COLUMBIA - Missouri kept its NCAA Tournament hopes alive Thursday night. Now the Tigers look to build a winning streak with an eye on the Big Dance.
Missouri (17-7, 5-6 Southeastern Conference) hosts Tennessee (15-9, 6-5 SEC) at 3 p.m. today (ESPN2-TV) at Mizzou Arena.
"It keeps us going in the right direction," Missouri guard Jabari Brown said of Thursday's 86-85 victory against Arkansas, a game in which Brown hit the game-winning shot with 12.2 seconds remaining. "We have seven more games and we're trying to get all seven of them. We're going to take them one at a time and we've got a good Tennessee team coming in here."
Brown went on record before the Arkansas game saying Missouri needed to win all eight of its remaining regular-season games, as well as a couple more in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, to have a chance at securing an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Step 1 of 10 is completed. Step 2 comes today.
Not that it will be easy to beat the Volunteers.
"Another great team, well-coached," Missouri head coach Frank Haith said. "Great front line with (Jarnell) Stokes and (Jeronne) Maymon. They have one of the better players in the league on the perimeter (in Jordan McRae). We have to be ready to play. They play hard. We have to have our hard hats on (this) afternoon."
McRae ranks fourth in the SEC by tossing in 19.2 points per game for the Volunteers. Stokes, a 6-foot-8 forward, averages a double-double, going for 14.2 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Maymon, another 6-foot-8 forward, adds 10.6 points and 8.2 rebounds. Guard Josh Richardson chips in 9.2 ppg.
Tennessee is in the same NCAA Tournament bubble boat as Missouri. Tennessee sits at No. 47 in the Ratings Percentage Index, while Missouri weighs in at No. 50.
Both teams have had trouble with consistency, not having won more than two games in a row in league play.
"Tennessee, I think is a tournament team right now," Haith said.
The Volunteers are coming off a 67-58 home loss Tuesday to No. 3 Florida. The best win on Tennessee's resume seems to be a 87-52 drubbing of Virginia in late December, a Cavaliers team now ranked 17th in the country.
Missouri, which ended a three-game losing streak with the win against Arkansas, looks to add a little heft to the resume. A return game March 8 at Tennessee in the regular-season finale projects as the only remaining game against teams projected to be in the NCAA Tournament picture.
"It gives us some momentum, some confidence coming off a win," Brown said. "It's a good thing. When you're coming off a loss you feel like you have to regroup. I feel like we have to improve on some things but it's not like we have to regroup."
Brown continues to lead the Tigers with 20.1 ppg. The junior guard is considered one of the favorites for the SEC Player of the Year. Brown trails only Auburn's Chris Denson (20.5) for the league scoring lead. Jordan Clarkson isn't far off with 18.9 ppg after his 27-point outburst against Arkansas. Earnest Ross remains the third option with 14.1 ppg.
"Mizzou's a very tough team at home, a very talented team," Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin, who formerly was the head coach at Missouri State, said.
Missouri remains one of the top offensive teams in the country. Despite averaging just 74.8 ppg, good for 90th in the country, Missouri is one of the most efficient teams in the nation. The Tigers score 115.4 points per 100 possessions, good for 19th in the land.
The only problem? In SEC games, Missouri ranks last in the league by allowing 109.9 points per 100 possessions.
"We have to get better defensively," Haith said. "We're a pretty good offensive team, but we need to be consistent on the defensive end."
Tennessee's bread and butter comes on the glass. The Volunteers rank 23rd in the country by pulling down 39 rebounds per game. Perhaps even more impressive is Tennessee's work on the offensive boards. The Volunteers rank third in the nation, grabbing a whopping 41.3 percent of their missed shots.
The onus will fall on the continued improvement of Missouri's big men. Ryan Rosburg, Johnathan Williams III, Torren Jones and Keanau Post, along with the linebacker-sized guard Ross, will be in charge of patrolling the boards today.
Following today's contest, Missouri wraps up a three-game homestand Wednesday against Vanderbilt.