ST. LOUIS — To solidify NCAA Tournament hopes, conventional wisdom said Missouri needed to go at least 2-2 during a rugged four-game stretch of its schedule, which wraps up Saturday against Mississippi at Tad Smith Coliseum in Oxford, Miss.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
The Tigers, 16-6 and 4-5 in the SEC, started off with a win at Arkansas then played tough — but ultimately lost — against both Kentucky and Florida.
That basically makes the game against the Rebels, 15-7 and 6-3 in the SEC, a virtual must-win.
That sentiment is backed by expert bracket projections, including ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, who has Missouri as the last team in the 68-team field.
Jerry Palm of CBS also has the Tigers as one of the last teams in as does USA Today, while SB Nation has Missouri as the first team out.
In other words, the Tigers are squarely on the tourney bubble, which nobody understands better than the team itself.
“We need to get back winning, there’s no question about that,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said.
Obviously, the sooner the better, too.
Fortunately, the Tigers’ confidence is surging a bit after taking the Wildcats to the wire and leading the Gators for 30 minutes at O’Connell Center.
“All these games are real critical for us to get back on the right track,” junior Jordan Clarkson said. “If we bring the same intensity we brought against Florida and Kentucky, anybody in the league can get up to play them, but if we play like we played against them, I don’t think we’ll have a problem winning games.”
Here are a few keys to beating Mississippi:
1. Get Williams going
Johnathan Williams III, a freshman forward from Memphis, has shown flashes of stellar play, but he’s also looked like a freshman for much of the last month.
A return to form by Williams, who had 12 rebounds at Arkansas but hasn’t scored in double figures since Dec. 28 at North Carolina State, would be massive for Missouri.
“He has been shook a little bit since the Vanderbilt game, but we need his production to continue to get better too,” Haith said.
Perhaps a strong contingent of family and friends will buoy Williams, who grew up roughly an hour from Oxford.
“There’s a party bus coming from Memphis,” Haith joked.
“I should have a lot of family there, but I just want to get the win,” Williams said. “That’s the most important thing to me right now.”
2. Don’t forget Summers
Everybody knows senior Marshall Henderson and he draws (and deserves) much of the defensive attention. He’s capable of taking over a game at any time, which he demonstrated during last season’s SEC and NCAA Tournaments.
“Yeah, he’s the same guy,” Haith said. “He’s a really good scorer, great shooter. He plays with a lot of moxie, a lot of confidence. I think his hair’s longer maybe, but other than that he’s the same guy.”
Of course, he’s not the only perimeter scoring threat.
Junior Jarvis Summers averages 17.5 points. While Henderson shoots 36 percent from the field and from three-point range, Summers is a 50-percent shooters and shoots 52 percent from behind the arc.
“He’s really improved,” Haith said. “He’s made great strides in his game. He plays with great pace. His numbers are really good. He takes really good shots. He’s really taken the next step as a player.”
3. Dominate the boards
Missouri ranks 22nd in the nation in rebounding margin at plus-6.5, while Mississippi ranks 286th at minus-3.1.
The Tigers need to exploit that rebounding gap, creating second-chance points and limiting the Rebels to one shot per possession.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.