COLUMBIA — Missouri coach Frank Haith isn’t about to concern himself with scenarios surrounding his team’s seeding in the Southeastern Conference Tournament next week.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
All he knows is this: a win at Tennessee in the Tigers’ regular-season finale Saturday would be beneficial on multiple levels.
“If we win, we probably will get a double bye,” Haith said. “All that other stuff? I can’t figure it out.”
Actually, with a win Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena, the Tigers clinch a bye to the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament and will be either the No. 2 or 3 seed. But if they lose, the Tigers could fall to the No. 6 seed depending on tiebreakers.
The top four seeds in the tournament advance to the quarterfinals, which are Friday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. The tournament starts Wednesday with two first-round games involving the No. 11-14 seeds. The fifth through 10th seeds earn a single bye and begin play in the second round on Thursday.
But while a double bye is clearly an admirable goal, Haith knows Tennessee won’t make it easy. Unlike Missouri, which is generally thought to be in great position to earn a NCAA Tournament bid at 22-8 and 11-6 in the SEC, the 18-11 Volunteers desperately need a win.
What’s more, the Vols have won seven of their last eight games, including wins over four teams that have beat Missouri this year — Florida, LSU, Texas A&M and Kentucky.
“The hottest team in the league,” Haith said.
In fact, the Vols’ loss to on the road to Georgia last Saturday was their first in nearly a month. Much of Tennessee’s recent success can be attributed to the play of junior guard Jordan McRae, who’s averaging 16.2 points per game, and sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes, who’s averaging 12.4 points and 9.3 rebounds a game.
Haith is concerned about containing Stokes, who is 6 feet 8 and 270 pounds.
“He’s got great, great hands and great instincts,” Haith said. “Those are the qualities to have be a great rebounder. And at 270 or so, he’s hard to move … he’s obviously very valuable in terms of what he does for that team.”
Meanwhile McRae, who is listed at 6-5 and 178 pounds, teams up with junior guard Trae Golden on the perimeter.
“He’s scoring, running (off) a lot of screens and he gets separation,” Haith said of McRae. “You want to help (on him) and then he has a quick trigger and good length to get the shot off.”
Haith, who said he recruited one of McRae’s high school teammates during his time as the head coach at Miami, said McRae has come a long way since then.
“To the point he’s one of the better players in our league right now,” Haith said.
For Missouri, which is 2-7 on the road this season, it’s yet another chance to prove it can hang with a good team in a hostile environment — and in a game with postseason implications.
“If we don’t have an ‘A’ game, we’re not going to win,” Haith said. “You’re going to get everything they’ve got and we understand that, and that’s what makes it fun. We’re playing for something, too — to get a double bye and improve our seeding and try to make the NCAA Tournament.”
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