Missouri men's basketball to face stifling heat, defense in Florida

Monday, February 3, 2014 | 9:09 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — On the eve of Missouri's toughest challenge of the year to date – Tuesday's game against No. 3 Florida at the ubiquitously blue and orange, and seemingly impenetrable O'Connell Center in Gainesville – Frank Haith's players began parroting their coach's outlook on these games against nationally ranked opponents. 

"It's a great opportunity," guard Earnest Ross said, "to get a win on the road."

Emphasis on opportunity.

Haith harped on that word going into Saturday's matchup against then-No. 11 Kentucky. And even in a loss, Missouri (16-5, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) might have played its best game of the season Saturday.

Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson sure did, with the two guards facilitating a tenacious tooth-and-claw comeback that ultimately fell short at the hands of a more talented team. 

Ross said the loss made his team "tougher," and the Tigers will channel that toughness in the face of their biggest opportunity of the year.

"They're a great team; they have great personnel," Haith said of the Gators (19-2, 8-0), who pummeled Texas A&M 69-36 on Saturday. "They can cut down the nets."

Florida surrendered just 36 points to the Aggies, the 12th time it's allowed fewer than 60 points in a game this season. The Gators have also won 27 consecutive games at the O'Connell Center, a streak correlated with the defensive prowess Billy Donovan teams are known for and that this one hangs its hat on. 

"Last year, they were a good defensive team," Haith said. "This year, I think they're better."

Florida is chameleon-like in the halfcourt, switching from traditional man-to-man to a 2-3 zone as well as a 1-3-1 zone that forced 16 first-half turnovers in the Gators' win over Kansas in December.

Scottie Wilbekin, a 6-foot-2 guard, led the Gators both offensively and defensively that night with 18 points and four steals. Haith pointed him out in particular as a key matchup for the Tigers.

"He really does it well on both ends," Haith said. "They thrive on teams taking bad shots. We just can't take contested jump shots against them."

Good shots or bad, the Tigers' chances hinge most on Brown's play.  

The junior has spent the past month cementing his place as the conference's best scorer, the Tigers' go-to shooter and one of the only guards daring enough to dunk on Kentucky forward Julius Randle, who is built like a 6-foot-9 fire extinguisher. 

"I don't want to jinx him," Haith said, "but he's playing unbelievable basketball right now."

Zone defenses are generally favorable to shooters, but the 1-3-1 spreads three defenders across the middle of the floor in an attempt to take away the wing, where Brown often gets his points.

Florida's nebulous defenses won't distract Brown, who had a career-high 33 points against the Wildcats, he said.

"I'm still going to play my game," Brown said. "Regardless of who we are playing."

That career-high against Kentucky was spoiled when Missouri's comeback fell just short, and this trip to Gainesville offers no respite for the Tigers.

That said, Brown hopes to enjoy the trip to Florida more than he did the result at Mizzou Arena. 

"Losing a tough game like that, you don't really focus on what you did," Brown said. "I'm just trying to keep it going for as long as I can, I'm just trying to get wins. As long as we're winning, that's what matters."

Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.

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