By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
A two-month grind — also known as the MIAA basketball race — accelerates to full speed this week.
“It’s fast and furious from this point on,” Missouri Southern coach Robert Corn said.
While it’s still early, the Lions open a key conference stretch tonight at home against co-leader Northwest Missouri State.
The Bearcats are one of four teams who have won their first two conference games, and the Lions are one-half game back at 1-0, tied with Washburn.
In addition, tonight’s game tips off a six-game stretch that has the Lions play four games at the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center and face five teams for the only time this season.
“Being at home, we have to take advantage of it,” Corn said. “In years past when we played everyone home-and-home, you could come back and avenge an earlier loss, but now since we are playing 10 teams only one time, it’s really important to protect the home court. Down the road that could be huge when it comes to a tiebreaker.”
The Bearcats, who beat the Lions 67-65 in Maryville in last season’s showdown for a share of the league championship, are off to another strong start this season despite the fact that all-conference — and Missouri Southern killer — guard DeShaun Cooper has not played because of tendonitis. His only action to date is limited minutes in an exhibition game against Missouri.
Senior guards DeAngelo Hailey and Alex Sullivan average 14.7 and 13.5, respectively, to lead the Bearcats, who outscore their opponents 71-59.
“Northwest is big and strong on the inside,” Corn said. “They shoot the ball well from the 3 (38 percent). They will set good screens, and they will crash the boards (6.5 rebounding advantage). It will be important that we have the mindset going in to make sure we are ready to match their physicality.”
After returning from Christmas break, the Lions won an exhibition game over Livin’ The Dream 83-62.
“Everyone came back in good shape and with a good attitude,” Corn said. “They are starting to understand and buy into what Ronnie (Ressel) and Jeff (Boschee, assistant coaches) are teaching. I think there’s no doubt we are a better team now than we were a month ago.”
Lions junior guard Marquis Addison ranks seventh in the conference scoring race at 16.7 points per game. Junior forward Jordan Talbert adds 13.3 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds — sixth in the league.
The Lions average 67.7 points per game, four more than their opponents, and they own a 1.8 rebounding advantage. The Lions are shooting 43 percent from the floor, 27 percent from beyond the arc and 70 percent at the foul line.