Missouri has plenty at stake Saturday when it wraps up the regular season against Tennessee in Knoxville.
The Tigers know it, and coach Frank Haith isn’t downplaying it.
“It’s a big game, and obviously it could do wonders for us in terms of building our resume and getting us two games over .500 in league play,” Haith said. “All those things are positive and it strengthens your deal to get into the NCAA Tournament, so it’s a really big game.”
Missouri, 21-9 and 9-8 in the SEC, beat the Volunteers, 19-11 and 10-7 in the SEC, three weeks ago at Mizzou Arena. But after stubbing their toe a couple times down the stretch — most notably at Alabama — the Tigers are in must-win mode with respect to a sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Again, Haith doesn’t want Missouri shrinking away from that fact.
“I want them to embrace this,” he said. “This is a great opportunity. It’s exciting, it’s fun and you’ve got a chance … to prove your standing by playing a team like Tennessee here at the end of the season.”
The Tigers sit at No. 55 in the ESPN RPI ranking, while the Volunteers are 51st. The winner likely vaults into the top 50.
Missouri is tied with LSU, which plays host to third-place Georgia on Saturday, for sixth in the SEC standings.
With a win against Tennessee and an Arkansas loss at Alabama — admittedly, a long shot — the Tigers still can claim the No. 4 seed in the SEC Tournament and a bye to the quarterfinals.
Still, it’s the NCAA Tournament implications that are most important.
“They’re an NCAA Tournament team, so if you beat them twice it definitely helps you,” Haith said.
Currently, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Missouri sidelined for March Madness, as does USA Today’s Shelby Mast.
Jerry Palm at CBS Sports still has the Tigers making the cut as one of the last four in, earning a date in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio.
That would be fine with Missouri, which just wants to play in the NCAA Tournament for a school-record sixth consecutive season.
Of course, to solidify their case, the Tigers must take care of business at Tennessee.
That means finding a way to contain the Volunteers’ frontcourt.
During a 75-70 victory Feb. 15, Missouri limited senior Jeronne Maymon and junior Jarnell Stokes to 18 points — a feat that will be tough to repeat.
“They almost fouled us all out,” Haith said. “Obviously, they’re a chore. Our ability to defend them and have some success against them is within our numbers. It won’t be one guy or two guys, it’s going to be a collective group of all five guys that will have to go in and produce. We can’t count on just one guy to do, because those guys are too good.”
Stokes finished with 13 points on six-of-seven shooting. He was unstoppable, but Tennessee didn’t utilize him in the second half and instead relied on senior Jordan McRae, who popped off for 31 points.
Expect the Volunteers to make a more concerted effort to control the paint in the rematch.
“Surely, (Stokes) is going to be a focal point of what they do offensively,” Haith said. “He always is. He did a pretty job on Maymon, and he’s a very talented guy. The biggest thing we’re going to have to do with both those guys is keep them off the glass. They are relentless on the offensive boards, and they’re big. You can’t move them.”