After nearly every game this season, the Missouri Tigers have repeated a mantra: "Every game is a big game. The next game is the biggest game of the year."
On Tuesday, that was probably true. The win over Baylor solidified the Tigers as an NCAA Tournament team. Following the beatdown of the Bears, the mantra is true once again. Missouri travels to Manhattan, KS for an 11 a.m. showdown with Kansas State on Saturday.
"The next game is the biggest game on our schedule," Laurence Bowers said. "That's how we approached this game and it paid off."
But undeniably, this game is the most pivotal contest on the schedule in regards to Big 12 tournament seeding, not just for Missouri, but league-wide. If the Tigers can pull out a win in Manhattan, they will lock up the fourth seed in the league tourney with one win in their final two games or one Colorado loss.
"We're not really thinking about the Big 12 tournament," Laurence Bowers said. "I mean, it's in the back of our minds."
Still, the importance in the league standings cannot be denied. Missouri can still get the four seed with a loss to Kansas State, but the Tigers would need some help. So Saturday's game is of great import in a place where Mizzou has struggled mightily over the last few seasons.
The Tigers have lost six straight games in Bramlage Coliseum by an average of 17.5 points. The Tigers have never been closer than seven in those games. Mike Anderson has lost all four of his trips to Manhattan, lowlighted by a 100-63 thumping in 2007-08, Anderson's second season. Missouri has won in every Big 12 location except College Station and Lawrence since its last victory at Kansas State.
"We've only lost two," Kim English said. "We can't control the other four."
"It's a crazy place to play," Marcus Denmon added. "I think there and Kansas is the toughest places to play in the conference. The fans are really animated and into the game and it will be loud, but it's like that everywhere you go when you're on the road in conference. We've just got to go in there and be mentally prepared to play with just us players and our coaching staff and don't let where we play dictate how we play."
If the Tigers are to come out with a win, a similar formula to the Baylor game will have to be employed. Mizzou outrebounded Baylor 34-32. The Tigers forced Baylor into 21 turnovers and limited leading scorer LaceDarius Dunn to a season-low 12 points.
Like the Bears, Kansas State is good on the glass. Baylor is fifth in the league in rebounding margin, the Wildcats are third. Kansas State does take better care of the ball than Baylor, but the Cats are ninth in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. Playing the role of Dunn on Saturday will be Wildcat senior Jacob Pullen, who is leading the league with 21.6 points per game in Big 12 play. Pullen is averaging 23.4 points per game over his last seven, highlighted by a 38-point outburst in an upset of top-ranked Kansas last Monday.
"I don't know how he's been playing the last few games because I haven't seen and it wasn't against us," said Denmon, who defended Dunn most of the night and is likely to draw Pullen as well. "Going into the game with the same mindset. He's another good scorer in our league. Earlier this year, we played him and I think we did a good job on him."
On January 17th, Pullen scored 16 points in a 75-59 loss to Missouri. He hit just 4 of 11 shots and had three turnovers against only one assist. But since then, the senior guard has caught fire and the Cats have won six of nine.
It all adds up to this: Missouri's 23rd win would be its biggest of the season. It may also be the toughest to get.
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