COLUMBIA – Missouri has a "big" matchup with Tennessee Saturday afternoon in Knoxville.
Big, in that ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has the Tigers (21-9, 9-8 Southeastern Conference) five spots out of an NCAA Tournament berth, while the Volunteers (19-11, 10-7) are among Lunardi’s projected last four teams in the tournament.
Tennessee Volunteers (19-11, 10-7 SEC)
When: 3 p.m, Saturday
Where: Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tenn.
Radio: Tiger Radio Network
Previous meeting this season: Missouri won 75-70 on Feb. 15 at Mizzou Arena
Big, in that Missouri needs a win to preserve any chances of securing the fourth and final double bye in next week’s conference tournament in Atlanta.
Big, in that Saturday’s outcome will likely be contingent upon how the Tigers’ post players fare against the Volunteers’ big man duo of 6-foot-8, 260-pound senior Jeronne Maymon and 6-foot-8, 260-pound junior Jarnell Stokes.
Stokes averages 14.5 points per game and is second in the league with 10.3 rebounds per game; Maymon, with 10.4 points per game, is third with 8.2 rebounds per game.
“They’re two big, strong, physical guys, very active, very involved in their offense,” sophomore Ryan Rosburg said. “It’s a whole team effort. … You just have to have swarms of guys because it requires so much energy to guard them.”
A swarm was needed in the teams’ mid-February meeting, as Missouri forwards Tony Criswell, Torren Jones, Rosburg and Johnathan Williams III each finished with four fouls in the Tigers’ 75-70 victory. Maymon finished with five points and seven rebounds; Stokes finished with 13 points and eight boards.
To beat Tennessee again, Missouri coach Frank Haith anticipates needing another team effort; his players can’t go one-on-one against the Volunteers’ bigs.
“They almost fouled us all out,” Haith said of his team’s first encounter with Maymon and Stokes. “Obviously, they’re a chore, and I think our ability to defend them and have success against them is within our numbers. I don’t think it will be one guy or two guys. It’s going to be a collective group of all five guys I think that will have to go in and produce and have opportunities to compete against those guys, and that’s going to give us a chance to have success."
Winners of three consecutive games, the Volunteers are playing their best basketball of the season. Those three wins — at Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, at Auburn — came by an average margin of 24.3 points.
Tennessee’s recent dominance has coincided with the emergence of senior guard Antonio Barton, with 13 points per game in the team’s last three.
"He’s a guy that’s stepped up, and you look at his numbers, he’s made great improvement,” Haith said of Barton. “I think when he plays at the level he’s playing at, that really gives them a boost.”
Barton, along with senior guard Jordan McRae who scored 31 points in the teams’ first meeting, are viable outside scoring threats for Tennessee. But to sweep the season series, Missouri will have to excel against the Volunteers’ post players.
“We know as a group (of post players), for us (as a team) to be successful, we have to produce,” Rosburg said. “We’ve had some games where we have produced, and we won those games. We know it’s on us, and we got to perform.”
How the Tigers fare will go a long way in helping to determine the team’s postseason fate.
With a win, Missouri is likely to be either back in the tournament or right on the bubble. With a loss, winning next week’s SEC tournament and securing the automatic bid that goes to the winner is likely the Tigers’ only route to the big dance.
The postseason chatter isn’t lost on the players.
“It’s impossible not to avoid it, honestly,” Rosburg said. “Anywhere you go — Twitter, people talking in class, turn on the TV and people are talking about it, so you can’t really avoid it. You try not to think about it, though.”
Haith wants his players to embrace the magnitude of Saturday’s game.
“It’s exciting. It’s fun. You’ve got a chance, a great opportunity,” Haith said. “I think when you look at where we’re at, now you have a chance to improve your standing really big by playing a team like Tennessee here at the end of the year. It’s a great, great chance in March to have a game of importance like this game.”
Supervising editor is Wade Livingston