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Monday, June 26, 2017

Column: Mizzou’s matchups against Illinois and Lipscomb are must-win games

Searching for answers to their early season struggles, the Tigers have to beat Illinois and Lipscomb to get their season back on track

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Missouri junior forward Jordan Barnett, 21, looks to make a move to the basket against Eastern Illinois sophomore forward Patrick Muldoon, 32, in the first half at Mizzou Arena.

Emil Lippe /Senior Staff Photographer

Entering the 2016-17 season, the bar was already set low for Missouri men’s basketball. The team managed just 19 wins combined over the past two seasons and was experiencing significant roster turnover. Somehow, Mizzou has sunk even lower. With head coach Kim Anderson on the hot seat, the team has already lost to North Carolina Central and Eastern Illinois, the worst defeats for the program since the 2014-15 squad lost its season opener to UMKC.

The Tigers face Illinois and Lipscomb before beginning conference play. These two contests are Missouri’s most important games of the season.

First is the annual Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois. Coming into the season, the expectation among many was that the team needed to show some improvement to maintain Anderson’s job security. Thus far, the team has yet to show any. But a win over Illinois would give the Tigers their first win over a power conference team outside the SEC since Dec. 28, 2013, when Mizzou beat North Carolina State in Raleigh 68-64.

Illinois, at 9-3, has looked better than the Illini team that was 7-5 at this point last season. They do have an ugly overtime loss to Winthrop (although last year’s team had losses to North Florida and Chattanooga) but also have quality wins over North Carolina State, VCU and BYU. Illinois is a good offensive team led by senior guard Malcolm Hill, a 41 percent 3-point shooter. It will be a tall task for the struggling Tigers’ offense to go toe-to-toe with the high-flying Illini shooters.

A win against a solid Illinois squad would bolster Missouri’s confidence as well as give Anderson that signature win he needs so badly. In Mizzou’s second game of the season, the team showed its potential, hanging tight with No. 11 Xavier. But the Tigers lost that game in heartbreaking fashion and have lacked the swagger they showed against the Musketeers ever since. Perhaps a win against Illinois is just what they need to get their swagger back.

After Illinois, Missouri plays a 6-9 Lipscomb squad. Ordinarily, a game against a team like Lipscomb would be an afterthought, a simple tune-up for the grind of conference play. But these “afterthought” games have turned into messy ordeals for the Tigers lately. In their last four games against mid-major opponents, the Tigers are just 2-2.

In their last game before SEC play, a commanding win over Lipscomb for the Tigers would be a big confidence boost considering the team’s struggles in putting away low-profile teams this year. If the game against Illinois marks a chance to knock off a challenging opponent, the game against Lipscomb is a chance to take care of business against a lesser team.

With conference play quickly approaching, the Tigers’ season, and Anderson’s tenure at Mizzou, are in danger of falling off the rails. To save the season, Missouri is going to need to play its best basketball of the year against Illinois and Lipscomb.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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