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Missouri men's basketball enters critical stretch

Monday, January 27, 2014 | 7:59 p.m. CST; updated 6:28 a.m. CST, Tuesday, January 28, 2014

COLUMBIA – When ESPN’s resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi released his most recent projection of this season’s NCAA Tournament field, Missouri was on the outside looking in, listed as the first of the “first four out.”

Lunardi correctly projected all 68 teams in last season’s tournament, increasing his accuracy during the past six seasons to 98.2 percent. So when Lunardi says Missouri (15-4 overall, 3-3 in the Southeastern Conference) is currently team No. 69, odds are Missouri is indeed team No. 69.

Missouri will play at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Arkansas, with hopes of picking up a win that might bump them on the better side of the bubble. Opportunities like these are precious for the Tigers.

Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee are the only SEC schools Lunardi currently projects to be in the tournament, making the SEC the weakest of the six power conferences. There are seven conferences with more teams than the SEC in Lunardi’s projected field.

In such a lackluster league, Missouri’s SEC slate features more chances for resume-tarnishing losses than resume-building wins. Most games present a chance to harm the Tigers’ case to make the tournament. Few serve as chances to prove the team’s worthiness of a tournament berth.

The Tigers’ upcoming stretch of games – its toughest of the season – provides MU with the precious opportunities to bolster its tournament resume.

“You guys can do that,” coach Frank Haith told reporters after Saturday’s win against South Carolina about emphasizing the next three games — at Arkansas, home against Kentucky and at Florida. “I’m sure you’ll write all you need to write about that, measuring our team up based on what we do these next three games.”

Indeed.

While Haith has downplayed the importance of his team’s upcoming games, statistics show that this stretch, as tough as SEC play can be, represents his team’s best chance — aside from securing an automatic bid by winning the SEC Tournament — to make its case to be in the field of 68 on Selection Sunday.

With damaging losses to Georgia and at Vanderbilt already on its resume, combined with a loss to an Illinois team that has since plummeted, Missouri can’t afford many more losses that, statistically speaking, should be wins. They also need more impressive wins.

The Tigers' upcoming stretch appears crucial.

Arkansas (77), which Missouri plays twice in its next six games, is the lowest ranked in the Ratings Percentage Index of the Tigers’ next five opponents. Any wins against Florida (5), Kentucky (12), Ole Miss (58) or Tennessee (52) would be among the Tigers’ best of the season.

Missouri is 3-3 against teams currently in the top 100 of the RPI. The Tigers’ December victory against UCLA (20) is its lone RPI top-50 win.

Still, Haith said Monday he has advised his players to only focus on the team’s next game, rather than the big picture. That begins Tuesday night inside Bud Walton Arena against Arkansas, a building in which the Razorbacks have won 25 of the team's past 26 games.

“I’m just concerned about Arkansas tomorrow night,” Haith said Monday. “It’s a game on the road, tough place to go get a win and they’ve had some big wins already, so that’s our focus.

“Nineteen-thousand folks in there, they play with great energy in there. They press, they play physical in their building, they play one step faster in their building.”

Asked if he checks the standings, senior small forward Earnest Ross echoed Haith’s sentiment.

“We don’t really pay attention to that too much, we just go out there and try to win games,” Ross said. “That’s what we’re focused on, just winning games. … Going out there and doing what’s next and that’s Arkansas right now, so that’s where we’re at.”

Where they’ll be headed after Selection Sunday might largely depend on the next few games.


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