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Missouri rides its pressure defense to the NCAA Sweet 16

From left, Missouri’s Laurence Bowers, Steve Moore and Keith Ramsey chase a rebound during practice a day before their game against West Region No. 2 seed Memphis. Missouri has allowed an average of 63.4 points during its five postseason games.

Associated Press

From left, Missouri’s Laurence Bowers, Steve Moore and Keith Ramsey chase a rebound during practice a day before their game against West Region No. 2 seed Memphis. Missouri has allowed an average of 63.4 points during its five postseason games.

As he listened to coach Mike Anderson provide the voice-over for the action unfolding on the screen, Missouri junior guard J.T. Tiller didn't want to let on that a player reference or two eluded him.

Corey Beck?

Yeah, wait a sec, that's, um …

"I didn't know who he was," Tiller confessed.

He can be forgiven. The tape the Tigers were watching that day before the season was from the early 1990s. But you can be sure that Tiller and the rest of the Tigers have since learned the names of Beck, Clint McDaniel, Scotty Thurman, Corliss William­son and their Arkansas teammates.

Those players exquisitely executed coach Nolan Richardson's innovative, nonstop pressure defense that was dubbed "40 Minutes of Hell," carrying the Razorbacks to the pinnacle of college basketball.

Those players represent the gold standard for this year's Tigers. After all, Anderson, who spent more than two decades with Richardson, both as a player (at Tulsa) then as his assistant at Arkansas, is trying to replicate the style of ball he knows best — calling it the "Fastest 40 Minutes of Basketball."

"We're doing it a lot better," said Anderson, who was hired three years ago today after four successful seasons as the coach at UAB. "We're progressing in the right direction."

At a dizzying clip.

His Tigers (30-6) have set a school record for wins and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2002. The No. 3-seeded Tigers meet No. 2 Memphis (33-3) in the NCAA West Region semifinals tonight in Glendale, Ariz.

Interestingly, Memphis' last Conference USA loss was March 2, 2006, to an Alabama-Birmingham team coached by Anderson.

"If you talk to any of our players, they know we're going to hang our hats on our defense," Anderson, 49, said.

That has always been his team's starting point, no matter whose names were on the back of the jerseys.

"Mike may have been one of the toughest individual guards I ever coached," Richardson said. "He would take a charge on a Mack truck. He was incredible. I remember one night we were playing Creighton and we're down 20 with 10 minutes to play and he took seven charges during that period for us to win the ball game. Seven."

And he expects that kind of effort from his players.

Missouri forces turnovers, 18.4 a game or one for every four of its opponents' possessions, which helps explain why teams average a mere 66.6 points (63.4 in five postseason games). The Tigers turn those turnovers into an average of 21 points; no wonder they average 81.1 points, fifth nationally.

"People think we're just hully-gully," Anderson said, "but I think it's a thing of beauty."

And there is an order to that apparent chaos. The players must know how to pressure and trap, and they must read and react to the opposing players as well as to each other to do it well.

"It takes a lot of dedication and a lot of 6 a.m. (practices)," said fifth-year senior forward DeMarre Carroll, Anderson's nephew who transferred to Missouri after two years at Vanderbilt.

Nine Tigers average between 11 and 28 minutes and a 10th is averaging a little more than nine. Anderson has an "honor policy" for his players to signal when they need a rest, and he trusts them all to adhere to it. They in turn have responded to such freedom with more trust in him.

"That's been the secret to our basketball team," he said. "They care and they share."

"Mike doesn't have the talent some of these teams have, but he doesn't have to because of their style, because of their conditioning and because of their trust in one another," added Richardson, sounding like a proud papa. "With this style, you're not building around a particular player. You're building around a team."

And folks appreciate that.

"We broke out some (Arkansas) tape before the season and said, 'This is what we want to look like,' " Tiller said, adding the guy Beck was "amazing" to watch. "We've been working toward that ever since."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com.

Missouri rides its pressure defense to the NCAA Sweet 16 03/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 26, 2009 6:40am]
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