Big challenges ahead for Missouri men's basketball team

Wednesday, December 4, 2013 | 8:51 p.m. CST; updated 11:56 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 4, 2013

COLUMBIA – Come March, the Missouri men’s basketball team will remember this week.

The question is, will the Tigers look back upon home matchups with West Virginia and UCLA as fond memories or as missed opportunities to strengthen their case to make a sixth-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance?

“This week’s a big week for us,” coach Frank Haith said at Tuesday's press conference.

Missouri navigated the first quarter of its season with relative ease, winning their first seven games. Six of those seven wins came by double-digits, though the Tigers have yet to play a team that qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season.

But as the calendar turns to December, the level of competition will rise for Missouri.

Visits to Mizzou Arena this week from West Virginia and UCLA will be followed by a game against Western Michigan, the preseason favorite to win the Mid-American Conference. The Tigers then play the annual Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois in St. Louis. Missouri rounds out non-conference play by traveling to North Carolina State at the end of the month before playing at home in early January against Long Beach State.

The Tigers’ first seven opponents were a combined 23-34 through Wednesday. Starting Thursday night against West Virginia, their next five are a combined 31-7.

The increase in difficulty after a light start was by design. Haith realized he’d have a younger team this season, with only two seniors on the roster. The lesser competition for the season’s opening month gave the newcomers time to adjust to the college game and to develop chemistry with one another.

Their progress will be measured Thursday with West Virginia coach Bob Huggins’ 6-2 team in town as part of the Big 12 Conference/Southeastern Conference Challenge. Huggins is 3-0 all-time against Missouri, winning both games as coach at Kansas State in 2006-07 and then defeating the Tigers in the NCAA Tournament with West Virginia in 2010.

“I’ve competed against Coach Huggins’ teams in the past. They’re always very competitive. They’re very tough, and they’re very physical,” Haith said. “They play with a chip, and you got to bring your lunch pail when you play against them.”

West Virginia is led by two-guard Eron Harris who averages 20.5 points per game and shoots 52 percent from 3-point range. Point guard Juwan Staten has recorded 60 assists while committing just nine turnovers.

“I think they’re much better than they were last year. Much better,” Haith said. “They’re so efficient offensively, and I think Coach (Huggins) will tell you this: His team was not that good offensively as they are now. I mean, they’re really good offensively.

“Then you play a UCLA team, and we just saw them out in (Las) Vegas. Man, they’re really talented, really talented. I think they’re better than they were last year. If you’re able to have success against teams I think will do very well in their conferences, that definitely helps your resume.”

Missouri puts more than its undefeated record on the line this week. The Tigers currently own the country’s longest home win streak at 22 games and have won 77 consecutive home games against non-conference opponents, dating back to the 2005-06 season.

“These two games are going to be big resume games for us,” Missouri sophomore Ryan Rosburg said. “They’re non-conference games that we really need to win. I think with them coming here, we shouldn’t be scared, because we haven’t lost here in a long time, and we’re real excited for the challenge.”

Supervising editor is Erik Hall.

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