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February 10, 2012

Game of the Year...Again





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On the surface, Frank Haith's messages to his team seem a little bit mixed. In the locker room after a thrilling come-from-behind 74-71 win over Kansas on Saturday night, Haith told his team they'd be spending the night in a hotel, not getting too caught up in the excitement that had engulfed Columbia.

On Monday, Haith told assembled reporters, "It's been a tremendous run. I've talked to our team about this. I want them to enjoy this ride. We're all enjoying it. It's a great run."

Of course, in the next breath, Haith said, "We've still got a lot of work to do."

Some would call that a mixed message. Others would call it balance. Either way, like most of his instructions this season, both viewpoints seem to be getting through to his team.

"We don't really think about ESPN or being on TV or all that stuff," senior big man Steve Moore said. "Yeah, all that stuff's cool, but at the end of the day, you have to play basketball."

"We can't really look at our record, let alone anyone else's," Michael Dixon Jr. said. "We've got to play against Baylor and that's what we're worried about."

For the third time in four Saturdays, Missouri will play a game that is generally accepted as the biggest in all of college basketball. On January 21st, it was a showdown with once-beaten Baylor in Waco. The Bears were still ranked third in the nation, Missouri fifth. The Tigers won 89-88 in a game that was made that close only by a flurry of late three-pointers by Baylor, including one as time expired. Last weekend, ESPN brought its College GameDay crew to Columbia for a day-long celebration of Tiger hoops. That night, the fourth-ranked Tigers staged their own furious finish, an 11-0 run that dropped the then eighth-ranked Jayhawks. This week, it is Baylor again. The Bears, for now, are ranked sixth, though they'll drop even with a win because of Wednesday's 68-54 thumping at the hands of Kansas. Mizzou is back up to fourth in the polls, looking to hold that spot with its third win over a top-ten opponent in 21 days. Two days ahead of tipoff, only one college basketball game is highlighted on ESPN's ever-present crawl: Baylor-Mizzou. At this point, the Tigers are getting somewhat used to the glare of that national spotlight.

"Coach Haith always tells us if we want to get where we want to be, we've got to play these games and perform," Dixon said. "Not let the hoopla and the hysteria around the game get to us. I think, as a senior-laden team, we've done a pretty good job of that. Biggest game of the year? I guess you could say that, but we've played in a couple of those this year. I think it's gotten kind of repetitive. It's just basketball. It's just another game."

This game, perhaps even more so than the first two, will have a monumental impact on the Big 12 standings. With a win, Missouri makes the Big 12 a two-team race with an outright league title potentially resting on a February 25th game in Lawrence. If they lose, the Tigers would quite possibly have to win in Allen Fieldhouse simply to share the crown and prevent Kansas from being the outright league champ for a fourth year in a row.

"I don't think we ever can get off track of what we've done all year," Haith said. "We've focused on each game in itself and it being the most important game. Baylor's no different than Oklahoma, nor Kansas, in terms of it's our most important game because it's the next game."

"We try not to pay attention to it," said Ricardo Ratliffe, who put up a career-high 27 on Baylor in Waco. "We're just going to go out and try to outplay those guys."

Despite all of that, the Tigers stay focused on Haith's main message: Control what you can control. The rest will take care of itself. They expect an angry Baylor squad to put forth its best effort at Mizzou Arena, where the Tigers have been beaten only three times in the last four seasons.

"We know we're playing a top ten team, so it's a great opportunity for us," Haith said. "A team that we have beaten earlier in the year that we expect to come in with a little bit of the revenge factor. And we know that we're going to get their best game."

"Whether they win or lose, we all need to be focused and ready to play," Moore said. "Being Missouri, being fortunate enough to be nationally ranked, we're going to get everybody's best shot."

To stay on track for their first--and last--Big 12 regular season title, the Tigers have to win on Saturday. Asked if his team could lose to Baylor and still win the Big 12, Haith had a simple answer:

"We don't plan on focusing on losing. I haven't thought about that."

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