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Missouri travels to Tennessee

Jabari Brown and his Missouri teammates will take on Tennessee today in Knoxville, Tenn.

Jabari Brown and his Missouri teammates will take on Tennessee today in Knoxville, Tenn. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — There’s no sense in denying it. The stakes are extremely high.

A pair of bubble teams desperately fighting for a spot in the NCAA Tournament meet at 3 p.m. today as Missouri (21-9, 19-8 Southeastern Conference) travels to take on Tennessee (19-11, 10-7 SEC) in Knoxville, Tenn. (ESPN-TV).

“I want them to embrace this,” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said. “This is a great opportunity. It’s exciting, it’s fun. When you look at where we’re at, and now we have a chance to improve our standing, I want them to look at it as a chance in March to have a game of importance like this.”

Regardless of whether Haith wants his players to acknowledge the ramifications that go along with today’s season-finale, the bracketology projections invade the Tigers’ lives.

“It’s impossible to avoid it,” Missouri forward Ryan Rosburg said of the postseason conversation. “Anywhere you go — Twitter, people talking in class, turn on the TV — people are talking about it. You can’t really avoid it, but you try not to think about it though. Just go out and play. Some people have us in, some people have us out, so we have a big game (today) and we have a big (SEC) tournament coming up.”

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has Tennessee in his “Last Four In” category, while placing Missouri in his “Next Four Out” group. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm disagrees, placing Missouri in the “Last Four In” and Tennessee in the “First Four Out.”

“Obviously it’s a big game,” Haith said. “It would definitely do wonders for us in terms of building our resume. … It strengthens your deal to get into the NCAA Tournament, so it’s a really big game.”

Missouri might have a leg up on Tennessee based on the Tigers’ 75-70 win Feb. 15 against the Volunteers at Mizzou Arena. A win today would likely keep Missouri ahead of Tennessee in the pecking order.

“It definitely would help your case in a big way,” Haith said.

A victory for the Tigers could possibly earn them a first-round bye in next week’s SEC Tournament in Atlanta. Missouri would need an Arkansas loss at Alabama and a LSU loss to Georgia to claim a No. 4 seed and the bye that goes with it.

“A lot of people are saying that whoever wins gets in (the NCAA Tournament),” Rosburg said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily true because we have potentially a lot of games left. It’s definitely a big game. We’re in a similar position, so we know that to help ourselves we need to win this game.”

A major key for Missouri will be stopping Jordan McRae, a senior guard who averages 19.1 points and 2.6 assissts. He torched the Tigers in the last meeting to the tune of 31 points.

“We have to make his shots difficult shots,” Missouri guard Jabari Brown said. “He’s a good player so he’s going to score points, we just want to make him take a lot of shots to get those points.”

A pair of big men will pose problems as well. Jarnell Stokes averages 14.5 points and 10.3 rebounds, while Jeronne Maymon adds 10.4 points and 8.2 rebounds.

“They’re two big, strong, physical guys,” Rosburg said. “Very active, very involved in their offense. It’s a whole team effort. We just had to have swarms of guys because they require so much energy to guard them. Just making sure everyone is aware and have guys digging. It takes five guys to guard them.”

Although Stokes and Maymon combined for just 18 points in the first meeting, stopping them didn’t come easy. Four Missouri post players picked up four fouls.

“They almost fouled us all out,” Haith said. “Obviously they’re a chore. Our ability to defend them and have success against them is in our numbers. It won’t be one guy or two guys, it will be a collective group of all five guys out there.

“The biggest thing we’re going to have to do with both those guys is keep them off the glass. They’re relentless on the offensive boards. They’re big, you can’t move them.”

Stokes and Maymon spearhead one of the best rebounding teams in the nation. Tennessee pulls down 39 rebounds per game, good for 22nd in the country. The Volunteers are fifth in the nation on the offensive glass, rebounding 40.2 percent of their missed shots.

Tennessee appears to be peaking at the right time, winning three games in a row by an average of 24.3 points. Missouri has won two straight, but has dropped four consecutive games on the road. The Tigers’ last victory away from home came Jan. 28 at Arkansas.

“Obviously we haven’t played as well of late on the road, but the fact we’ve won the road, I think we’ve shown we’re capable of it,” Haith said. “We just have to go out and do it. … We just have to thrive and continue to play when we have those tough moments. You play on the road, there’s going to be ebb and flow. It’s not going to be smooth.”

Missouri will need Jabari Brown to continue his SEC-best scoring, as the junior averages 20.1 points per contest. Jordan Clarkson adds 18.3 ppg, while Earnest Ross sits at 13.9 ppg.

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