Mental toughness a work in progress for Missouri men's basketball

Monday, December 3, 2012 | 8:59 p.m. CST; updated 9:55 p.m. CST, Monday, December 3, 2012
Missouri guard Phil Pressey attempts to steal the ball from Nicholls State guard Pedro Maciel during the Tigers' 74-54 win on Nov. 16 at Mizzou Arena.

COLUMBIA — Top-ranked college men's basketball teams falling to unranked ones was a trend last week.

Kentucky fell to Notre Dame 64-50 last Thursday and lost to Baylor 64-55 Saturday, which dropped it out of the Associated Press rankings. Florida State lost to Mercer 61-56 on Sunday.

Missouri coach Frank Haith says his team has to play even harder — for all 40 minutes of the game — to avoid being upset. Missouri has to keep up its intensity the whole game to beat Southeast Missouri State. Haith said SEMO is an aggressive team and one of the most talented opponents to visit Mizzou Arena so far this season.

"Look across the country," Haith said in Monday's press conference. "Mercer rolls into Tallahassee to beat Florida State so you have to be ready to play every time you lace them up."

Haith said he saw his team slide a little mentally when it was trying to put Appalachian State away in Saturday's 72-56 victory.

"We don't really have that killer instinct just yet," Haith said Saturday. "When we have a team down just to really go after it."

Right after halftime, the Tigers had three turnovers in two minutes against the Mountaineers.

Haith said it's difficult closing games strong, especially ones early in the season where the Tigers can be ahead by 30 points. Keeping focus, no matter the score, is key to avoiding upsets and comebacks.

Junior point guard Phil Pressey is tasked with maintaining his teammates' concentration through the whole game.

"I chose Phil," Haith said. "Phil's got to carry that load a little bit and keep the pedal to the metal."

Pressey said Haith stresses perfect practices to try to keep his players mentally sharp.

"You got to be smart and do what we do every day in practice, because there will be games where we aren't up 20 to 30," Pressey said. "I'm going to try and reach for that and go up from there."

Assistant coach Tim Fuller said the team is put through a regimen of scenarios to simulate game situations. He puts the team up with six points and four minutes remaining to see how they'll react.

"We continue to press and press and press them to go hard," Fuller said. "It has to be instinctual, to be part of who they are, the fabric of their beings."

Fuller said it's challenging to instill the mentality because of the team's inexperience with each other. He said the team last year understood the importance of playing to the horn, but this year things are different. There's only one returning starter from last year.

"It's not as easy as everyone thinks it is," Fuller said. "We still have a lot of guys who need to jell and come as one. They're working towards it."

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