Only three games and nine days separate the Missouri men’s basketball from the postseason, but coach Frank Haith doesn’t want his team looking ahead to the looming Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournament.
“I don’t pay attention to that stuff,” Haith said of the tournament hubbub. “As a matter of fact, I don’t want our guys talking about it. We don’t do that. We’ve gotta worry about taking care of our business.”
That’s probably because, with a terribly plausible string of bad luck, Missouri (20-8, 9-6 SEC), once the seventh-ranked team in the land, could have its “dancing” hopes pulled out from under it.
After crawling through overtime in a heart-wrenching loss at Kentucky on Saturday, the Tigers traveled to South Carolina on Thursday to face the Gamecocks. Senior guard Keion Bell lit up the boards with 24 points to lead to a 90-68 win.
The Tigers now come home to face Louisiana State and Arkansas, two teams they lost to on the road, then journey to Tennessee where the Vols just knocked off No. 8 Florida.
Three losses would saddle Missouri with a 20-11 record and 9-9 conference record — not quite what the NCAA selection committee is looking for.
Conversely, three wins, another very real possibility, would bump the Tigers up quite a few spots from their currently projected eight or nine seed in the NCAA tournament.
The most probable scenario is that Missouri continues its trend of winning at home and losing on the road. The Tigers are undefeated at Mizzou Arena and just 2-7 as visitors, their only wins coming against Mississippi State and South Carolina.
By dropping Tennessee while taking care of business at home against LSU and Arkansas, Missouri assures itself a spot in the tournament, but drops a number of slots down to a 10 or 11 seed.
Even with just one win in their last three games, the Tigers have built a compelling NCAA tournament résumé. Thursday's win solidified the 2012-13 season Missouri’s fifth-straight 20-win season, and Missouri has racked up quality home wins over then-No. 5 Florida, Ole Miss and Bucknell and neutral site wins against then-No. 10 Illinois, Stanford and Virginia Commonwealth.
Missouri’s neutral court record bodes well for the Tigers, who will most likely shape up to be six or seven seed in the SEC tournament.
That positioning means the Tigers will avoid the conference heavyweight Florida and see the likes of apparent two-seed Alabama, which Missouri defeated handily to kick off its conference schedule, and three-seed Kentucky, against which the Tigers forced to overtime at Rupp Arena on Saturday.
In all, Missouri could get away with breaking one of college basketball’s cardinal sins — not taking care of teams that should be easy Ws. With a respectable NCAA tournament portfolio, the Tigers should make the cut and have a shot at a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 run if they continue to play well at neutral sites.
“I’ve never really come out and said we have a chance to win a national championship.” senior forward Laurence Bowers said at the team’s first media day, “But I feel, with this team, we really do.”
At this point, only time will tell if Missouri cuts down the nets. The countdown to madness has begun.