Missouri seems to be in the driver’s seat for an NCAA Tournament berth if, and only if, the Tigers continue stringing together wins.
After the first three-game losing skid of the Frank Haith era — which, to be fair, featured losses against three of the top four teams in the SEC standings — Missouri has rebounded with back-to-back wins against Arkansas and Tennessee.
Currently, Jerry Palm at CBS Sports
, which still puts them on the bubble.
Meanwhile, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi
as an 11 seed and as the last team receiving a first-round bye.
Interestingly, both Palm and Lunardi have the Tigers battling Oklahoma in the “second round.”
also puts Missouri in the field as a No. 11 seed against North Carolina.
Of course, all that changes if the Tigers stumble Wednesday against Vanderbilt at Mizzou Arena. Here are a few keys to Missouri reversing its fortune in the rematch:
1. Guard the three-point line
Vanderbilt drilled a season-high 12 three-pointers in the first meeting against Missouri, a 78-75 Commodores victory on Jan. 16 in Nashville, Tenn.
After the loss, junior Jordan Clarkson said the Tigers were slow to rotate in their zone. He said Missouri needed to play its zone defense with the same energy and intensity as it plays man defense.
It’s an issue that has cropped up from time to time. South Carolina (10), Arkansas (12) and Mississippi (14) have each pumped in at least 10 threes during the Tigers’ last nine games.
“We’ve got to do a good job getting back and setting our defense, not letting them be comfortable making a lot of threes,” Haith said.
It will be especially critical to chase senior Rod Odom, who went six of 13 from long range, off the three-point line.
“That’s going to be a big part of what we do,” Clarkson said. “He’s a good shooter. We’ve just got to make him uncomfortable and not let him hit shots. Try to contain him from making those shots.”
Vanderbilt senior Kyle Fuller added four threes in that game as well.
“We have to pressure the ball, contest every shot, limit rotations and keep guys in front of us,” Clarkson said.
2. Get the bigs involved again
Missouri got uncommon production from its frontcourt in Saturday’s win against Tennessee, including 29 points and 14 rebounds.
Of course, the question now is whether that was an aberration or have the Tigers’ big men — sophomore Ryan Rosburg, freshmen Johnathan Williams III and Torren Jones, senior Tony Criswell and junior Keanau Post — turned a corner.
“It wasn’t a magic wand where someone said, ‘Poof’ and now all the sudden you’re going to do it,” Haith said. “It’s something we’ve been talking to our guys about all year.”
Moving forward, that group needs to average closer to its production against Tennessee than the 14.3 points 16.5 rebounds it had been averaging in SEC play.
“We’re definitely going to need them and, if they play like they did today, I’m confident that we can run the table through the rest of the season,” junior Jabari Brown said.
3. Improved offensive efficiency
Missouri must be more efficient on offense than it was in the first meeting at Vanderbilt when the Tigers shot 39.1 percent from the field, their second-worst performance in conference play.
From distance, Missouri was even worse — six of 23 for a 26.1-percent clip — while Vanderbilt connected on a season-high 12 three-pointers.
Senior Earnest Ross missed all seven three-point tries and junior Jordan Clarkson, who failed to reach double figures in scoring for the first time in 53 games Saturday versus Tennessee, went zero for four from behind the arc.
It’s unlikely the Commodores can duplicate that three-point prowess, considering coach Kevin Stallings’ crew has averaged less than half that many threes in nine games since.
Still, the Tigers need to avoid missing 12 layups and put pressure on Vanderbilt by making shots.