After a fairly weak home nonconference schedule and then a slog of home conference games against bad SEC teams, Missouri fans get a welcome change on Saturday when Mississippi comes to Mizzou Arena for a nationally televised game (noon on CBS).
With Missouri (16-5, 5-3 in SEC play through Sunday) starting the week fifth in the SEC standings and Ole Miss (17-4, 6-2 in SEC) tied for second, the game has big implications for the race to finish second in the conference behind juggernaut Florida. There is also a revenge factor, after Ole Miss rolled Missouri in early January in Oxford.
But most of all, and it’s a bit hard to believe I’m saying this, Missouri needs a win like this to still feel good about its NCAA Tournament positioning, after a ghastly loss last week at LSU, which was in last place in the SEC at the time. Missouri recovered to an extent by smashing Auburn at Mizzou Arena last Saturday.
But the LSU loss was a stain on the Tigers’ tournament resume, and it’s now fair to assume every road game, no matter how bad the opponent, is a threat for Missouri. I think the Tigers will find a way to win a couple of road games at some point (they have six remaining, starting with Texas A&M at 8 p.m. Thursday), but with those road woes in mind, piling up wins at home is crucial. Also, with the SEC not being a very good basketball league this season, chances to get quality wins are less frequent.
Ole Miss lost some of the shine off its hot early start when the SEC’s heavyweight programs, Kentucky and Florida, re-established some order by beating the Rebels last week. Still, Ole Miss would be a quality win. Missouri’s best wins to date are neutral site contests against Virginia Commonwealth and Illinois, which is getting hammered in the rugged Big Ten.
Mississippi’s most recognizable player is guard Marshall Henderson, who seems willing to engage in verbal jousting with opponents, referees and even his own fans. Henderson’s emotions can be a bit much sometimes, but his passion does bring some flavor to a conference needing it in basketball, and he can get hot shooting.
Henderson leads the team in scoring, at nearly 20 points per game, although the Rebels are hardly a one-man band. Senior forward Murphy Holloway began the week averaging a double-double at 14.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Guard Jarvis Summers and forward Reginald Buckner are solid supporting players.
Missouri is 80-4 at Mizzou Arena over the last five seasons, since the start of the 2008-09 season. The Arena can have lulls at times, especially against the less intense home schedule so far this season. But at big moments, such as the surprisingly close home game with South Carolina or when the Tigers are on a run, Mizzou Arena shows it teeth and can give the Tigers a huge boost.
I could see the game with Ole Miss going either way, but if Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross are making their threes, Missouri will be tough to beat.