By the time Missouri arrives in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, a change will have occurred. It’s a whole new stage of the season. The string of close road losses, as well as the undefeated record at home, will cease to matter. The only thing that will remain relevant to the Tigers is simple and direct: the opponent directly ahead of them.
After an entire season of each player on the team stressing they were only worried about their next opponent, not the Southeastern Conference or NCAA tournament, the time has come when the team has no set schedule ahead of them. Their fate is what they make it from here on out, and the entire team is well aware of the power they have as individuals moving forward.
For Missouri, the third phase of the season is set to begin.
“You’ve gotta say we’re playing pretty good,” coach Frank Haith said. “I like where our team is.”
After only losing two games in non-conference play and struggling during inter-conference play against their Southern rivals, the Tigers will head to Nashville on Wednesday as the No. 6 seed in the SEC Tournament.
“You can’t do anything about something that’s already done,” Haith said. “All you can do is get better from it.”
This weekend's tournament presents the team with a chance to rebound from a season that saw the team go undefeated at home but lose four games by three points or less.
“I think all we can worry about now is who our opponent is and getting prepared that night,” Haith said.
While Haith has repeatedly said the team is meshing together at just the right point in the season, his players have said their focus is as resilient as ever.
Junior guard Earnest Ross, who is the only member of the Tigers to have previously participated in SEC postseason play, maintained that Missouri would retain the approach it has had all season going into the tournament.
“Just focused on the game at task,” Ross said. “Don’t focus ahead a game or ahead of schedule.”
He also compared the tournament to playing AAU Basketball when he was younger, in the sense that the teams have to be prepared for the unexpected and have to play a large number of games over a short period of time.
“It’s just (about) staying physically ready and prepared, keeping your body clean,” Ross said. “That’s all we’re doing right now.”
Senior Alex Oriakhi said the thing he was most tired of was opposing teams beating the Tigers, in turn helping those teams bolster their resume for a possible NCAA Tournament bid. On three separate occasions — against Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee — Missouri’s road woes translated into each team reigniting the possibility of making it to the big dance. For Oriakhi, that’s not a position he wants his team to be in entering postseason play.
“I’m kind of tired of putting people in the tournament,” Oriakhi said. “We gotta stop doing that. I'm kind of tired of making people’s seasons and helping them out — (we’re) trying to help us.”
Despite having an up and down year, Missouri is predicted to make the tournament regardless of this weekend's results, according to bracketologists at both CBS and ESPN. After Sunday’s SEC Championship, though, it’s win or go home for the rest of the season.
With the season now in its final phase, the notion that the end of the season could come sooner rather than later for Missouri’s departing seniors has not been lost on Oriakhi. He stressed that the Tigers had to start playing just as hard as those teams scrapping for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament.
“You have to play desperate,” Oriakhi said. “Time’s running out.”