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Tigers look to take regular season success into Tourney
This preview and more on Missouri and the SEC are available in the Athlon Sports 2013-14 College Basketball Preseason Annual. The magazine is available online or on newsstands everywhere.
Missouri Facts & Figures
Last season: 23-11 (11-7 SEC)
Postseason: NCAA Round of 64
Coach: Frank Haith (53-13 at Missouri)
SEC projection: Fifth
Postseason projection: NCAA Round of 64
But heading into his third year with the Tigers, Haith finally seems to be assembling a group of players he’ll be able to count on for more than one season.
“I like what we’ve done in terms of putting together a roster,” Haith says. “Earnest Ross, Jabari Brown and Tony Criswell, those guys have worked their tails off and gotten better, which gives us a great foundation to work with going into the season.”
It’s the addition of Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson and a top-20 recruiting class headlined by freshmen Johnathan Williams III and Wes Clark and junior college All-American Keanau Post that has Haith most excited about the future in Columbia.
A couple of those newcomers will have to be ready to make an impact if Missouri is going to make up for the loss of starters Phil Pressey, Alex Oriakhi, Laurence Bowers and Keion Bell and take a run at a sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
Criswell, a 6’9” senior forward, is the only returning frontcourt player who was a regular part of Missouri’s rotation last season. The junior college transfer, who began his college career at UAB, averaged 5.2 points and 4.8 rebounds as the Tigers’ top reserve. He brings enough versatility to play either position along the front line, so Haith might prefer to bring him off the bench again. To do so, he’ll have to identify viable starters.
The 6’11” Post will likely be one — at center — if he can improve his conditioning. He averaged 12.3 points and 8.3 rebounds last season at Southwestern Illinois College. “He runs the floor well, has good hands,” Brown says. “He’s more athletic than I knew, good post moves.”
Missouri could look to either Williams or sophomore Stefan Jankovic to start at power forward.
The 6’9” Williams, who was the Tigers’ highest-ranked recruit, brings great skill and versatility but must add strength after weighing in at 208 pounds when he arrived in Columbia.
Jankovic has already had a season to bulk up his 6’11” frame, which should help him make the move to the frontcourt after playing mostly on the perimeter — when he played at all — as a freshman. He’s comfortable shooting from long range or slashing to the basket and could present matchup problems for opponents.
Missouri forwards benefited from Pressey’s playmaking skills the past two years. Though he struggled with decision-making last season, he still averaged 11.9 points and an SEC-leading 7.1 assists. One of the biggest question marks facing the Tigers is how to replace him.
Clarkson, who averaged 16.5 points and 2.5 assists as a sophomore with the Golden Hurricane, is a leading candidate.
“There is nothing he can’t do,” Haith says.
Missouri would still prefer to play Clarkson off the ball, but whether it can likely depends on the readiness of Clark, a top-75 recruit, to contribute. He arrives with a reputation as a hard-nosed guard who led his team to a state championship last season in Michigan.
The Tigers’ most proven weapons already reside on the wing with Brown and Ross. Brown, who began his college career at Oregon, averaged 13.7 points while shooting 36.6 percent from 3-point range after becoming eligible last December.
Ross, a senior who started his career at Auburn, gives the Tigers an excellent rebounder (5.0 rpg) who also averaged 10.3 points while shooting 42.3 percent from three in conference play.
Freshman Shane Rector, a late addition who originally committed to Rutgers, could provide additional ball-handling off the bench.
Missouri’s coaches are already looking at Jordan Clarkson as a team leader. He’s expected to be one of the Tigers’ top scorers whether he’s playing on the wing or running the point. His primary position could be determined by the readiness of Wesley Clark, a hard-nosed point guard. Missouri is counting on Keanau Post to provide a low-post scoring threat and protection in front of the rim. Johnathan Williams III, a multi-talented forward, might have the brightest future of any newcomer but has to get stronger to realize his potential. Torren Jones has the size and athleticism needed to play under the basket in the SEC but remains raw. Shane Rector was signed late to give the Tigers a needed third ball-handler.
Factoid: 6. The Tigers will try to make a sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time in school history. Missouri also made five straight NCAA trips between 1986-1990 and 1999-2003.
Missouri will be short on experience with a lot of unknowns to be sorted out before it can be considered a contender in what figures to be a stronger SEC this season.
But Haith has talent to work with, particularly on the wing with Clarkson, Brown and Ross, and he expects to use a deeper bench. If the Tigers can jell and show some more grit on the defensive end, they have the potential to get another NCAA invite.