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Missouri's pressure poses threat to West Virginia in second round

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Do you have West Virginia going far in your bracket?

Elite Eight? Final Four? Farther?

If so, you have cause for concern.

It's not because of anything the Mountaineers have done wrong. On the contrary, Bob Huggins' team is one of the hottest still standing, coming off a Big East tournament title and 77-50 NCAA first-round drubbing of 15th seed Morgan State here Friday.

It's a more a case of the second-round opponent lying in wait for West Virginia on Sunday: Missouri. If the 10th-seeded Tigers play the way they did in Friday's 86-78 win over No. 7 seed Clemson, they'll cause problems for the Mountaineers simply with their chosen style of play.

Missouri coach Mike Anderson is a Nolan Richardson disciple who preaches his mentor's "40 Minutes of Hell" style of press-and-run basketball. The Tigers (23-10) entered the tourney on the heels of a mini-funk (they inexplicably fell 75-60 to 14-17 Nebraska in the Big 12 tourney's opening round) but looked on top of their game Friday against Clemson, notching 15 steals and shooting 51.7 percent.

During the week following Mizzou's early Big 12 ouster, "We didn't relax -- we got after it," said guard Zaire Taylor. "We got back to our roots of 40 Minutes of Hell. Some of the things we were doing in practice, we hadn't done since before the season."

Missouri's goal is the same against any foe -- they want to press relentlessly, force turnovers and beat you down the floor before you have time to blink. The Tigers outscored Clemson 20-5 on points off turnovers and 22-2 on fast-break points.

Enter West Virginia (28-6), an unabashed half-court team that would much prefer a final score in the 50s than the 80s and plays much of the time without a true point guard, seemingly the most important position on the floor when facing a press.

"It comes down to who controls the tempo the most, whether they can make it a slow game or we can make it a helter-skelter, run-and-gun game," said Taylor. "Sometimes it can be easier to get it [faster] because that's the way most kids like to play."

A year ago, Anderson's Tigers ran and pressed their way to the Elite Eight before falling to top seed Connecticut. That Missouri team was more consistent, however, and was a No. 3 seed in the tourney. This year's younger edition slid to a No. 10 seed after losing three of its last four, most notably a 77-56 home rout by rival Kansas and the aforementioned 75-60 Big 12 tourney loss to the hapless Huskers.

Losing starting forward Justin Safford to a season-ending ACL injury in late February didn't help, and forward Laurence Bowers has been playing with torn wrist ligaments. Meanwhile, top scorer Kim English had been the brunt of criticism among Tigers fans for his poor outside shooting of late -- in particular, his tendency to fade away on his shot. He'd even been hearing it from his father.

On Friday, however, English drained 4 of 7 three-pointers and scored 20 points, his highest total since Feb. 6. Prior to the tourney, English watched a YouTube mashup of former Davidson star Stephen Curry's 2008 NCAA run.

"He was just always so poised on the court, he never showed emotion, and that led to straight up, straight down [shots]," said English. "It's like he's in a phone booth."

Missouri will need another phone-booth night from Engish if it hopes to challenge West Virginia and its prolific scorer, Da'Sean Butler. The Mountaineers struggled against the press early in the season, most notably in a Dec. 17 game against Cleveland State it nearly coughed away.

On Friday, however, Huggins -- who faced Anderson's UAB teams while at Cincinnati -- expressed little reservation about Mizzou's press.

"We're ready to handle it. I can tell you that," he said. "We've spent a lot of time on it since the debacle in Cleveland, for a lot of reasons."

There's no question the Mountaineers are more talented than Mizzou, which lacks a premier player like Butler or a dynamic scorer/rebounder like Devin Ebanks. If the Tigers pull off the upset, it will be a testament to Anderson's system.

"I don't think anyone presses like we do, and we do it every day," said Anderson, whose ninth-seeded UAB team knocked off No. 1 seed Kentucky in a 2004 second-round game. "I think it benefits us as we get to tournament play."

Consider yourself warned, West Virginia backers.

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