The first week of February was cruel to Missouri basketball. The second might have saved its season. The next two weeks — the end of the month and beginning of March — will prove the old adage true for both weathermen and basketball coaches.
It comes in like a lion.
"Here's what I'd like us to focus on,” coach Frank Haith said Monday. “It's February. We're playing for something, so let's go out there and play our butts off because it's February, beginning of March."
The Tigers’ (19-9, 7-8 Southeastern Conference) final three games after Tuesday’s loss against Georgia will spell their postseason fate barring an SEC tournament championship run.
After taking three straight losses in the conference schedule’s rough stretch, Mizzou answered with three straight wins a week ago. The season’s final few games set up a maddening chase for fourth place in the conference, a slot to which seven teams would like to lay claim.
Analysts say the SEC, traditionally a weak basketball conference, should not expect more than four teams to make the NCAA tournament. Missouri sits precariously on the bubble.
Players said lessons taken from that three-game losing streak to conference dynamos No. 1 Florida, No. 17 Kentucky and Ole Miss (then-third in the conference) can propel the Tigers on to more stable ground.
“I think you’ve just got to look at things like how you played defense over them, how you shot the ball, turnovers, assists, stuff like that,” junior guard Jabari Brown said. “I think those are the main things you try to look at as a team to see where you may have improved and where you may have declined.”
Haith says he tells his team to leave past games behind and move on to the next opponent. Monday, before his Tigers faced Georgia on the road, he questioned his team’s effort and urged them, albeit grimly, to look forward instead of behind.
“We gotta play harder,” he said. “We didn't defend. We didn't do the things we coached them to do, but maybe we gotta coach them harder to do it."
Senior guard Earnest Ross said Haith impresses that same message upon the team in practice.
“Coach Haith just always tell us those games are in the past and you can’t get those games back,” he said. “Just knowing that we can’t get those games back and focusing on the team that we play next, I think that’s what’s big for us.”
A tandem of conference bottom-dwellers come next in Mississippi State on Saturday and Texas A&M on March 5. Those contests could provide some respite from a conference schedule that has been all too unkind.
The Tigers travel to NCAA tournament hopeful Tennessee on March 8 to round out the regular season.
“I feel like these last few games, we’re making steps in the right direction,” Brown said. “I think that’s the main thing. We can’t have setbacks this late in the season.”
But by that time, March may have taken a lamb-like turn as Mizzou’s season spirals into the oblivion of the National Invitation Tournament. A couple more losses could ruin Missouri in the eyes of the national selection committee.
But to revive postseason aspirations, Ross said there’s only one thing the Tigers must do.
“It’s just all about winning games,” he said Monday. “So if we win these four and then go in the SEC tournament with great poise and being able to win at least two games in there, I think we’ll be fine.”
Haith has a different message: “Play harder.”