Missouri believed it had turned a corner after a 16-point loss Dec. 13 against Xavier at Mizzou Arena.
Certainly the Tigers have battled harder and been more competitive — the 49-point loss to Kentucky notwithstanding — during the last seven games.
Missouri also is 2-5 during that stretch.
The Tigers, 7-10 and 1-3 in the SEC, lost on a buzzer-beater against Illinois and in overtime against Oklahoma State before outlasting Lipscomb and stunning LSU.
A tough road loss at Auburn and the blowout at Kentucky followed before Saturday’s 59-51 home loss against Tennessee.
“We’re kind of in a rut again,” first-year Missouri coach Kim Anderson said Saturday. “We played pretty well against Auburn, played horrible against Kentucky, and obviously this game today wasn’t a pretty game, but it was a game that certainly was very competitive, and we weren’t able to get over the hump.”
Against Auburn and Tennessee, the Tigers had chances to win, but empty possessions against Bruce Pearl’s bunch and turnovers against Donnie Tyndall’s crew proved to be MU’s undoing.
Simply put, Missouri isn’t good enough right now to overcome late-game mistakes.
“People are tired of hearing about the youth factor, but we’ve made some freshman mistakes and we pay for it,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to get better at that aspect because we don’t have a large margin of error. We can’t waste possessions. We’ve got to value every possession we have.”
The Tigers’ next opponent, Texas A&M, which hosts Missouri at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Reed Arena in College Station, Texas, seems to have mastered that concept.
The Aggies, 11-5 and 2-2 in the SEC, play a deliberate style, but it’s brutally efficient.
As of Wednesday, Coach Billy Kennedy’s squad only ranks 165th in scoring offense at 68.2 points per game, but A&M is a top-50 team nationally in assists per game and assist-to-turnover ratio.
“A&M does a really good job of handling the basketball and getting a good shot,” Anderson said. “That’s something that we need to do, because, if we come down and fire the ball up in 15 seconds, we’re going to go back and play defense all night. … We have to do a good job offensively of executing, and that has been a weak spot for us this year.”
Another weak spot recently has been rebounding. The Tigers have been beaten on the boards in three of four conference games and allowed Auburn to shoot better than 48 percent in the other game.
“Rebounding has been a big problem for us lately,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t that much early in the season, but it has been lately. I just don’t think we’ve been as aggressive.”
Missouri is trying to avoid its worst start since 1966-67, when the Tigers finished 3-22 overall and only won two of the season’s first 16 games.
Freshman guard Montaque Gill-Caesar missed the Tigers’ first three SEC games and was ineffective in nine minutes Saturday in a home loss against Tennessee.
Gill-Caesar only played nine minutes and went zero of four from the field, but as he gets healthier and becomes more of a factor it should take some pressure off sophomore Johnathan Williams III.
Adding junior Deuce Bello, who missed five games with a suspension for academic issues and sat out against the Volunteers with an ankle injury, helps Missouri’s depth.
“The good thing is we’ve got guys back and we kind of have a full roster again,” Anderson said. “Maybe we can use some of the guys who haven’t been playing to help us out.”