Story by Cody Mroczka and Michael Losch
Photo by Karen Mitchell
Jabari Brown (32) and Johnathan Williams (3) are two of the stronger players for Missouri, shown here positioning for a rebound against Alabama on Jan. 18, 2014 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. Photo by Karen Mitchell
COLUMBIA — In September, Missouri men’s basketball coach Frank Haith took his team, full of transfers and freshmen, for an overnight boot camp with the Missouri National Guard.
The goal of the trip was to build chemistry and toughness. Haith hoped it would strengthen the bond between his players who had little experience together as a unit.
Talent alone led the experts to project the Tigers to finish fifth in the Southeastern Conference and to make the NCAA tournament in March.
After an 11-1 start, Missouri cracked the polls at No. 25 and climbed to the ranking of No. 21 before losing to Georgia at home. The loss not only ended a 26 home-game winning streak that was tied for the longest in the nation, but it came at the hands of an opponent who had previously not beaten a single team in the RPI top 200. By Week 11 of the season, the Tigers were out of the polls and looking for answers.
“We didn’t have the right look about us,” Haith told reporters following the loss to Georgia. “Hopefully we can learn from it. The toughness thing is something that’s hard for a coach to accept. You have to compete and that’s hard for me.”
Toughness alone doesn’t win basketball games, execution on both sides of the ball does. Missouri has been far too inconsistent to warrant much praise so far this season.
The Tigers may be 14-4 overall and 2-3 in the SEC, but the only signature win came against then-No. 18 UCLA.
Two key factors that poll voters take into account is a team’s strength of schedule and Ratings Percentage Index. Missouri’s strength of schedule currently ranks 124 out of 351, according to ESPN. Its RPI, which tracks a team’s performance based on factors like opponents and team efficiency, is currently ranked 51st in the nation, according to ESPN.
Simply put, Missouri has won the games they were supposed to against mediocre opponents and lost the games that would have cemented their position in the polls.
Haith has been a consistent winner during his tenure at Missouri. Overall, the Tigers are 67-20, but have been unable to make it out of the second round of the NCAA tournament in the past two seasons. The Tigers are 42-2 at home, but have struggled on the road going 11-13 in his two plus seasons as head coach.
That trend doesn’t seem to be changing this season.
One of the most glaring statistics for the Tigers is the low number of assists the team produces per game. They currently average 10.3 assists, which is 325th in the nation and last in the SEC. The Tigers average more turnovers (12.4) per game than assists.
Haith’s team lacks a true point guard and post players who can score in the paint. Jordan Clarkson can handle the ball, but he struggles to get wingmen Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross into rhythm. With very little post presence, the Tigers rely on their guards to dictate a quick tempo with a lot of fast breaks.
Clarkson and Brown both average more than 18 points per game while Ross averages14 points per game. The trio of transfer guards have accounted for approximately 70 percent of the Tigers total points this season.
Clarkson is quick and lengthy, but he struggles to use both hands effectively. Opponents have caught on to his tendencies, but good athleticism and body control allow him to make a lot of tough baskets around the hoop.
Brown can spot-up from anywhere on the floor to create his own shot. His 6-foot-5 frame and high release allow him to shoot over the top of most guards. Brown’s knock is that he can disappear on the court for stretches of time.
Ross is built like a wrecking ball. He’s stronger than most players close to his size and can muscle his way to the basket. He’s the Tigers’ best defender, but can get out of control on offense.
Together they are explosive and frustrating. If these players don’t perform well, the team doesn’t perform well.
Freshmen forward Johnathan Williams III appears to be a solution to their post needs, but he is physically outmatched as an 18-year-old. Freshmen Wes Clark is a true point guard, but he is still learning the offense and how to play with the trio of scorers.
Haith appears to have assembled the pieces, how he fits them together should determine the Tigers’ success going forward. With the remaining schedule filled with the highest rated opponents from the SEC, the Tigers have a chance to climb back up into the rankings. After hosting South Carolina Saturday, Missouri takes on Arkansas and then two Top 15-ranked opponents in Kentucky and Florida. If the Tigers can go no worse than 3-1 during the upcoming stretch, they may garner enough votes to crack the Top 25 again. If the Tigers stumble here there is little chance to regain confidence from the voters based on the strength of their remaining opponents.
Missouri hopes to get back to its winning ways on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Mizzou Arena against the South Carolina Gamecocks (7-11, 0-5 SEC).