Defense will be key if Mizzou wants to get back on track at Auburn

Earnest Ross currently ranks No. 4 among active scorers in the SEC with 1,045 points -- the majority of which came during his time at Auburn.

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Missouri coach Frank Haith was upset with the lack of toughness his team played with against Georgia. He wasn’t happy with the lack of passing by his point guard and leading scorer, Jordan Clarkson, either. Haith could have added a lack of production from his front court to his list of disappointments.

But where the 21st-ranked Tigers lapsed most in the 70-64 overtime loss Wednesday night was in an area where they have played their best much of the season: Defense.

Georgia didn’t shoot great against the Tigers but the Bulldogs’ 44.3 field-goal percentage was the second-highest by a Missouri opponent this season. What really hurt was overtime, when Georgia made four of five shots (and 5 of 6 free throws after making 8 of 20 in regulation).

Of course, when you leave someone wide open right under the basket, they are not likely to miss. And 6-8 forward Namanja Djurisic didn’t.

"We were in our switching stuff and I don’t want to call players names out, but bad play, bad play," Haith said after the game.

Djurisic also was left open on a 3-pointer he made that tied the game in overtime. "We had defensive lapses," Haith said.

The Tigers, fourth in the SEC in opponents’ field-goal percentage (38.6), had used a strong defensive stretch at the start of the second half to take the lead. They held the Bulldogs to 3-of-15 shooting and without a point for a seven-minute stretch but were unable to sustain the effort.

"Our problem was on defense and rebounding," guard Jabari Brown admitted.

The Tigers didn’t help themselves by shooting 39.3 percent, their lowest of the season. Still, to win on the road, where the Tigers will try to get back on track Saturday afternoon at Auburn, defense must be the focus.

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Auburn shapes up as a more favorable matchup than Georgia in that regard. While Georgia was able to match Missouri’s backcourt in size, Auburn will come in at a height disadvantage. Auburn starts three guards listed at 5-10, 6-2 and 6-4 as well as a 6-8 forward and a 7-foot center who doesn’t score much. Guards Chris Denson (19.8) and KT Harrell (18.7) lead the team in scoring.

Missouri’s strength on both ends of the floor is its trio of 6-5 guards, Clarkson, Brown and Earnest Ross. Rarely does an opposing coach not bring up their length, athleticism and ability to contest shots on the perimeter.

Auburn, also called the Tigers, lost its conference opener Thursday night 65-62 at Mississippi. Auburn went 8-3 on its non-conference schedule, including a 19-point loss on a neutral court to Illinois. Missouri also lost to the Illini on a neutral court, but by only one point.

Mizzou, 2-7 on the road in conference play last season, will play at Vanderbilt Thursday night before returning home to meet Alabama Jan. 18.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.