With NCAA hopes dwindling, Missouri hosts Mississippi St.

Mississippi State guard Craig Sword (right) dribbles past Tennessee guard Antonio Barton in the first half of Wednesday night’s game in Starkville, Miss. Sword, who leads his team in scoring, and the Bulldogs will face the Missouri Tigers this afternoon at Mizzou Arena.

Mississippi State guard Craig Sword (right) dribbles past Tennessee guard Antonio Barton in the first half of Wednesday night’s game in Starkville, Miss. Sword, who leads his team in scoring, and the Bulldogs will face the Missouri Tigers this afternoon at Mizzou Arena. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Frank Haith doesn’t think the bubble has burst quite yet.

The third-year Missouri head coach believes the Tigers still have a shot to make the NCAA Tournament despite consecutive losses to Alabama and Georgia. The quest continues when Missouri (19-9, 7-8 Southeastern Conference) hosts Mississippi State (13-15, 3-12 SEC) at 12:30 p.m. today at Mizzou Arena (KQFX-TV).

“I think we just have to win,” Haith said. “You have to finish strong. We have an opportunity here with two home games to get ourselves back in terms of getting some confidence back. I think we’re shook a little bit confidence-wise.

“There’s a lot of basketball to be played. There’s no reason for our guys to think we’re not going to play in postseason. We’ve got opportunities. As long as there’s games left on your schedule, we’ve got opportunity. And we’ve got games left on our schedule last time I checked.”

Following today’s game, Missouri closes the season with a home game Wednesday against Texas A&M and a road tilt March 8 at Tennessee. Then comes the SEC Tournament that runs from March 12-16 in Atlanta, Ga.

“I feel like we need all three, probably a couple in the tournament,” Missouri guard Jabari Brown said. “I’m not exactly sure because I don’t know what all goes into how they pick it and who gets left out.”

Missouri’s at-large odds are precarious at best. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi lists the Tigers in his “First Four Out” category, while CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm places the Tigers in his “Last Four In” group as a No. 12 seed. But Missouri’s positioning could slide if there are surprise conference tournament winners that shrink the number of at-large bids.

“I ain’t Joe Lunardi, but I feel like some wins would definitely help,” Brown said.

That starts with today’s tilt against Mississippi State, a struggling team in the midst of a 10-game losing streak.

“Playing a team that plays extremely hard,” Haith said. “I’ve got respect for how those guys compete. They’re young. (Craig) Sword is a good player. Their front line, (Gavin) Ware I think he’s going to be a really good player. A local kid, has a great body. We’ve got to come out and play very well.”

Sword, a 6-foot-3 sophomore guard, leads the Bulldogs with 13.3 points per game. Ware, a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, is next with 10.3 points and 7.4 rebounds.

“You don’t give yourself a chance to get out of this slump and win if you don’t play hard and you don’t compete,” Mississippi State head coach Rick Rays said. “You worry if your guys are giving enough effort when they go out and play. I don’t think there’s too many times besides the Georgia game where we didn’t give an effort at all. I think we’ve been pretty competitive as far as playing hard and giving an effort.”

Mississippi State scores just 68.3 points per game, which ranks 252nd in the nation. The Bulldogs also rank last in the conference by hitting just 30.6 percent of their 3-point attempts, an area Missouri has struggled to defend.

“We just have to run guys off the 3-point line and make them feel uncomfortable,” Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson said. “That’s all we can do defensively and hope they miss shots.”

Missouri scores 74.2 points per game, good for 87th in the country. Mississippi State allows 70.8 points per game, ranking 10th in the SEC.

Brown continues to lead the Tigers with 20.1 ppg, second in the SEC behind Auburn’s Chris Denson and his 20.4 ppg average. Clarkson comes next with 18.6 ppg and Earnest Ross adds 14.3 in his final season at Missouri.

“It’s definitely something I want to do, and it’s very important,” Ross said of making the NCAA Tournament his senior year. “We have a lot of opportunities in front of us. I’m just trying to capture these moments as I’m right here and just enjoy the moment right now.”

Opportunity still awaits for Missouri. Will a talented but desperate team be able to take advantage? If not, at least one Tiger thinks the season is a failure.

“That was one of our main goals coming into this year, and one of my main goals coming in as a transfer to make it to the tournament,” Clarkson said. “I feel like it’s a disappointment (if we don’t make the NCAA Tournament). We have to do what we have to do.”

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