By Mary Kate Burgess
Jabari Brown leans against defenders as he drives to the basket against Georgia in this January 2014 photo. Brown is Missouri’s leading scorer.
As the basketball season comes to a close, the teams that are still on the bubble for the NCAA tournament need to begin worrying about being the first five out. In the Southeastern Conference, two teams are a lock. Florida and Kentucky have played solid ball all season and are locks for the tournament.
Missouri, on the other hand, is in the tournament as of right now. However, the Tigers are one bad loss away from having their tournament dreams go down the drain. In order to earn one of the 68 spots in the tournament, the Tigers need to win the rest of their remaining games, including a must-win at Georgia.
The Tigers had a good start to their season with a solid win over then- No. 18 UCLA, but a one-point loss to a bad Illinois team followed by losses to Georgia at home in overtime, a loss to Vanderbilt on the road as well as a loss to LSU on the road have put the Tigers in a sticky situation.
Add losses to Kentucky at home, Florida on the road, and Ole Miss on the road, Missouri finds itself in a pickle. Up a creek without a paddle. Stuck in a rut. However you want to put it, Missouri is in a precarious situation, but looking at the conference, the Tigers could make their schedule work to their advantage.
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Now, let’s look at what the selection committee looks at when it is deciding whether or not to give a team a bid to the NCAA tournament. The committee looks at quality wins, bad losses, strength of schedule, RPI, and road wins. According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, Missouri is ranked 38 in RPI. As they stand right now, the Tigers are definitely in contention for a tournament bid. But if Missouri gets swept by Georgia (14-10, third in the SEC) and loses one of its home games, the Tigers will be 9-8 in the league when they head to Knoxville. And if Ole Miss upsets Kentucky or Florida, the Rebels will have accomplished something that the Tigers couldn’t and will have the head-to-head advantage.
Looking at the conference, the schedule sets up best for Missouri and Tennessee. The recent wins over Arkansas and Tennessee at home were critical. Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson combined for more than 50 points in the game against Arkansas, Brown scoring 25 and Clarkson scoring 27. Brown has scored 20 or more points in his past nine games and has scored double digits in every game this season and with the exception of the Florida game,
With a home game against Vanderbilt on Wednesday and then a winnable road game against Alabama, the next true test for the Tigers will be against Georgia in Athens. Georgia has played surprisingly well this year, going 8-4 in conference play. Then Missouri has two winnable games against Mississippi State and Texas A&M. If the Tigers win their next five games, they could probably lose to Tennessee and still have a chance at making the tournament. That will put Missouri at 23-8 overall and 11-7 in the league.
The Vols have three road games against bottom feeders in the conference and can win out. If that happens they will be 12-6 in conference play and definitely in the tournament.
The wildcard for the Tigers is still Ole Miss. The Rebels don’t have much of a resume outside of the league, but they are on track to be 11-7 in the league. That puts them with the same league record as Missouri and the Rebels have the head-to-head win. If Ole Miss beats either Florida or Kentucky, one of those wins would match the Tigers win over UCLA as a resume builder. Missouri needs Ole Miss to lose both of its games this week.
Overall, the game that will decide whether or not Missouri salvages its season and makes a charge at the NCAA tournament is the game at Georgia. If Georgia sweeps the Tigers, they will have to beat Tennessee in Knoxville and have to win two games in the SEC tournament. And Ole Miss will have to lose twice this week for Missouri to even have a shot at the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA tournament selection show will be broadcast at 5 p.m. Central time on Sunday, March 16 on CBS.