By: Greg Dailey
The Missouri Tigers are little more than halfway through their basketball season, but it is never too late to grade the Tigers for their midseason performances. The odds were stacked against Missouri at the beginning of the year. They had to take the floor for the first five games without their head coach. They lost three senior starters and an all-conference point guard in Phil Pressey, all four being in their top 5 in scoring. Throw in the fact that Haith started from Game 1 two players who had never donned the black and gold: Johnathan Williams III and Jordan Clarkson.
However, Haith scheduled appropriately with an inexperienced team, and Missouri benefited from a soft slate early. The Tigers did not play anybody of note to begin the year. Despite playing against power conference schools (Northwestern and West Virginia), those teams were bottom-feeders for their respective conferences. Mizzou was tested against UCLA in a nationally televised game and responded with tremendous comeback, before comfortably putting away the Bruins. The still undefeated Tigers took the court in St. Louis for the annual Braggin’ Rights showdown with Illinois as one of the few undefeated teams remaining. Missouri waltzed out to an early lead, but a back-and-forth, defense-filled game saw the Illini escape with a one-point victory. After a gritty win at North Carolina State and then defeating Long Beach State, Mizzou entered conference play with a 12-1 record. Looking to increase the nation’s longest home court winning streak to 27, Missouri opened its SEC portion of the schedule against Georgia.
The Bulldogs took it to the Tigers early and after managing to force overtime, blew Missouri out in the last two minutes. A road win against a bad Auburn team and another narrow loss, this time to Vanderbilt, had Mizzou limping home with a must-win game against Alabama. After coming out of the locker room in a one-point game, Missouri put the clamps on the Crimson Tide and cruised to an easy victory. A disappointing loss at LSU followed up by a fairly easy victory against South Carolina preceded the rivalry game at Arkansas. After getting out to an early lead, Mizzou’s 19 turnovers helped the Razorbacks get back in the game and even take the lead. However with a dominating performance on the glass, the Tigers left Fayetteville with their first victory at Bud Walton Arena. An ice storm greeted Kentucky to Columbia, but it was the Wildcats who froze the Tigers early. Kentucky got out to a 16-point lead and despite Jabari Brown’s impressive 33 points, the deficit was too much Mizzou to handle.
The Tigers sit at 16-5, 4-4 in the SEC. Missouri is in the middle of its toughest stretch of the year, with two road games this weekend and Florida and Ole Miss.
Tim Fuller did an admirable job taking over while Haith served his suspension, winning all five of his games. Haith has done a respectable job with this group, but with the exception of Jabari Brown and Johnathan Williams III, no player has really taken a significant step forward. This is Haith’s first year with just his players, and he is still trying to get his recruiting classes set by adding a transfer here and there. The weakness of the SEC in basketball sets up well for Ol’ Mizzou, but if the Tigers can’t make it back to the Big Dance, expect Haith’s seat to start warming up a little.
Simply put, Missouri will go as far the guards take them. With the emergence of Brown as a deadeye shooter and even an above-average slasher, Clarkson has a little bit of pressure taken off him to be a Mr. Everything. Earnest Ross has shown flashes of being a solid guard, and although Tiger fans frequently get frustrated with his long-range shooting, Ross’s defense has quietly been good. He averages over six rebounds a game for a team that lacks much skill down low. Brown is putting together an All American worthy season and Clarkson has been so reliable all year. Ross lacks the scoring threat the other two provide but is still shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Missouri lost its top two rebounders last year (Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers) and entered the season inexperienced down on the blocks. Ryan Rosburg has had to play the “five,” although his body type might lean more towards a “four.” Haith doesn’t demand a lot from Rosburg besides being a body down low, but the sophomore has improved significantly from last year. The emergence of Williams III has been the pleasant surprise of the season, and something that Missouri desperately needed. Although his shooting percentages are not staggering, he has had a knack for cleaning up the glass since the first exhibition game. The highly touted freshman from Memphis looks like he has great future ahead of him in Columbia.
The only reason why the Tigers stand in the position they are in is due to the starting lineup. Besides entering games to give the starters a break, the bench has been extremely disappointing. Tony Criswell, one of the few returning players, has struggled both on and off the court. Keanau Post was supposed to bring some serious depth to the center position, but the game still looks too fast for the junior college transfer, and he frequently finds himself on the bench. Wes Clark is a formidable backup and a guard that has a lot of potential. His recent scoring against Arkansas and Kentucky has been a pleasant surprise as well. The more experience he gets, the more he will grow. There is a lot to like, but the freshman mistakes often get the best of him. Shane Rector disappeared from the regular rotation, but now Haith uses him in late first-half sets. Torren Jones did not play a lot early, but recently Haith has used him sporadically in defensive situations. When the game slows down for Jones, look for him to slowly get more playing time.