Missouri hopes conference play can act as a reset button in hopes of avoiding another lost season.
For the second time in Kim Anderson’s three seasons as head coach, the Tigers (5-7) arrive at the brink of SEC action with a sub-.500 record.
Opening the conference slate Wednesday at home against LSU, Mizzou hopes to put the misery of a four-game losing streak to rest after two months of turmoil.
The Tigers took then-No. 11 Xavier to overtime on Nov. 17 in Orlando, but the next six weeks brought an academic scandal, the transfer of promising freshman forward Willie Jackson and a trio of embarrassing home losses against North Carolina Central, Eastern Illinois and Lipscomb.
“Obviously, our nonconference performance hasn’t been to our expectations, but I really think our guys are looking forward to kind of the start of a new season,” Anderson said.
Not that SEC play promises any respite.
Only three conference teams are ranked outside kenpom.com’s top 100 and Mizzou, which is ranked No. 179, lags well behind LSU (117) and Mississippi State (118).
“It gets a little tougher,” sophomore guard K.J. Walton said. “Teams are obviously better than Lipscomb and North Carolina Central or whatever, but you really just have to dig in.”
Washington State (193) and Oregon State (212) from the Pac-12 are the only Power Five teams with a lower ranking.
The NCAA’s RPI formula, which places the Tigers at No. 265, paints an even bleaker picture of the program’s stature as conference play begins.
“We’ve had so far a pretty rough start, but we’re optimistic that we can come in and win (Wednesday) and win the next game,” junior forward Jordan Barnett said.
The Tigers open conference play coming off a loss for the first time since 1999-2000, when Quin Snyder’s first MU team dropped games against Kentucky and Winthrop before entering the Big 12 slate.
“We’re not pleased with how we performed the first half of the season,” sophomore forward and Blue Springs South graduate Kevin Puryear said. “Getting this 0-0 start to SEC play, we’re excited about it and ready to make our mark. … We always talk about proving everybody wrong.”
It’s been 50 years since Mizzou entered league play on a losing skid of at least four games in nonconference play.
Understandably, Tigers fans are weary of comparisons to Bob Vanatta’s final season — a 3-22 campaign in 1966-67 that ushered in the Norm Stewart era — but that’s the current reality.
“We’re just going to move forward and do the best we can,” Anderson said.
That starts with making shots. Only nine of NCAA Division I basketball’s 351 teams are shooting worse than Mizzou’s 27.2-percent clip from three-point range, but there’s also a massive confidence issue underlying the team’s struggles.
“When somebody makes a bad play or we have a lapse, it just deflates our whole team and we kind of have these mental lapses throughout the whole game,” Walton said. “We’ve got to stop doing that and just focus in for 40 minutes.”
Mental toughness and consistency are key.
“It comes down to making winning plays and being consistent — things we’ve struggled to do in the past — but, if we play like we’re capable of playing consistently, we can beat the best of them,” Puryear said. “The effort, energy and focus has to be there.”
SEC play is Mizzou’s chance to prove it.