It's do-or-die time for the Missouri Tigers.
With one more loss leaving Missouri without any more opportunities to add to its NCAA Tournament resume, the eighth-seeded Tigers need to get back to winning when they take on the ninth-seeded Texas A&M Aggies in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at noon today (KQFX-TV) at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga.
"You can't control anything that's behind you," Missouri head coach Frank Haith said. "All you can focus on is what's ahead of you and we're looking forward to Atlanta."
If the situation seems a little familiar, that's because it is. Missouri and Texas A&M met in the same round of the SEC Tournament a season ago, with Missouri winning by 12. The teams also met eight days ago in Columbia, with the Tigers rallying to claim a 57-56 victory on Senior Night at Mizzou Arena.
"The advantage is that in terms of preparation, you just faced the team, you have a feel for how they play, things they do and guys will have a remembrance of that," Haith said. "Disadvantages, it was a dogfight. It was a game that went down to the wire, it could have gone either way. Both teams fought hard. We anticipate it being that kind of game."
Missouri likely needs a win today, another win Friday against top-seeded Florida and possibly an SEC Tournament title to secure its spot in the NCAA Tournament. For Texas A&M, it's automatic bid or bust.
"It's a new season," Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy said. "It's postseason play. We're playing a Missouri team that we gave ourselves a chance to win, but Missouri came out on top and did some good things at the end. We're focusing on trying to get a little bit better."
After Texas A&M let that late lead slip away last week, the Aggies are anxious to get another shot at Missouri.
"I don't want to say happy, we have a lot of respect for that team and that program and their ability to score," Kennedy said of the rematch. "The only good thing, and it's good for both of us, we're real familiar with each other from having just played. So it's not going to be a lot of preparation. It's going to be who can execute, who's excited to play, who plays the best together, who can make shots in a dome.
"I'd give them the advantage as good as a shooting team as they are and how good their perimeter guys are. We'll have to have a real good performance to beat them. Playing a team twice in eight days, there's going to be no surprises."
Kennedy was spot-on with his comment about Missouri's ability to shoot the ball. The Tigers rank second in the SEC, behind only Florida, by hitting 45.8 percent of their field-goal attempts. While the depth perception issue associated with playing in a dome can be used as an excuse, the Tigers are brushing it off.
"It's just another arena, all we need is a basketball and some hoops," Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson said.
Plus there's a more pressing issue that might affect Missouri's ability to shoot the ball: Texas A&M's stingy defense. The Aggies allow just 62.6 points per game, the 25th-best mark in the nation. Part of that could be due to A&M's style of play. The Aggies are the turtle to the Tigers' hare, ranking among the slowest teams in the nation.
"They control the game, the tempo of the game with their offense," Haith said. "It's hard to speed a team up on the offensive end. I think that's one area that really helps their defense. You have to defend for 35 seconds when you're guarding them. They're very patient. They grind you on the offensive end. Then when you go, you quick shoot, that plays right into their hands. You have to be patient on both ends. That's what keeps the possessions down and keeps the games tight."
Texas A&M, which scores just 64.6 points per game (312th in the nation), boasts just one player averaging double figures. That would be 6-foot-8 junior guard Jamal Jones, who averages 13.4 ppg. Alex Caruso does dish out 4.7 assists per game, however, the best mark in the SEC.
Missouri, on the other hand, scores 73.1 ppg (114th in the nation), while allowing 69.0 ppg (146th in the country). Jabari Brown, who won the league's scoring title, averages 19.7 ppg. Clarkson chips in 18.1 ppg while Earnest Ross completes the Big Three with 13.5 ppg.
"We rely on those guys' production," Haith said.
Missouri will need that production today. Otherwise it will be destination NIT for the basketball Tigers.