BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When cameras caught Bob Huggins on press row during the second half of Missouri's defeat of Clemson, the West Virginia head coach was studying his cell phone, as if looking for messages.
|Missouri's defense has Trevor Booker looking for answers. (Getty Images)|
I mean, if I had to hold up against the Tigers' pressure defense, I'd look for help, too ... which means that anyone with suggestions is urged to reach Huggins and soon.
He and his Mountaineers meet Missouri next, and if they can't figure out the Tigers' defensive scramble better than Clemson, they're toast -- doomed to get a head start on spring break and fail to advance to the Round of 16.
"It's going to be an ultimate challenge for our basketball team," Missouri head coach Mike Anderson said.
Nope, it's going to be an ultimate challenge for West Virginia. It's not that Missouri forces you into mistakes; it's that it forces you into sheer panic -- with Friday's 86-78 defeat of Clemson the latest example. The Tigers had 15 steals -- including 11 in the first half -- and forced 20 Clemson turnovers, and those are high numbers.
Only for Missouri they're not. The Tigers led the nation in steals this season and forced an average of 19.7 turnovers per game, which means they were exactly where they should be, and, yes, that should make West Virginia nervous.
The Mountaineers went almost eight minutes of their blowout victory over Morgan State without a basket, and Morgan State's defense is not on a par with Missouri's. Yeah, I know, West Virginia has a habit of starting slowly, but if it takes West Virginia the first eight minutes of Sunday's game to figure out Missouri, its players can start making plans to spend the next two weeks on the beaches of Florida.
I'm not saying that happens, but I am saying that if West Virginia doesn't take care of the ball and bone up on its dribbling, passing and catching it could be hasta la vista, baby.
Ask Clemson. The Tigers might have had a chance if they didn't leak like Niagara Falls, but there are just so many mistakes, easy baskets and breakaway layups you can sacrifice.
And Clemson surrendered them all.
"I thought we imposed our will on a very good basketball team," Anderson said.
I don't know about that. But I do know they imposed some suffocating, full-court pressure that forced the Tigers into numerous gaffes -- some of which led to uncontested baskets. That was bad enough. What was worse for poor Clemson was that it couldn't get leading scorer Trevor Booker untracked until it was too late.
The stats show that Booker scored 11, or four fewer than his season average, and big deal, right? Well, yeah, because what they don't show is that he had one basket for much of the game and was no factor in the first 10 minutes of the second half when Missouri took charge.
"He seemed frustrated," one reporter said to Missouri's Keith Ramsey. "Did you notice that?"
Ramsey forced a smile.
"Yeah, he was," he said. "I mean, to be real, I think we were fouling him a lot. He wasn't getting a lot of calls, but that's a part of the game. So that made him real frustrated."
Ramsey helped defend Booker. So did Kim English. So did a lot of guys inside, with the Tigers double- and triple-teaming the Clemson forward to minimize the damage. That strategy forced Booker to kick the ball out to the perimeter, with Clemson's shooters knocking down eight 3-pointers in the first half -- but eventually it prevailed.
Booker couldn't score, and neither could his teammates. Game. Set. Match.
"Our guys really, really stepped it up today," Anderson said. "We talked about having the focus, especially defensively coming out with energy. And I thought they brought that."
That's a big 10-4. Missouri was the ballclub it was not in the Big 12 tournament, when it was stunned by Nebraska in its opening game, and maybe it learned a lesson from the experience. It certainly looks that way, with the Tigers playing with the intensity that was missing against Nebraska.
"The Nebraska loss really put us in the right mindset," Missouri guard J.T. Tiller said, "for what we need to be doing if we want to be successful for the rest of the season. We used that as motivation last week in practice, and we just knew what we had to do to come into this game -- which was just play our game if we wanted to get the win."
Well, they played their game all right. Now it's up to Bob Huggins and West Virginia to play theirs. Huggins is waiting on your call.