Missouri coach Frank Haith got straight to the point Monday when asked how the Tigers can fix a defense that got roasted in a surprising loss at Alabama.
“Play harder,” Haith said.
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In fact, that was the unofficial theme of a brief media session before boarding a plane for Athens, Ga., where Missouri plays Georgia at 8 Tuesday night.
They’ve got to “play harder,” junior Jabari Brown said, echoing Haith’s prescription for improving the defense. “We shored up some stuff that we saw on film, so we’re going to try to use that in the game.”
Still, it comes down to effort more than execution for the Tigers, 19-8 overall and 7-7 in the SEC.
“Individual toughness, I think that’s what it is,” senior Earnest Ross said. “Your mindset has to be out there to give everything you have. When you don’t as an individual, or as a player, just knowing what’s at stake, that’s just individual toughness. Once we get our individual toughness on the team up to par, we’ll all be fine.”
Entering the season, the Tigers hoped to establish a defensive identity, especially after struggling at that end of the floor last season.
Instead, Missouri ranks 151st in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 69.4 points per game, and 57th in field-goal percentage defense at 40.7 percent. Both figures are marginally worse than last season.
Missouri had some encouraging early-season results, allowing more than 71 points only one time in its first 15 games.
But starting with a 78-75 loss at Vanderbilt in mid-January, the Tigers’ defense has permitted at least 71 points in eight of their last 12 games.
In Missouri’s first 19 games, no opponent shot better than 44.3 percent, including 10 teams that shot worse than 40 percent.
It has been a different story the last seven games. Every team the Tigers have played shot at least 40 percent, including three that shot 50 percent or better.
Of course, Missouri’s defense hit a new low against the Crimson Tide, a team with moribund postseason hopes that entered play averaging fewer than 68 points per game and shooting 44 percent.
Alabama scorched the Tigers’ defense to the tune of 57.4 percent from the field in a surprising 80-73 victory.
“They played harder than us down there, so I think that was the main thing,” Brown said. “There’s always going to be X’s and O’s, but I think effort is the main part of defense.”
Ross admitted that it was frustrating to be talking about a lack of effort at this stage of the season, but he expects a better effort against the Bulldogs, 15-11 and 9-5, who are alone in third place in the SEC standings.
“With what’s at stake, I just think it’s very frustrating as a player, knowing that if you don’t give everything you have at this point of time,” Ross said. “I don’t understand what’s going on. But our mindset is right going into this next game.”
Brown also doesn’t think it’s too late for Missouri to turn things around, even though time is running out in the chase for a sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I don’t feel like it’s gone off the tracks, but I just feel like we’ve got to recommit ourselves to that end of the floor,” Brown said. “You’ve got to look yourself in the mirror first then you’ve got to talk to each other and get on each other about it and be able to hold each other accountable.”