With these wins, Missouri (21-8, 10-6 in SEC play through Sunday) began this week having won five of its last seven games. The only two losses were the agonizing last-minute loss at Arkansas and the very respectable overtime loss at Kentucky.
This raises the question, is Missouri improving at the right time to make a run in the NCAA Tournament?
The case for Missouri making a March Madness run would have to start with rebounding, especially offensive rebounding. LSU jumped ahead of Missouri last Saturday with some hot shooting. But Missouri kept grinding away on the glass, getting second-chance points and points in the paint, eventually reeling in LSU.
Tom Izzo’s Michigan State teams are annual March stalwarts, often outperforming their seed with great rebounding. It’s as though the Spartans’ honor is on the line every time a missed shot bounces off the rim, up for grabs. For Missouri, second nationally in rebounds per game, dominating the glass could help spring an NCAA Tournament upset. Senior Alex Oriakhi leads the charge, with double-digit rebounds in five of the last seven games.
Beyond that, Tiger fans have seen how good the “good” Phil Pressey can be. Phil has had some bad moments late in close games, but when he’s playing well, he is a game changer.
But there is also certainly a case against these Tigers making a March run. The NCAA Tournament will not be played at Mizzou Arena, and the Tigers’ body of work away from home isn’t great. The Tigers still have some defensive lapses. (LSU was wide open for plenty of those threes it buried against Missouri last Saturday.)
Also, it’s tough to make a run without winning some close game in the NCAA Tournament, and Missouri has struggled in close games this season. The Tigers have won some close games, notably the Florida game, but Missouri’s possessions late in close games have been more misses than hits. Too often, Pressey dribbles a bunch then fires up a tough shot. Getting good ball movement is crucial in these situations, and Missouri probably won’t go far without it.
So what happens? Tournament matchups will no doubt be a big factor, and every seed Missouri can improve helps its chances.
Missouri has a chance to do that with its season-finale at Tennessee on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPN).
Tennessee (17-11, 9-7 in SEC through Sunday) had won six straight games to move into the NCAA Tournament discussion, although the Volunteers then suffered a loss at Georgia last Saturday. Tennessee plays good defense but struggles to score at times, ranking 203rd in the nation at 66.4 points per game at the start of the week.
The top four teams in the 14-team SEC Tournament get a “double-bye” into the quarterfinals. This game could well determine if Missouri, which is tied for fourth entering the final week, gets a double-bye. So the stakes are high for this one, but in March, they get noticeably higher each week.