By the Associated Press
Laurence Bowers (21) missed the first game against Florida due to an injured knee. (KBIA Sports file photo)
Three more wins and Missouri has a perfect home season.
Nothing like a little top 10 competition to test that dominance.
SEC-leading Florida comes to town Tuesday night and the memory of the 31-point rout last month in Gainesville, Fla., is still fresh in the memory for the Tigers. The fifth-ranked Gators are coming off another 31-point rout at Auburn, too.
“Obviously we’re playing one of the best teams in the country, if not the best team in the country,” coach Frank Haith said Monday. “They’re a very gifted, talented group on both ends of the court. Very good, very sound, experienced.”
Missouri (18-7, 7-5 SEC) is just 1-5 on the road, the last loss by two points at Arkansas on Saturday.
The Tigers are 14-0 at Mizzou Arena, beating Alabama by 16, Georgia by 17 and Mississippi by 19 in conference play.
Although this will be the first ranked opponent at home this season, the Tigers were 2-0 last season with victories over No. 8 Kansas and No. 6 Baylor.
They’re 29-1 at home in two seasons under Haith, and are working on their fourth streak of 15 or more in a row since 2008-09, going 81-4 overall in those five seasons.
The road woes put Missouri on the NCAA bubble, but Haith said there have been no discussions with the players.
“No, I think we just worry about the game,” Haith said. “Figuring out quality wins and home wins, road wins, and trying to get your resume built up for NCAA, I don’t think they need to worry about that.
“That’s not for them.”
The road does not seem to bother Florida (21-3, 11-1), which led by 25 at halftime at Auburn on Saturday behind a season-best 15 3-pointers. The Gators have handled their past three conference opponents by an average of 24 points since the lone loss at Arkansas.
“I thought Auburn had a real good environment,” coach Billy Donovan said. “Our guys have played in difficult situations. I don’t think that there’s anything that we’re going to talk about environment-wise that’s going to take our guys totally back or off-guard.”
Florida specializes in defense, holding 11 opponents to 50 or fewer points and three to 40 or fewer, ranking third in the nation in scoring defense at 52.6 points per game. It’s the only other SEC unbeaten at home, too, going 12-0.
“They’re older than any team in our league and experienced, they’ve been to the Elite Eight two years in a row,” Haith said. “You look across the country, the best teams are the teams that are the oldest, and I think they are the oldest team in our league.”
Missouri is the lone major team with six players averaging in double figures, led by Jabari Brown at 14.6 points, guard Keion Bell is averaging 21 points this month, and forward Alex Oriakhi averages 10.6 points and 8.8 rebounds.
All three are transfers who’ve made the adjustment to Missouri.
“I think Keion Bell’s playing like an all-conference player,” Haith said. “We’ve got to utilize him and trust him.”
The Tigers are second in the nation in rebounding, too, averaging 42.2 per game, and have outrebounded their past seven opponents by an average of 14.
Florida is balanced, too, with Kenny Boynton (13.0), Mike Rosario (12.9), Erik Murphy (12.7) and Patric Young (10.5) all averaging in double figures, and Scottie Wilbekin (9.4) right behind. Wilbekin earned his first career double double in the first Missouri game, with 13 points and 10 assists.
Including reserve Michael Frazier, six players have led the team in scoring in at least one game.
“You’re going to have to make some shots against them,” Haith said, “because they’re not going to beat themselves.”
The Gators can hurt opponents with 3-pointers, or in the lane if opponents take away the long-distance scoring.
“I don’t have a set number of 3s or a number of who needs to score, I just know that the ball needs to move,” Donovan said. “It needs to find the open guy.
“If you’ve got a shot and a guy has got a better one, you’d better find that guy.”
Missouri guard Phil Pressey might do well to follow that credo. The preseason SEC player of the year has stumbled late in games recently, turning it over at Arkansas in the final seconds and missing a late 3-point attempt for the lead with about 10 seconds to go at Texas A&M.
“We’ve just got to continue to work with him. He’s our guy. Love him,” Haith said. “We’re going to continue to help him through it and help ourselves.”
Late in the Arkansas game, Haith appeared to be pleading with Pressey to get his game under control.
“I’m not going to shred his confidence by taking the ball out of his hands, for sure,” Haith said. “Maybe we’ve got to help in some ways in what we do in terms of late game, but he’s going to be out there.”
Missouri didn’t have forward Laurence Bowers for the first meeting. The forward is back from a knee strain, and rounding his way back into form, and Haith wants the 6-8 Bowers to concentrate on doing the little things “and let the scoring take care of itself.”