WASHINGTON ——Chicago, Cleveland or Tulsa would have been much more convenient NCAA tournament venues for the Missouri Tigers than the nation's capital.
Ricardo Ratliffe excepted.
Missouri's starting power forward and No. 2 rebounder hails from Hampton, and the three-hour drive to Washington for Missouri's Thursday game against Cincinnati will be a snap for Ratliffe's mom, brother and about 10 friends from Kecoughtan High.
"As long as I see my mom, I'm good," Ratliffe said Wednesday before practice.
A single parent, Kismyt Ratliffe ventured twice this season to Columbia, Mo. Ricardo has her name tattooed on his left arm and "Dear Mama, You Are Appreciated" inked on his chest.
"She had to be the tough one and the sweet one at the same time," Ratliffe said.
Tough and sweet also describe Ratliffe's debut season at Missouri (23-10).
A 6-foot-8 junior transfer from Central Florida Community College, he averages 10.5 points and 6.1 rebounds and shoots a team-best 57.5 percent. Conference media voted him Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.
But Ratliffe's numbers have faded since a strong November in which he scored 22 points against Georgetown and snared 14 rebounds versus LaSalle — both are season-bests. In the Tigers' last five games, he's averaging 5.4 points and 2.8 rebounds.
"It's been slow for me," said Ratliffe, last season's national junior college player of year. "I've figured some things out, but I'm not where I should be. … I just think I can play better. I think I should be doing a lot more to contribute to this team winning, and I will."
Ratliffe believes he's most-improved on defense, especially his lateral movement. This from checking smaller teammates such as Matt Pressey and Michael Dixon in practice.
"You have to get better playing against that quickness," Ratliffe said.
Assistant coach Melvin Watkins works primarily with the Tigers' frontcourt players and said Ratliffe has struggled with the reads in Missouri's motion offense and guarding opponents farther from the basket. But Watkins praised Ratliffe's attitude.
"He's a very coachable kid," Watkins said. "He's one of those kids who will put up a wall if he doesn't trust you. But he's been a positive kid for us, and he's come to trust us. I think you'll see his game continue to improve."
Missouri, which reached the Elite Eight in 2009 and the second round last season, could use an improved Ratliffe against Cincinnati. The Bearcats (23-10) rank second in the Big East in rebounding margin, and their starting front line includes 6-11 Ibrahima Thomas and 6-9, 265-pound Yancy Gates.
"The NCAA tournament is the best of the best," Ratliffe said. "You have to play very hard, or you will be sent home."