By the Associated Press
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri is so well-tested that its first-ever SEC game should not cause any extra anxiety.
A 2-point decision over Bucknell, an overtime loss at UCLA and a neutral-site victory over Illinois have all helped the 10th-ranked Tigers (11-2) prepare for Tuesday night’s game against Alabama (8-5).
They trailed at halftime and got outrebounded for the first time all season in the close call against Bucknell on Saturday before winning their 73rd consecutive non-conference home game, a feat stretching to the 2005-06 opener. Coach Frank Haith is counting on such tests to toughen the roster now that the competition figures to step up on a consistent basis, even if the opening matchup appears a bit lopsided.
Alabama had lost five of six overall before beating Oakland 65-45 on Saturday to snap a three-game home losing streak.
“I love where we’re at. I love our team; I love our attitude and our toughness,” Haith said. “You hear these guys talk about toughness and it is something that we emphasize.”
The unquestioned leader has been the lone returning starter.
Junior point guard Phil Pressey had a career-high 26 points against Bucknell after getting 19 points and a school-record 19 assists at UCLA. Pressey has 35 assists the last three games and has 433 for his career, tied for third on the school career list with Larry Drew, a former NBA star and the current Atlanta Hawks coach. He’s 64 assists shy of Anthony Peeler’s school record.
“Watching all the tape, the DVDs of him playing, if I didn’t have to prepare to play against him, it would have been a treat,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. “He’s the best passing point guard that I’ve coached against since I’ve been at Bucknell.”
Missouri had just two turnovers in the second half, and eight overall.
Laurence Bowers, back all the way from knee surgery that sidelined him all season, also had a strong game with 16 points and eight rebounds. Bowers has scored in double figures eight straight games and has 56 points with 27 rebounds the last three.
“Those three games were a good challenge for us. I thought we handled them well,” Bowers said. “We just have to continue to get better.”
After the Bucknell game, Haith reminded players of that.
“You get in league play, it’s a little different,” Haith said. “Kentucky, Alabama, you see some young teams I think that will start to play better.
“And that’s my focus in telling our team that we’ve got to be ready to play every time we lace them up.”
Fan interest is booming heading into SEC play with attendance of 13,856, while more than 1,000 shy of capacity, more than 3,000 better than the previous best during an 8-0 start at home. The Mizzou Arena is sold out for two-thirds of the conference games, with tickets remaining for Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.