His team had just won three consecutive games for the second time this season, and it was clear Missouri coach Quin Snyder was happy with his players’ efforts.
In such an up-and-down year, every win feels good.
“Shoot, we haven’t had two wins since December,” Snyder said. “Some of that’s who we’re playing and some of that is us. I’d like to think we can continue to build on each win and build on our confidence.”
Decisive wins tend to do that: Missouri has won its past three games by an average of 19 points, bringing the Tigers back into the discussion of the top teams in the Big 12 Conference. To stay there, Missouri (12-10, 6-5) must continue its strong play against struggling Baylor at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in Waco, Texas.
Missouri’s past three wins came at Hearnes Center against Colorado, UNLV and Iowa State, who sport a combined 8-18 road record. Still, while the Tigers fight their way back into the postseason picture, they need every win they can get.
“Our self-esteem, collectively, should be growing,” Snyder said. “I think those wins are a byproduct of us playing pretty good basketball.”
Missouri’s statistics appear to support that. The Tigers shot 48.6 percent in the three wins and their 3-point accuracy has returned as well, including a 13-of-25 effort against the Runnin’ Rebels on Sunday.
McKinney steps up vs. Cyclones
Sophomore guard Jimmy McKinney tied a career-high with 21 points against the Cyclones on Wednesday. Despite reduced playing time in the past week, he continues to believe the team can turn its season around.
“We never gave up on each other,” McKinney said. “All the guys, we believe in each other’s games and in each other and what we need to do on the defensive end. That’s the bottom line.”
McKinney is likely the most optimistic player in the Missouri locker room, always capable of finding positives in the team’s play, regardless of the situation. Although the Tigers might need to win all five of their remaining regular-season games to reach the NCAA Tournament, McKinney said he would rather take each game as it comes.
“We’re still in a ditch, but we’re climbing out of that ditch,” McKinney said. “It’s all coming along right now, but we still have to win.”
Life on the bubble
As the last week of February approaches, the debate over which teams will receive an at-large invitation is beginning to heat up. For Missouri, the discussion is nothing more than a distraction.
“We’ve got RPIs, this index, that index, bubbles and other bubbles,” Snyder said. “That stuff can take your focus away from where it needs to be, which is (playing) in the moment, defending and rebounding. We’ve done a good job lately of staying focused on those things …”
“We’re not thinking about things that we can’t control. We can’t control what other teams do unless we’re playing them.”
The Tigers have improved in the two areas Snyder stresses, outrebounding their past three opponents 117-91 and limiting second-chance opportunities. McKinney said the improved defensive focus has led to success on offense.
“If we defend and rebound the ball, everything will fall into place like we want it,” McKinney said. “(When) we were struggling, we weren’t playing the kind of defense we’re capable of playing. I think, once we just play defense, everything else will take care of itself.”
Tigers travel to Baylor
With a visit from No. 7 Oklahoma State, the conference leader, looming Tuesday, the Tigers could fall into the trap of overlooking Baylor (7-17, 2-9). Missouri has lost three of its past four at the Farrell Center, including an 81-80 loss in its most recent visit, Jan. 11, 2002.
Despite Baylor’s struggles this season, Snyder said he views Saturday’s game like any other late-season matchup.
“Every one of our games right now is a trap game,” Snyder said. “I worry about all of them. I don’t think there’s a chance that there’s any letdown in this group. We’re fighting for our lives everyday.”
The Bears have lost six of their past seven and rank near the bottom of the conference in most statistical categories. Both of their conference wins, against Iowa State and Texas A&M, came at home, where the Bears are 6-8 this season.
Forward Terrance Thomas ranks fourth in the conference in scoring, at 16.5 points per game. Center R.T. Guinn is an aggressive defender and is fourth in the conference in steals, averaging 1.76 per game.
“We can’t afford to (overlook Baylor),” senior guard Josh Kroenke said. “I don’t think anybody in this locker room is. We’ll be excited to play Oklahoma State when the time comes, but our mind is on going down there and getting a win.”
To turn their three-game winning streak into a season-best four-game run, the Tigers will need to keep their focus on the defensive end, start strong, and outhustle the Bears. In short, they must continue to do what has brought them their recent success.
“We just have to build on the things we’re doing well,” McKinney said.
“If we do that, the offense will come. We’ll get open shots and our guys really aren’t afraid to knock them down.”
MU-KU TICKETS GONE: After a limited number of tickets for No. 21 Kansas’ visit to Columbia on March 7 went on sale Thursday, all were sold by 8:30 a.m. The game, the last to be played at Hearnes Center, is sold out.
Tickets are available for Tuesday’s game against Oklahoma State at 7 p.m. Call 884-PAWS for more information.