Sunday, February 24, 2013

Missouri plays better at Kentucky, but road struggles continue

Last Saturday was the latest chapter in the maddening story of Missouri’s road struggles, a 90-83 overtime loss at Kentucky, which dropped Missouri to 1-7 on the road this season.

Missouri’s lone road win was by more than 40 points at wretched Mississippi State, but last Saturday lowly Vanderbilt also won by over 40 at Mississippi State. There goes the beat-Mississippi-State-by-more-than-40 neighborhood.

Like the Arkansas road loss a week before, Missouri (19-8, 8-6 in SEC play through Sunday) looked pretty decent against Kentucky (19-8, 10-4 in SEC), much better than in earlier road stumbles. The Tigers took a 13-point lead in the first half.

Alex Oriahki had a remarkable game, with 16 points and 15 rebounds. Laurence Bowers continued to improve from his post-injury lull, scoring 13 on just nine shots. Then there’s Phil Pressey, who had 27 points, 10 assists and just four turnovers.

But that fourth turnover was massive, when Pressey started to take a contested shot, then threw the ball away in midair. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Pressey had a mostly outstanding game, only to see it slip away with some bad shots and mistakes late. He’s symbolic of this Tiger team in that way.

It’s tough to get on Phil after such a remarkable game, and with him asked to carry the ballhandling role mostly by himself. But the endings to many road games have been rough.

Missouri’s seven road losses include two in overtime, two by two points and one by three points. Whether it’s coach Frank Haith’s fault, the players’, or a mix of the two, the team has struggled in close, late-game situations. While improved defensively, the Tigers still struggle to get the stops needed to slow the home team’s momentum.

Missouri has just two road games left after Kentucky, four games overall, so the narrative that this team struggles on the road is largely set. But the Tigers still have the more important matters of the SEC standings and NCAA Tournament seed to determine.

Missouri began the week in a three-way tie for fifth with Arkansas and Tennessee in the SEC, one game behind Mississippi in fourth, the last spot that gets a double bye in the SEC Tournament.

Missouri’s come-from-behind 63-60 win over Florida last week helped the NCAA picture immensely and kept the Tigers out of the dreaded “bubble” range of teams on the brink of missing the tournament. The last four games are winnable, but right now Missouri seems stuck in the 8-9 seed range, which would mean a matchup with a 1 seed in the round of 32.

Missouri should cruise to a win on Saturday against LSU at Mizzou Arena (3 p.m., SEC Network). Johnny O’Bryant III and Anthony Hickey gave Missouri fits in the LSU win in Baton Rouge earlier this season, but with Missouri having all its players healthy and playing much better, expect this to be a fairly comfortable win for the black-and-gold Tigers.

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