Haith has short answer on how to fix MU’s defensive woes

Kenny Gaines of Georgia shoots a reverse layup around Mississippi State’s Colin Borchert during a game earlier this month in Starkville, Miss.

Kenny Gaines of Georgia shoots a reverse layup around Mississippi State’s Colin Borchert during a game earlier this month in Starkville, Miss. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA — Frank Haith didn’t have to say much. Two words were all he needed for one answer.

“Play harder,” Missouri’s third-year head coach said during a terse media session Monday afternoon, offering a solution for how the Tigers can fix their defensive issues.

Haith hopes that’s the remedy as Missouri (19-8, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) travels today to Georgia (15-11, 9-5 SEC) for an 8 p.m. contest (ESPNU-TV) at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga.

“We didn’t have the competitive spirit you needed to have,” Haith said of Missouri’s 80-73 loss Saturday night at 11th-place Alabama. “We practiced well and we were prepared. We didn’t compete on the defensive end. That was really disappointing.”

Missouri let Alabama score 12 points above its season average and allowed Levi Randolph (and his 33 points) to go 24 points higher than his scoring average.

“We didn’t do a good job defensively,” Haith said. “We were really, really poor defensively in that ball game. They had too many open looks. … Our perimeter defense and low-post defense and total defensive effort was not good. We’ve got to get better. … Hopefully we’ll have a better effort on that end of the court (tonight). That was really disappointing how we defended in that ball game. You can’t win on the road especially if you don’t play defense.”

The unfortunate truth for Missouri is Saturday’s game isn’t an outlier. Now 14 games in the SEC slate, Missouri ranks dead last in defensive efficiency in league games. The Tigers allow 110.5 points per 100 possessions. For a comparison, Florida tops the conference by allowing 94.2 points per 100 possessions.

“We have to play harder,” Haith said. “We didn’t defend. We didn’t do the things we’ve coached them to do, but maybe we have to coach them harder to do it.”

Whatever the issue, Missouri needs to correct it, and fast.

The Tigers are currently involved in a seven-way tie for fourth place in the SEC with that 7-7 record. Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, Mississippi, Tennessee and Vanderbilt complete the logjam. Four league games remain for each team.

And remember, the top four teams receive first-round byes in the SEC Tournament.

“It means it’s up for grabs. You’re going to play your way into that,” Haith said.

“… Somebody’s got to win some games in the next two weeks to separate yourselves. It tells you about the parity in our league and how difficult it is to win on the road.”

A bigger issue might be Missouri’s NCAA Tournament standing. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm both have the Tigers as a No. 11 seed facing No. 6 seed Texas in the first round. Lunardi includes the Tigers in his “First Four Byes” category, meaning they’re barely avoiding a play-in game.

Missouri guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson admitted the Tigers’ postseason prospects were weighing on their minds following the Alabama game. Haith is trying to shift the focus elsewhere.

“It’s hard for those guys watching games to not see what people say about them,” Haith said. “We’ve just got to continue to preach what we do and stay in the moment and attack each game, and we want to play as hard as we can play each time out. That’s first and foremost, is going out there and competing and giving everything we’ve got on that basketball court. That’s what we’ve got to focus on.

“… Here’s what I’d like us to focus on. It’s February, we’re playing for something, so let’s go out there and play our (behinds) off because it’s February, beginning of March.”

Georgia, currently sitting in third place in the SEC, offers another challenging road game for Missouri. The Tigers dropped their SEC opener to the Bulldogs, 70-64 in overtime, in early January at Mizzou Arena. So is revenge a factor?

“Yeah, definitely,” Brown said. “We pride ourselves on winning at home so we want to try to go get one on their home court.”

Georgia features just two players who score in double figures — Charles Mann at 13.2 points per game and Kenny Gaines at 12.7 ppg.

“We have a number of guys that are now comfortable making their offensive plays,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. “We don’t have to rely on one guy to score. We’ve got a handful of guys now who can finish plays for us. We’ve become a better unit offensively.”

While not exactly an offensive juggernaut averaging just 69 ppg, the Bulldogs do one thing especially well. They get to the free-throw line. Georgia attempts 59.6 free throws for every 100 field-goal attempts in league play, the best ratio in the conference.

“You have to do your work early, you have to shrink gaps, you can’t give them driving lanes,” Haith offered as a solution to prevent Georgia from getting to the foul line. “That’s effort.”

Brown continues to lead Missouri in scoring at 20.2 ppg. Jordan Clarkson adds 18.6 ppg while Earnest Ross is up to 14.7 ppg.

While Missouri’s 74.9 ppg, good for 81st in the country, might not see like much, consider the Tigers are 18th in the country in offensive efficiency (115.8 points per 100 possessions).

But can Missouri’s offense make up for its lackluster defense? That hasn’t been the case so far.

There is a solution, though. Play harder.

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