Despite the rankings (#8 to #16) and Vegas line (Tigers by 1.5) favoring Mizzou , this seemed like a favorable matchup for the Hoyas. A well-coached disciplined team with heady ball handlers should be able to handle the Mizzou press, and I think the phrase, 'A well-coached disciplined team with heady ball handlers' is exactly how I'd describe this year's Hoyas.
Now Missouri's ranking may be a little misleading, as they haven't beaten any half-decent team so far: 3 of their 5 wins have been against teams named the Ospreys, Leathernecks, or Explorers. That said, this is still one of the best teams in the country, and as I learned tonight, one with an amazing home court advantage. This was technically a 'neutral court' that just so happened to be situated about and hour and a half from the Mizzou campus, but the fans made it clear who's side they were on. Not only were the16,000+ fans loud, but Mizzou's aggressive defensive style put the refs in a lot of tough positions, and during a home game a lot of those 50/50 calls will go Mizzou's way.
The Hoya start was reminiscent of the glory that was last year's Duke game. The Tiger press was hopeless and Gtown was knocking everything down en route to an 18 point lead. Mizzou got their act together, seized momentum, and chiseled the lead down to 7 by the half - which is about the time I started biting my nails. Mizzou seemed to carry momentum through the 2nd half, but only took their first lead more than midway through the 2nd half. The Hoyas seemed doomed at the point to a quality road loss, but managed the improbable with Chris Wright sinking a last second 3 to send the game to OT. 5 minutes more? Yes please. Jason Clark took it from there, sinking 3 triples in the extra period to make the last 2.5 minutes of overtime pretty comfortable.
I don't know that tonight taught me as much about the Hoyas as it reinforced several beliefs. The team was rudderless without Wright against the Mizzou D, which is why he played 45 minutes. Clark and Freeman put up the bigger numbers, but Wright was and has been the team MVP thusfar. You could almost predict the Mizzou runs because they happened as soon as Wright stepped off the court. It is times like this when I wish gameflows were available for NCAA games, as Wright's +/- has to be fantastic.
I also already knew that the bench is very weak. Fortunately, Mizzou plays a tiny lineup, so Gtown's preference for 3 guards, 1 very small forward, and a center was not a problem. Against a 'normal' team, Julian Vaughan, Nate Lubick, and Henry Sims could be roasted. And even though there are a lot of guards getting minutes for the Hoyas, there is a huuuge dropoff after the big 3. They all looked hesitant out there, and I am once again curious as to the +/- of the big 3. I wish I could say Starks and Lubick will suddenly 'get it', but I just don' think that's happening this year.
This team is 1 injury to any of the big 3 away from being pretty mediocre, but this was an awesome win. Standing up to a hostile crowd and top-10 team makes this one of the best wins in all of college basketball this season to date. The Hoyas cruised to the 18 point lead, but absolutely gutted this one out from there. Mizzou got away with a lot junk on defense, but the Hoyas didn't complain and got equally physical on their defensive side at the end of the game. Not only are there no teams in the Big East that particularly scare me, but there are no teams in the entire NCAA outside of Duke that appear definitely better than the Hoyas right now.
If Wright, Freeman, and Clark can stay healthy and don't get worn-down from heavy minutes, this could be a season to remember in DC.
(Image courtesy of the AP, via washingtonpost.com)