Tough at home, Missouri needs to solve road woes to impress NCAA

Sports Commentary

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Following Missouri's 98-79 thrashing of Mississippi on Saturday, Missouri coach Frank Haith was asked why his team is so different at home than it is on the road.

He's been asked that same question one way or another for the last three weeks. His response Saturday was "That is the $50-million question."

It's a fair question for a team that is now 14-0 at Mizzou Arena and 0-5 in true road games. It's a fair question from media and from fans.

In four weeks, it will be a fair question from the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Once a lock to reach the postseason, Missouri's play away from Mizzou Arena has caused a sense of panic among fans on whether this team will play itself out of the NCAA Tournament.

Here is what the committee sees:

Missouri looked the part of an NCAA Tournament team Saturday. It tore apart a solid Mississippi team that has two legitimate scorers and has 18 victories this year. It's a team that manhandled Missouri earlier this year. The Tigers won the rebounding battle 50-32 and looked every bit like the top 10 team they were in late December.

Here is what the committee sees:

Missouri did not look the part of an NCAA Tournament team in a 73-70 loss at LSU. That's LSU which is 4-5 in the SEC. Missouri did not look the part of an NCAA Tournament team in a 70-68 loss to at Texas A&M. That's Texas A&M which has lost three SEC home games. Missouri did not look the part of an NCAA Tournament team in blowout losses at Florida and Mississippi.

This so-called committee is not sure what to believe.

It doesn't help Missouri also lacks a signature win. It could be argued Missouri's best win so far this season was either against Mississippi, against Illinois in St. Louis or against Virginia Commonwealth in the Bahamas. Based on the Rating's Power Index, which the NCAA committee looks at when selecting its teams, Missouri's best win is against Illinois. That is an Illinois team that is 3-7 in the Big 10.

Believe me, Missouri has to win at least one game away from Mizzou Arena to reach the NCAA Tournament. If Missouri holds serve at home, and does not win on the road, it would be staring at a 20-11 overall record and an 8-8 mark in the SEC. A .500 record in the Big 12 MIGHT be good enough to sneak in. An 8-8 mark in the SEC? Not a chance.

And all of that is IF Missouri wins the rest of its games at home, which includes a game against Florida next week.

But there is still plenty of basketball left to play.

The odds are in Missouri's favor that it will break through on the road. The Tigers were close in each of the last two games. They haven't gone winless on the road since back-to-back winless years from 1996-98. For kicks, the 1997-98 team went 8-8 in the Big 12 and ended up in the NIT.

Missouri's next shot at a road win is likely it's best chance left to get a win. The Tigers play at Mississippi State on Wednesday, a team that barely has enough bodies to play. After guard Jalen Steele was suspended prior to Saturday's game at Florida, the Bulldogs have just six scholarship players and two walk-ons available to play.

Missouri's other road games are at Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky, all difficult places to play.

In some ways, this Missouri team reminds me of the 2001-2002 squad that reached the Elite 8. A top-10 team early on, the Tigers struggled midway through the year and backed their way into the NCAA Tournament as one of the last teams invited. They wound up a few made-free throws away from going to the Final Four. That team had an NBA player in Kareem Rush, and other players capable of playing at the next level.

This team has the same potential.

Now, they have to unleash that potential away from home.