By Michael Losch
COLUMBIA – Missouri has a lot to play for when it takes on Tennessee Saturday afternoon.
The Tigers are not only fighting for their tournament lives, but a win could help secure the No. 4 seed and first-round bye in the Southeastern Conference tournament next week. Missouri (21-9, 9-8) currently trails both Tennessee (19-11, 10-7) and Arkansas (21-9, 10-7) by one game in league standings and a win on Saturday would give the Tigers a season sweep over both teams.
Missouri already knows what it is like to be in intense games.
The Tigers narrowly edged out Texas A&M on Wednesday, finally grabbing the lead with 7.3 seconds to play.
Missouri coach Frank Haith knows Tennessee will be no easy task and the team needs to be better than their final regular season performance at Mizzou Arena.
“We knew it was going to be a dog fight,” Haith said. “Texas A&M was really prepared and we’re going to have to play much, much better at Tennessee.”
The road has not been friendly to the Tigers lately.
Missouri has dropped four straight games away from Columbia with the Tiger’s last win coming against Arkansas on Jan. 28.
The Volunteers have won three straight games including a 38-point blowout against Vanderbilt and 28-point victory over Auburn.
Part of those dominating victories can be attributed to senior guard Jordan McRae and junior forward Jarnell Stokes.
McRae has been averaging 19.1 points per game, just shy of Missouri’s Jabari Brown and his league-leading 20.1. McRae is shooting 43 percent from the floor and has been hot behind the 3-point line making nearly 39 percent of his shots.
Stokes is the second-leading scorer for the Volunteers averaging 14.5 points per game and is a force inside grabbing 10.3 rebounds per game. Stokes only trails Kentucky’s Julius Randle in that category as Randle leads the SEC with 10.5 rebounds.
When the two teams met in Columbia earlier this year, the Tigers held off the combination of McRae and Stokes just enough as Missouri won 75-70.
McRae led all scorers with 31 points as Stokes added 13 points and eight rebounds.
Missouri must disrupt these two Volunteers if it hopes to sweep Tennessee this season.
The Volunteers could also have their hands full when Missouri comes to visit.
Brown and Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson have become the No. 1 scoring tandem in all of college basketball as they combine to average 38.4 points per game.
Missouri’s frontcourt has stepped up as well recently.
The frontcourt produced 16 points, 18 rebounds and five blocks against Texas A&M.
When Mississippi State visited Mizzou Arena, the frontcourt had one of the most productive games of the season putting up 32 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocks.
Missouri will need a complete team effort to finish the season strong in Knoxville.
The Tigers take on the Volunteers at 3 p.m. and the SEC tournament gets underway March 12.