Once Missouri ended its regular season with a 28-point loss at Tennessee, it became apparent the Tigers would be on the outside of the bubble.
ESPN’s bracket expert Joe Lunardi placed Missouri in the “next four out” category, meaning the Tigers will likely need to win the Southeastern Conference Tournament in order to hear the NCAA tournament selection committee call their name Sunday evening.
The Tigers start conference tournament play Thursday at noon in Atlanta. Texas A&M, their first opponent, plays a slow brand of basketball, which Missouri has struggled against this year. Missouri beat the Aggies in its penultimate game of the regular season, 57-56.
In that game, Missouri led just once — when senior guard Earnest Ross sank two free throws to put the Tigers up one with 7 seconds remaining.
Texas A&M averages 64.9 possessions per game, the third-slowest pace in the SEC.
The Aggies’ style of play poses a threat for Missouri, who went 4-6 against the six SEC teams that played at a slower pace than its 66.2 possessions per game (Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Tennessee).
Three of those wins, against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, were by five or fewer points. None came on the road.
“Just look at Texas A&M’s scores,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said Monday. “Every game is close because there are fewer possessions, and they’re in every game because of that.”
Trying to force plays against a slow-moving team will only exacerbate the issue, and being patient is key, Haith said.
“What we cannot do, and what we did here, we had those live-ball turnovers, and they score without us defending them,” Haith said. “That’s what you cannot do, and that’s what makes it a problem.”
Taking quick shots hurts the Tigers against slow teams, Haith said, because long rebounds can lead to easy buckets for the opposing team.
Most players said they try not to pay attention to what others say about the team’s tournament chances. Junior guard Jabari Brown said it would just make him worry, and that he knows that if Missouri wins out, he won’t need to worry.
“I really don’t follow that,” junior guard Jordan Clarkson said. “The only time I’ve really seen anything was just watching SportsCenter maybe one day and you see ‘last four in’ or ‘first four out,’ stuff like that. We just have to focus on what we’re doing on the court, and everything else is in the committee’s hands, so we’re just going to go out there and try to win games.”
Even without turning on ESPN, Clarkson knows that whether they face fast teams or slow teams, the Tigers will likely need to win the SEC Tournament to give their fans a case of March Madness for a sixth straight season.
“It’s just something we have to do now,” Clarkson said.