation’s hottest teams. Other than Memphis, no top-major team in the country can beat the 11-1 mark that both Kansas and Missouri have compiled in the last dozen games.
The Tigers have been stuck in high gear ever since their second-half comeback against the Jayhawks at home on Feb. 9, putting together one of the greatest turnaround seasons in the country. They’re already eight games better than last year’s 16-16 record.
The Tigers, with their relentless pressing defense, also are the only team in school history with 500 assists, 300 steals and 100 blocks in a season.
For upperclassmen like Matt Lawrence and Leo Lyons who endured the frustration and embarrassment of the Quin Snyder era, the turnaround has been especially sweet.
“Me and Leo have been here for four years and I think we’ve put a lot of effort in and a lot of hard work,” said Lawrence. “And it’s starting to pay off. We’re going to continue to work hard and get back to practice, in the lab, and get ready for our next game.”
Just as Anderson promised when he took the job, the Tigers swarm on defense. Their pressure has led to a school-record 304 steals in 28 games. Nationally, the Tigers are second with 10.9 steals every outing.
“They turned us over 27 times,” said Kansas center Cole Aldrich. “And that’s two games worth plus a little more for us, in just one game. It’s a tough pressure whether we’re in Columbia or in Lawrence. They were really relentless throughout the whole game. It was tough. It definitely can wear teams out.”
For the Tigers to win, they’ll probably have to keep the 6-foot-11 Aldrich from dominating inside. The rapidly improving sophomore, one of only two men in the Big 12 averaging a double-double, had 15 rebounds in the first meeting.
Charged with beating the Missouri pressure will be Kansas point guard Sherron Collins, who leads the Jayhawks in scoring and hit a series of backbreaking 3-pointers in the closing minutes of Monday’s victory at No. 3 Oklahoma.
“I thought we gave that game away,” Collins said of the loss to Missouri. “I’m not mad at them. I’m more frustrated with ourselves. We had the game in our hands and we let it slip away. We practically gave it to them by turning it over and making dumb mistakes late in the game. It’s a (rematch) we’re looking forward to.”
No doubt, winning that first game should give the Tigers confidence. But in Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas has prevailed over its ancient rival nine games in a row.
“We’ve faced KU before and they’re an outstanding team,” said Anderson. “I’m sure it’s going to be the ultimate challenge, so maybe (Missouri’s players) don’t know. Sometimes that’s good, they don’t know what they’re going into. At the same time, I think our guys will get prepared.”