Missouri focused on S. Carolina, not NCAA Tournament hopes

Phil Pressey of Missouri passes between Kentucky teammates Julius Mays and Willie Cauley-Stein during Saturday’s game in Lexington, Ky.

Phil Pressey of Missouri passes between Kentucky teammates Julius Mays and Willie Cauley-Stein during Saturday’s game in Lexington, Ky. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA — As March rolls around, a lot will be made regarding where the Missouri basketball team stands as it relates to the NCAA Tournament.

Just don’t expect to hear much of that talk from the team.

“I don’t pay attention to that stuff,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said as the Tigers prepare to play at South Carolina today (8 p.m., ESPN2-TV). “I don’t want our guys talking about that stuff. We don’t do that. We’ve got to worry about taking care of business.”

While Haith didn’t want to discuss those hopes directly, the Tigers (19-8, 8-6 Southeastern Conference) likely have little wiggle room if they want to reach their fifth straight NCAA Tournament.

Missouri is tied with Arkansas for sixth in the SEC, which makes each of the final four games of the regular season vitally important for the Tigers. A loss to South Carolina could drop the Tigers to a tie for seventh in the conference.

A low finish in a league with just one ranked team (Florida) that is experiencing a down season could be tough for the Tigers to overcome. Missouri’s RPI is 41st according to ESPN, below teams such as La Salle, Southern Mississippi and Temple.

“We’ve had some good wins,” Haith said. “I think our RPI is second in the league, I do know that. We’ve got to finish strong.”

The Tigers are 3-4 against RPI Top 50 teams with wins against Illinois, Virginia Commonwealth and Florida. But Missouri is just 7-5 in its last 12 games and has stumbled since reaching the Top 10 earlier this season. That makes avoiding a letdown tonight all the more important for the Tigers as they try to improve on their 1-8 road record.

South Carolina (13-14, 3-11 SEC) played Missouri tough at Mizzou Arena in January. The Tigers trailed by as many as 13 in the second half before rallying for a 71-65 win.

“We understand playing against a Frank Martin-coached team you’ve got to bring your hard hat and lunch pail,” Haith said of the former Kansas State coach. “We’ve got to be ready to go compete and understand what kind of game it’s going to be from a physical standpoint.”

After losing to Missouri, the Gamecocks bounced back to beat Arkansas 75-55. But they dropped their next six games before defeating Mississippi 63-62 last Wednesday.

Forward Michael Carrera leads South Carolina in scoring at 10.2 points per game. The Gamecocks are averaging just 59 points in conference play.

“Coach Frank Martin, you just know the type of guy he is,” forward Laurence Bowers said. “He’s going to have those guys fired up and ready to be physical and play. We’ve just got to come out and be more physical on the defensive end and the offense will take care of itself.”

The Tigers weren’t as physical on the defensive end as Haith would have liked them to be in Saturday’s 90-83 overtime loss at Kentucky. Haith said he did not see effort from anyone on defense.

Point guard Phil Pressey said he understands that has to change, otherwise there could be negative implications as the calendar turns to March.

“If we don’t beat (South Carolina), then that’s when the problems start coming into play,” Pressey said. “You just have to worry about the next game and you can control that outcome.”

Notes: Missouri reached five straight NCAA Tournaments on two previous occasions, from 1986-90 and 1999-03. … The Tigers play again Saturday at home against LSU before closing the home season Tuesday against Arkansas. Missouri’s final regular-season game is March 9 at Tennessee. ... The SEC Tournament runs March 13-17 in Nashville, Tenn.

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