COLUMBIA– Missouri coach Frank Haith’s stern message to his team entering Tuesday night’s game at Georgia was as simple as it was clear: "Play harder."
Coming off a pitiful defensive effort in Saturday night’s 80-73 loss to Alabama, Haith uttered those words three times in less than a minute while meeting with reporters on Monday afternoon inside Mizzou Arena.
Georgia Bulldogs (15-11, 9-5)
Where: Stegeman Coliseum, Athens, Ga.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Radio: Tiger Radio Network
“We didn’t have it on the defensive end. We didn’t have a sense of urgency about ourselves,” Haith said while bemoaning Saturday’s performance. “I didn’t see it coming since I thought our practices were really good, but there’s no question we got to play harder.”
How can the defensive issues be fixed?
“Play harder,” Haith said.
Is it up to each player to take it upon himself to do that? (Take a guess.)
“Yeah, we got to play harder,” Haith said. “We didn’t defend, we didn’t do the things we’ve coached them to do, but maybe we’ve got to coach them harder to do it.”
The loss dropped Missouri (19-8, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) into a seven-way tie for fourth place in the SEC, which is significant because the conference’s top four teams receive double byes in next month’s conference tournament.
Georgia (15-11, 9-5) is third in the conference and won the team's first meeting with Missouri this season, a 70-64 overtime victory in Mizzou Arena that snapped the Tigers' 26-game home winning streak. Haith questioned his team’s effort level following that early-January loss, much like he has in the aftermath of Saturday night’s debacle.
That criticism the Tigers received from their coach following their earlier loss to Georgia hasn’t been forgotten in the locker room.
“We still think about that,” senior guard Earnest Ross said. “Going down there and trying to get a road win is what’s important, and what’s next on our schedule, so that’s what we’re focused on right now.
“I don’t think we were focused much the first time we played them, but I think we’re a better team (now).”
One area Missouri will have to improve to beat Georgia is defensive rebounding. The Tigers were outrebounded 43-34 in the teams’ first meeting and surrendered 15 offensive boards to the Bulldogs.
“Rebounds are straight toughness,” Ross said. “You box your man out, you and your guy basically go one-on-one for the rebound; it’s toughness. Once we establish individual toughness in each and every player, I think that stuff like that won’t happen; they won’t win on the boards.”
Added Haith: “Georgia played with a tremendous amount of passion in that game. ‘They rebounded the ball, got second shots, we didn’t block them out.”
Haith praised Georgia’s consistency and said he expects to see a Bulldog team similar to the one his team faced last month: a scrappy, physical team that plays with high energy. Basically, a team unlike the Tiger squad Alabama saw last Saturday.
The Bulldogs are led by sophomore guards Kenny Gaines (12.7 points per game on 42.8 percent shooting) and Charles Mann (13.2 ppg on 40.4 percent shooting). Gaines has played his best basketball of the season lately, averaging 20.3 points in Georgia’s last three games.
Missouri already has five losses against teams outside the top 75 in Ratings Percentage Index — and can't afford another one as it clings to hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers have just one RPI top-50 win (vs. UCLA) and have no more opportunities to add to that total during the final four regular season games.
A road win against Georgia, though, would give Missouri a temporary head start on securing the final double bye in the SEC Tournament. It’d also pull the Tigers within one game of the third-place Bulldogs (88th in RPI).
Ross expects a much-improved effort from his Missouri teammates Tuesday night. But then again, it perplexes him that effort would ever be lacking for a bubble team.
“Knowing what’s at stake, towards the end of the season, it’s very frustrating as a player,” Ross said. “If you don’t give every thing you have now, at this point and time, then I don’t understand what’s going on.
“But as a team, I think our mindset is right going into this next game.”
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.