Sometimes, while watching his Tigers take the court for opening tips this season, Missouri coach Frank Haith has looked at his four-guard lineup and thought, Man, we're small. He's not wrong. While No. 5--ranked Missouri is 303rd in average height, the speedy Tigers have surged to a 16--1 record by doing just about everything well.
In his first season in Columbia, Haith has used the undersized roster he inherited to make small-ball lemonade. Thanks in part to 5'10" sophomore Phil Pressey (6.1 assists per game), who helps create catch-and-shoot opportunities for 6'3" player-of-the-year candidate Marcus Denmon (17.9 points per game) and 6'6" sharpshooter Kim English (52.3% from three), Haith's quartet of starting guards—rounded out by Phil's 6'2" older brother, Matt—have made the Tigers the nation's second-most efficient offense. (Only Florida ranks higher.) Mizzou is also second in effective field goal percentage and third in turnover percentage.
On D, English relishes locking down opposing forwards while his teammates try to disrupt on the perimeter and deny entry passes to ease the burden on 6'8" forward Ricardo Ratliffe. The 240-pound senior, comfortably the national leader in field goal percentage (77.4%), in turn helps create space for the guards on offense. "As long as we keep Ricardo in the game and he doesn't get in foul trouble," says Haith, who whistles Ratliffe for fouls in practice, "we can play through him and go inside-out."
Protecting Ratliffe, who hasn't fouled out of a game this season, grew more important with the loss of 6'8" senior forward Laurence Bowers to a torn ACL in October and the transfer of 6'8" freshman Kadeem Green earlier this month. Those developments left just two eligible scholarship players—6'1" junior Michael Dixon Jr. and 6'9" senior Steve Moore—on Missouri's bench, but the starters don't seem to be bothered by logging nearly three quarters of the team's playing time.
Haith says his team was "overwhelmed" in the paint in its 75--59 loss at No. 18 Kansas State on Jan. 7, Missouri's only defeat. The Tigers may have similar trouble playing Kansas and Baylor, conference foes that are long on talent and height (chart), and similarly sizable contenders come March. But one Big 12 assistant thinks that the Tigers' quickness and accurate shooting will give any team trouble. "They're the most unselfish team we've seen," he says. "Once they start swinging the ball, you're always at a disadvantage, chasing them." So far, few have kept up.
The average height, in inches, of the Big 12's teams (with national rank). The Tigers stand nearly an inch below the national average.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
78" [University of Kansas] (12)
[Texas A&M University] (22)
[Oklahoma University] (59)
[Baylor University] (62)
[Kansas State University] (105)
[Iowa State University] (112)
National average 76.5"
[Texas University] (214)
[Texas Tech University] (278)
[Oklahoma State University] (280)
[University of Missouri] (303)
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
BODY LANGUAGE English (24) has proved versatile for Missouri this season, averaging 15.0 points and guarding opposing forwards on D.