When Missouri had its 26-game homecourt winning streak snapped in overtime by Georgia in the opening game of Southeastern Conference play, it seemed like a crippling loss.
After all, the Bulldogs had lumbered to a 6-6 record in nonconference play and seemed destined for the bottom of the conference standings.
But a funny thing happened to coach Mark Fox’s crew on the way to oblivion, Georgia, 15-11, rallied to become something of an SEC darling and currently stands alone in third place at 9-5 in the conference.
Meanwhile, the Tigers, 19-8 and 7-7 in the SEC, had surged in the Associated Press top 25 during nonconference play, but can’t seem to find any consistency in SEC games.
Missouri had a season-best three-game conference win streak snapped Saturday at Alabama in embarrassing fashion, getting outmuscled and outhustled by a 10-16 Crimson Tide squad, falling into a seven-way tie for fourth in the SEC.
“We didn’t have a sense of urgency about ourselves,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said. “Didn’t see it coming, because I thought our practices were really good. But there’s no question, we’ve got to play harder.”
Haith added, “We didn’t defend. We didn’t do the things we’ve coached them to do, but maybe we’ve got to coach them harder to do it.”
Of course, focusing on the Alabama loss won’t do Missouri any good now.
Instead, the Tigers, who remain well positioned (for the moment) to nab a sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, need to focus on bringing maximum effort against a feisty Georgia team.
“Here’s what I’d like us to focus on — it’s February and we’re playing for something,” Haith said. “So, let’s go out there and play our butts off, because it’s February and the beginning of March.”
Here are few keys to scratching the win column at 8 tonight at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens (ESPNU):
1. Match Georgia’s toughness
Missouri got crushed on the boards 43-34 and allowed 15 offensive rebounds in the first meeting with Georgia, a 70-64 loss on Jan. 8 at Mizzou Arena.
“Rebounds are straight toughness,” senior Earnest Ross said. “You box your man out. Basically, you and your guy are going one-on-one to try to get the rebound.”
Of course, the Bulldogs also won the physical battle in other ways. Ross said there were times guys didn’t fight through screens in addition to the rebounding woes.
“There’s a lot of things that we didn’t do well in that game and Georgia played with a tremendous amount of passion in that game,” Haith said. “They rebounded the ball, got second shots, we didn’t block them out and they played with a lot of effort.”
2. Get off to a better start
This season, Missouri has made of habit of digging early holes that prove too big to crawl out, especially on the road.
At Alabama, the Tigers trailed by seven at halftime and never led in the second half.
At Mississippi, Missouri got blasted 50-35 in the opening 20 minutes and again never led despite rallying for a three-point loss.
The Tigers also fell behind at LSU and Vanderbilt and never completely recovered. The same thing happened in the first half at home against Kentucky, which led by as many as 18 in the first half.
3. Keep Georgia off the free-throw line
Only Kentucky and Missouri get to the free-throw line more than the Bulldogs, so forcing Georgia to earn its points is critical.
The Tigers are 2-5 when its opponent shoots more free throws as the Bulldogs did in the victory at Mizzou Arena (26-21).
But that doesn’t mean taking it easy on defense.
“You’ve got to do your work early,” Haith said. “You’ve got to shrink gaps. You can’t give them driving lanes, and that’s effort. … You’ve just to scrap. You still have to be physical and played with energy.”