Missouri has alternated wins and losses during its first six Southeastern Conference games, which has sent the team’s RPI — a tool relied upon heavily by the NCAA Tournament selection committee — plummeting from around 20th in the nation to No. 57.
Suddenly, the Tigers find themselves on the bubble for March Madness by most projections — and in a conference with precious few opportunities for statement wins, that makes the next handful of games paramount.
Starting with a 6 p.m. Tuesday game at Arkansas, Missouri will face the SEC’s top three teams in the standings in its next four games.
“The stretch we’ve got coming up is tough, but all I’m worried about is Arkansas on Tuesday night,” MU coach Frank Haith said.
For good reason: the Tigers have never won in six tries at Bud Walton Arena.
During the last four seasons, the Razorbacks are 60-8 at home — an .882 winning percentage — and only 8-38 in road or neutral-court contests (.174).
“It’s a game on the road and a tough place to go get a win,” Haith said. “They’ve already had some big wins in there already, so that’s our focus right now.”
After the Arkansas game, the Tigers play host to Kentucky, which is 5-1 in SEC play, on Saturday at Mizzou Arena. Then road trips to Florida, 6-0 in the conference, and Mississippi, 5-1 in the SEC, follow next week.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Tigers junior Jabari Brown, who leads the SEC at 19.5 points per game. “I always want to play against the teams the media says are the best teams in the league. I’m looking forward to challenging them and showing what we can do. I love playing against the best.”
Of course, merely playing the best won’t cut it right now for Missouri if it hopes to reach the NCAA Tournament for a sixth consecutive season.
Still, MU’s players insist it’s not hard to follow Haith’s lead and focus solely on the Razorbacks — who are coached by Haith’s predecessor with the Tigers, Mike Anderson.
“We just go out there and try to win games,” Tigers senior Earnest Ross said. “That’s what we’re focused on as far as winning games and going out there trying to do what’s next. That’s Arkansas right now.”
Brown said: “They’re going to be loud in there and it’s going to be hostile.”
He then added, “I like those types of games. They’re going to be riled up. We’re going to be riled up too. … Arkansas is a team that I enjoy playing. They’re a good team and they’re scrappy. There’s some tension between Arkansas and Missouri, so we’re looking forward to playing them.”