Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
The Missouri basketball team played its last regular-season opponent outside of the Southeastern Conference on Saturday, and though they finished it in a winning fashion — a 72-60 defeat of Lipscomb — the Tigers would like to erase the memory of this non-conference season.
Missouri begins SEC play today at home against LSU (6 p.m., ESPN2).
The Tigers finished with a 6-7 record in coach Kim Anderson’s first foray into non-conference games. Missouri lost to a team from the Western Athletic Conference and had close calls against schools from the Colonial Athletic Association and Atlantic Sun Conference.
Missouri’ sub-.500 non-conference record is its first since 1978-79, when the Tigers went 4-5, and this is the first non-conference season since 2005-06 in which Missouri didn’t defeat a power conference school. The Tigers lost to both their ranked opponents, then-No. 3 Arizona and then-No. 22 Oklahoma. Missouri was the only SEC team to play to a losing non-conference record this season.
In comparison, Mike Anderson went 11-2 his first non-conference season at Missouri, playing no ranked foes. Frank Haith went 13-0 during his first go at non-conference play as Missouri coach, defeating No. 20 California and No. 25 Illinois.
During the Mike Anderson and Haith eras, the Tigers had at least 10 non-conference wins every year, with a non-conference winning percentage of 85.7 (96-16) — nearly double the 46.1 mark set this year.
Quin Snyder didn’t have quite as good a start in 1999-2000, his first year as Missouri coach. Snyder’s team went 7-5 in non-conference — a record the Tigers had bettered every year since. Snyder’s team split against ranked non-conference opponents, defeating No. 15 Illinois and losing to No. 15 Indiana.
Kim Anderson does have some good company in his former coach Norm Stewart. Stewart’s squad went 4-5 against non-conference opponents in 1967, his first year as Missouri coach. Stewart went on to win 634 games at Missouri.
But don’t expect things to get much easier as conference play begins. Haith only lost three non-conference games in Missouri’s first two years in the SEC, but when conference contests came around, his teams played to a middling 55.6 win percentage.
LSU comes to Columbia with an 11-2 record, tied for second-best in the conference. The Tigers have wins against No. 14 West Virginia and Texas Tech of the Big 12, boast top-20 rebounding and assist numbers and rank in the top 50 in scoring and field-goal percentage.
Four LSU players are averaging in double-digits, led by Jarell Martin at 18.2 and Jordan Mickey at 16.3. LSU, which received votes in the most recent AP and coaches’ polls, is averaging 10 more points a game than Missouri and allowing nearly two fewer. LSU’s 28.4 rebounds and 6 blocks per game each rank 13th in the nation.
If there’s a silver lining to Missouri’s sluggish start under Kim Anderson, it’s that there have been signs of improvement. The Tigers narrowly missed out on wins against power-conference opponents in a buzzer-beating loss to Illinois and an overtime defeat by Oklahoma State.
Missouri’s young core is starting to take shape. Four of the team’s starting five are underclassmen, including freshmen Montaque Gill-Caesar and Jakeenan Gant. Fellow freshmen D’Angelo Allen and Namon Wright are getting significant minutes off the bench, and Tramaine Isabell hit a last-second 3-pointer to force overtime against Oklahoma State and scored a career-high 14 points against Lipscomb.
Kim Anderson said Gill-Caesar, who has started every game this year, will likely miss tonight’s game with back soreness. Wright, who started a stretch of games in place of sophomore Wes Clark this year, is one candidate to replace Gill-Caesar, the Tigers’ second-leading scorer.
Deuce Bello, a transfer from Baylor, will miss his third straight game for Missouri due to undisclosed academic reasons, Anderson said earlier this week.
The Tigers have also found consistency in the play of sophomore Johnathan Williams III, who has scored 15 or more points and recorded eight or more rebounds in seven straight games. Williams leads the team in scoring, with 13.5 points per game, and rebounds, with 6.8 per game.
And the Tigers’ received a glimmer of hope from a surprising source in the Lipscomb win. Keanau Post, a 6-foot-11 senior who played 19 total minutes in December, scored seven points in 14 minutes off the bench grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds.
Whether Post’s emergence will last is unknown, but the Tigers could certainly benefit from a strong post presence. Fellow forward Ryan Rosburg lost his starting spot to Gant after the Illinois game and has hit just 4-of-25 free throws this year.