Missouri closes season at Tennessee

Laurence Bowers throws down a dunk for two of his team-high 24 points during the second half of Tuesday’s game against Arkansas at Mizzou Arena.

Laurence Bowers throws down a dunk for two of his team-high 24 points during the second half of Tuesday’s game against Arkansas at Mizzou Arena. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA — Missouri coach Frank Haith has probably had to answer one question more than any other this season: Have all of the transfers and new parts figured out how to gel together as a team?

Haith seems to finally have the answer he has hoped for all season.

In a season filled with highs, lows and, at times, frustration, Haith said he thinks his team is starting to put it all together as the season reaches its conclusion.

“You’re going to have some ups and downs, but if you stay the course, you’re hopeful you can have the incline at the end,” Haith said as the Tigers prepare to close the regular season today at Tennessee (3 p.m., ESPN-TV). “And that’s where we’re at, I think.”

Missouri (22-8, 11-6 Southeastern Conference) has seen its share of peaks and valleys. Ranked in the Top 10 when conference play started, the Tigers eventually fell out of the Top 25 and for a while were not receiving any votes at all in the national polls.

An early-season favorite to contend for the SEC title, Missouri has been meddling in the middle of the conference for much of the season after dropping its first four SEC road games. The rough stretch included a string of four road losses that either came down to the final possession of regulation or went to overtime.

“I knew our talent level was good and I felt good about our personnel,” Haith said. “You talk about adversity, you lose Mike Dixon, you lose one of your best players at the beginning of the year so you have to revamp it again. I thought our guys bought in.”

In the last two weeks, Missouri has seemed to kick things into another gear when it has needed.

That was evident Tuesday night against Arkansas when Missouri played arguably its most complete game of the season in a 93-63 victory.

It’s also a good sign for the Tigers that forward Laurence Bowers has started to return to his early-season form after missing five SEC games with a knee injury. Bowers has back-to-back double-doubles, and averaged 23.5 points per game in Missouri’s last two victories.

“For one of our best players to be playing so well propelling us into the tournament, it’s big,” guard Keion Bell said.

Missouri has won three SEC games in row for the first time, and will try to make it four in a row against a Tennessee team that, not unlike Missouri, seems to be playing its best basketball at the end of the season.

The Volunteers (18-11, 10-7 SEC) were left for dead after an 11-10 start that included losing four of their first five SEC games. But they’ve figured things out at the end, winning seven of their last eight, including a victory against conference champion Florida.

They’ve played so well of late, a win against the Tigers could put the Volunteers in the discussion for an NCAA Tournament bid.

“I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for Cuonzo Martin and what he does,” Haith said of the former Missouri State coach.“He’s got his team on the incline too.”

Guard Jordan McRae leads the Volunteers averaging 16.2 points per game. Forward Jarnell Stokes (12.4) and guard Trae Golden (12.1) also average double figures for Tennessee.

Tennessee, which has been without forward Jeronne Maymon all season due to a knee injury, has started to pick things up after a slow start offensively. He averaged 12 points per game last year and his loss showed up early on. Earlier in the season, in back-to-back losses to Georgetown and Virginia, Tennessee totaled 74 points in the two games.

A win for Missouri could boost its seed in the SEC Tournament, and would look good for Missouri’s NCAA Tournament resume. But the Tigers aren’t focused on that just yet.

“That stuff does take care of itself,” Haith said. “I’m not going to lie to you, we look at it, the numbers and where you’re at. For the most part we’ve got to worry about what we can control ourselves and preparation and going to play a really good Tennessee team.

III

Depending on its outcome against Tennessee and how other league games shake out today, Missouri will finish anywhere from second to sixth in the final SEC standings.

The Tigers are currently in a four-way tie for second place with Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama.

If Missouri beats Tennessee, it would finish no worse than third, securing a double-bye into the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament that begins Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn.

Missouri gets the two seed if it beats Tennessee, and Kentucky loses to Florida. Missouri would also get the two seed if it finishes in a three-way tie for second with Kentucky and Alabama.

Missouri would fall to sixth if it loses to Tennessee, and Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama all win their games today.

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