After Saving the SEC’s Tourney Chances, What’s Next For Missouri?Posted by DPerry on February 22nd, 2013
It’s no secret that the SEC is having a down year. From defending champ Kentucky suffering a 30-point loss at Tennessee to first-year head coach Rick Ray struggling through an 11-game losing streak and multiple suspensions, the evidence is overwhelming. SEC fans, however, were able to breathe a collective sigh of relief Tuesday night after Missouri’s victory over Florida, one of the most important results of the conference season.
If the Gators had been able to hold on to their 13-point second half lead, I’d probably be writing a piece about the very real possibility of the SEC sending only one team to the NCAA Tournament. According to the most recent projections from Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm, only Florida, Missouri, and Ole Miss have résumés worthy of Tourney invites, with the latter two only just making the cut. A few more road losses would have sent Mizzou further down the “S-curve”, while the Rebels seem really committed to complete capitulation, having lost five of seven since this. Kentucky and Alabama could play their way in, but their margin for error is slim.
Yes, Missouri’s upset of Florida was the most direct route in virtually ensuring that the SEC wouldn’t join the likes of the Patriot League and the Summit League as one-bid conferences, but Frank Haith won’t be satisfied with a repeat of a first-round exit. Expectations were high in Columbia entering the season, and the Tigers have been largely disappointing. Can Mizzou use the home upset as a springboard for a late-season run?
If they can make these three improvements, don’t be surprised to see the Tigers carrying a lot of momentum into March:
- Phil Pressey needs to play to his strengths. Phil Pressey burst on the scene last season as the precocious facilitator in Missouri’s four-guard offense. With talented seniors surrounding him, he was able to focus on making plays as opposed to scoring. The result was an offensive juggernaut. The Tigers were the nation’s most efficient offensive team by a healthy margin. As the only key holdover from that squad, Pressey has struggled with increased offensive responsibility, seeing sharp declines in his field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and assist-to-turnover ratio. No, he doesn’t have the luxury of being able to pass to Marcus Denmon and Kim English this year, but Jabari Brown and Keion Bell aren’t exactly slouches. In the win over Florida, easily Missouri’s most impressive on the season, Pressey took only five shots but was still arguably the best player on the court.
- Use the big men. Watching Missouri play, you wouldn’t accuse them of being the most judicious team in shot selection. The perimeter guys aren’t shy about taking challenged jumpers, which can probably be said for most teams in college basketball. However, especially with two efficient big men under the basket, the Tigers would be much better to work the ball down low. Both Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi rank in the top five in the SEC in offensive rating, and their sharply contrasting styles of play make them tough to defend. Bowers is a skilled power forward with legitimate range and very few defenders have the size and strength to keep Oriakhi out of position. A more balanced offensive attack would make Missouri a very tough out.
- Beat Kentucky. Yup. That’s the intelligent analysis I know you were looking for. Missouri finally earned that elusive road win last week, but a win in Rupp Arena on ESPN’s GameDay would be much more impressive than beating Mississippi State. Beating the Wildcats in front of their own fans is never easy, but Kentucky is clearly reeling since the loss of Nerlens Noel. John Calipari’s team followed up the blowout loss to Tennessee by sneaking by Vanderbilt, but Missouri should be a greater challenge. The Tigers have suffered some shocking road losses (at LSU, at Texas A&M), and a win over Kentucky would make the statement that this team has turned a corner.