Campus Corner

Missouri and other tournament bubble teams can’t look too far ahead

Updated: 2014-02-24T01:45:46Z

By TOD PALMER

The Kansas City Star

— When I was a kid, going through tough times, my mom would ask, “How do you eat an elephant?”

The answer: “One bite at a time.”

The elephant in the room for the Missouri men’s basketball team is its precarious bid for a sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

And I think the same advice applies for Tigers, 19-8 and 7-7 in the Southeastern Conference after punting away a chance to seize sole possession of fourth place in the conference race with an 80-73 loss Saturday at Alabama.

If Missouri, which remains on the bubble in the opinion of most bracketologists, is going to play its way into March Madness, it will get there one bite at a time.

“We talk about it in the locker room and stuff like that,” junior guard Jordan Clarkson said. “That’s what our goal is — to make the tournament — so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The Tigers took a significant step back to the pack of mediocrity in hot pursuit by dumping one against a Crimson Tide team ranked No. 127 in the NCAA’s RPI.

“It’s in the back of everybody’s mind,” junior guard Jabari Brown said after the Alabama loss. “We just can’t have performances like this. A loss like this just makes it tougher.”

Jerry Palm at CBS Sports didn’t dump Missouri completely from the field after the loss. He as the Tigers as an 11 seed facing Memphis — and Lee’s Summit West graduate Michael Dixon, who left MU amid sexual assault allegations before last season.

The SEC Conference Tournament, which will be the last chance to leave an impression with the tourney’s selection committee, could prove to be pivotal.

To that end, Missouri missed a golden opportunity to stake claim to the conference tourney’s final double bye, which is awarded to the top four teams.

Instead, the Tigers are mired in a seven-way tie for fourth — yes, seven teams are log-jammed at 7-7 with four games remaining in the regular season.

It’s beginning to weigh on Missouri, too.

“When guys are on the court, it’s not ‘Oh, we’ve got to hit this shot so we can get in the tournament-type mindset,’ ” Brown said. “But when you’re down at half, you might think about it a little bit. When it gets late in the game and you’re down, it starts creeping into your head a little bit more.”

Here is a look at the seven teams vying for fourth place and the remaining schedule for each:

Missouri (19-8, 7-7 SEC)

NCAA RPI*: 37

ESPN RPI: 44

BPI: 35

Leading scorer: Jabari Brown, 20.2

Remaining schedule: Feb. 25 at Georgia, March 1 vs. Mississippi State, March 5 vs. Texas A&M, March 8 at Tennessee

Projected league finish: 10-8

Analysis: It’s easy to say the Tigers are better on the road this season because there haven’t been as many head-scratching, gut-churning, last-minute meltdowns. Instead, Missouri tends to spit the bit in the first half this season then rally while still coming up short. It’s up to the Tigers to prove that isn’t the case, which just might happen Tuesday at Georgia.

* Note: The NCAA’s RPI was last updated Feb. 21 and doesn’t yet reflect the weekend’s results.

Tennessee (16-11, 7-7 SEC)

NCAA RPI: 51

ESPN RPI: 58

BPI: 41

Leading scorer: Jordan McRae, 19.3

Remaining schedule: Feb. 26 at Mississippi State, March 1 vs. Vanderbilt, March 5 at Auburn, March 8 vs. Missouri

Projected league finish: 10-8

Analysis: The Volunteers have lost three of their last four, including an overtime loss Saturday at Texas A&M, which swept the season series. Tennessee has the ability and talent to run the table and snag fourth place in the league for itself, but it’s more likely the Volunteers have another stumble in them against Vanderbilt or Missouri.

LSU (16-10, 7-7 SEC)

NCAA RPI: 69

ESPN RPI: 70

BPI: 61

Leading scorer: Johnny O’Bryant III, 15.5

Remaining schedule: Feb. 26 vs. Texas A&M, March 1 at Florida, March 6 at Vanderbilt, March 8 vs. Georgia

Projected league finish: 9-9

Analysis: It’s impossible to have faith that LSU will figure out that it needs to play through O’Bryant as often as possible if the Tigers haven’t learned it through 26 games. The talent is there to run the table, perhaps even pick off Florida, but it probably won’t happen.

Arkansas (18-9, 7-7 SEC)

NCAA RPI: 74

ESPN RPI: 65

BPI: 39

Leading scorer: Bobby Portis, 13.1

Remaining schedule: Feb. 27 at Kentucky, March 1 vs. Georgia, March 5 vs. Mississippi, March 8 at Alabama

Projected league finish: 9-9

Analysis: The Razorbacks are very good at home and, wins against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State notwithstanding, terrible on the road. Of course, it’s remaining home games are tossups. Arkansas won’t win at Kentucky, which is eager for revenge after losing at the buzzer last month at Bud Walton Arena.

Mississippi (16-11, 7-7 SEC)

NCAA RPI: 76

ESPN RPI: 81

BPI: 63

Leading scorer: Marshall Henderson, 19.5

Remaining schedule: Feb. 26 vs. Alabama, March 1 at Texas A&M, March 5 at Arkansas, March 8 vs. Vanderbilt

Projected league finish: 10-8

Analysis: The Rebels have lost four in a row and five of the last six to play themselves out of NCAA Tournament contention, barring another run to the SEC Conference Tournament title. Don’t expect Mississippi to run the table either — not with a date at Arkansas looming.

Vanderbilt (15-11, 7-7 SEC)

NCAA RPI: 92

ESPN RPI: 87

BPI: 78

Leading scorer: Rod Odom, 14.2

Remaining schedule: Feb. 25 vs. Florida, March 1 at Tennessee, March 6 vs. LSU, March 8 at Mississippi

Projected league finish: 8-10

Analysis: The main advantage the Commodores have is coach Kevin Stallings, who is right up there with Billy Donovan and John Calipari as SEC coaching royalty. Of course, with little depth and a tough schedule, it’s going to be difficult for Vanderbilt to close strongly.

Texas A&M (16-11, 7-7 SEC)

NCAA RPI: 132

ESPN RPI: 118

BPI: 109

Leading scorer: Jamal Jones, 12.8

Remaining schedule: Feb. 26 at LSU, March 1 vs. Mississippi, March 5 at Missouri, March 8 vs. Auburn

Projected league finish: 8-10

Analysis: The Aggies started 3-0 in league play then dropped five straight games. However, Texas A&M has surged back into the race for fourth place by winning four of the last six, including wins against LSU and Tennessee. Still, the remaining schedule is tough.

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/todpalmer.

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