Sunday, January 26, 2014

Missouri has rough start to SEC play

Missouri got off to a rough start in conference play, losing in overtime to Georgia last week before clinging on for a 70-68 win at Auburn.

Neither of those opponents are especially good, but the Georgia loss at Mizzou Arena was particularly damaging, putting the Tigers a step back as soon as SEC play started and ending what had been the nation’s longest home winning streak. Georgia was ranked outside the top 200 in the Ratings Percentage Index, which is one of the criteria used by the selection committee for the NCAA Tournament. Coach Frank Haith said his team was “too cool” after that loss. Even though several SEC games will be against teams who aren’t very good teams, Missouri can’t afford to coast, even against the Georgias of the world.

As Missouri (13-2, 1-1 in SEC play) wade deeper into its 18-game conference schedule, we still don’t know how good the Tigers are. The Tigers have some good pieces; Jordan Clarkson can take over a game, Jabari Brown can be a very good shooter, Earnest Ross and Johnathan Williams III are athletes who can contribute in a lot of ways. But the Tigers seem to lose their edge sometimes against lesser opponents. We don’t know Missouri is a bad team, but the Tigers haven’t show much against quality competition yet.

There are some tougher games ahead, although plenty of winnable ones remain in a fairly down SEC. After a road game at Vanderbilt Thursday night (6 p.m. on ESPN2), Missouri hosts Alabama at Mizzou Arena on Saturday (1 p.m. on ESPN).

Alabama (7-8, 1-1 in SEC play through Sunday) opened SEC play with a five-point win over Vanderbilt before losing 66-58 at Georgia last Saturday. The Crimson Tide are led by senior guard Trevor Releford, who is scoring 18.2 points per game while dishing out 2.8 assists per game. Releford, from Kansas City, scored 26 points in the Tide’s loss at Mizzou Arena last season.

On paper, Missouri should win this game. Even with the Georgia loss, Missouri is 41-2 at Mizzou Arena under Haith. That loss was an early handicap, but Missouri can still win its first regular season conference title since 1994, provided it doesn’t have more stumbles against inferior teams.

Kentucky and Florida are the teams to beat in the SEC this season, and Missouri only plays them one each. Those games come in a tough four-game stretch starting later this month. From Jan. 28 through Feb. 8, Missouri plays at Arkansas, home against Kentucky, at Florida and at Mississippi. Winning even two of those four games would be big for the Tigers.

But Missouri has a few more games to get to playing better basketball before that tough stretch, including Saturday’s home game with Alabama. The Tide can be scrappy, keeping it close in games with Duke and unbeaten Wichita State earlier this season. But Missouri needs to win this type of game if it’s going to hang in the SEC race and make the NCAA Tournament.

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