It probably didn’t bother the Missouri men’s basketball team when 2003 ended and 2004 began.
Recent on-court struggles as well as an NCAA investigation of the program have made it a forgettable year for the No. 23 Tigers (4-4). The Tigers get a chance to begin anew, to some degree, when they host Iowa at 2 p.m. Saturday at Hearnes Center.
After three straight losses, including a hapless performance against Belmont on Tuesday, the game against Iowa presents a crucial, early-season test for the Tigers.
“Every game is important from here on out,” sophomore guard Jimmy McKinney said. “We need every game that’s on our schedule. We need every single game.”
The game is the Tigers’ final game before the difficult Big 12 Conference schedule begins.
If the Tigers, who have lost four of their past five, want 2004 to begin better than 2003 finished, they need to abide to a resolution to play better defense. The Tigers rank near the bottom of the Big 12 Conference in several defensive statistical categories. They are 10th in field goals allowed (43 percent), 11th in 3-pointers allowed (37 percent) and 11th in points per game allowed (74).
“We just have to be focused,” senior forward Travon Bryant said. “I think we think we’re so dangerous offensively, but we’re very vulnerable defensively. We just have to play better defense, point blank.”
The lapses in focus have allowed double-digit leads for the Tigers’ opponents in their past three losses. Illinois built a 21-point lead in the first half on Dec. 23, Memphis had a 15-point lead twice on Dec. 27, and Belmont’s 10-point lead in the second half on Tuesday was too much for the Tigers to overcome.
“I’ve felt a sense of urgency since late November on,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. “We’re not playing with urgency right now. I guess that’s what I’m talking about. We’ve had guys that have been through this before. We should know what it takes to play on this level. That’s not happening right now.”
Correcting problems, though, won’t be easy against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have a 7-2 record, which includes a 70-69 overtime win against No. 11 Louisville on Nov. 29. That game is Louisville’s only loss of the season.
Iowa’s best play has come on defense for it allows a Big Ten Conference-low 38 percent from the field.
Recently, though, Iowa also has struggled. After a 5-0 start, the Hawkeyes lost to Northern Iowa, 77-66, on Dec. 9 and Texas Tech, 65-59, on Dec. 22.
On Tuesday, Iowa needed two late 3-pointers from guard Jared Horner to hold off Eastern Illinois 71-62. Iowa, like the Tigers, has struggled with turnovers. After committing 15 against Eastern Illinois, Iowa is ninth in the Big Ten with 16.8 turnovers a game.
The Hawkeyes should present the Tigers with their toughest interior challenge this season. Iowa leads the Big Ten with 42.4 rebounds per game and with a plus-9.4 rebounding margin. The Tigers, who average 42.9 rebounds, have outrebounded all of their opponents this year.
“Iowa’s probably a better team (than Belmont is), and if we play like we did (Tuesday), they might embarrass us at home, and we’ll have a losing record,” senior guard Rickey Paulding said.