ST. LOUIS (AP) All season, Missouri flashed signs it could be a dangerous team come March. Unfortunately, there were nearly as many times that it showed much less promise.
There is a reason the Tigers are a No. 9 seed in the Midwest Regional. Coach Frank Haith has had to integrate a group of transfers into the system.
“It has been a challenge, but it’s been a challenge that’s come together because we’re still playing,” Haith said.
Leading rebounder Alex Oriakhi (Connecticut) and guard Keion Bell (Pepperdine), who led the team in scoring in Southeastern Conference games, are one-year senior rentals. Sophomore Jabari Brown (Oregon) is averaging 13.7 points and junior Earnest Ross (Auburn) is the SEC’s best player off the bench averaging 10 points and five rebounds.
The Sporting News ranked that one of the best transfer classes in history.
The Tigers (23-10) are the only major school in the nation with six players averaging in double figures and are second in the country in rebounding, reflecting depth and versatility. But they have yet to put it all together for Haith, last year’s national coach of the year, and get a tough test out of the box against No. 8 seed Colorado State (25-8) on Thursday in Lexington, Ky.
Missouri was a perfect 16-0 at home, including a victory over then-No. 5 Florida, but just 2-8 on the road.
“You’re not going to play a team that’s not any good,” Haith said. “So, if you don’t play with a sense of urgency, you’re going to be going home.”
The 6-foot-8 Oriakhi has been a presence inside, averaging 11 points and 8.6 rebounds. He has taken on a much larger role than he had with Connecticut’s national title team in 2011.
Haith often touted Bell for all-SEC honors. The last 11 games of the regular season, Bell averaged 15.7 points on 58 percent shooting.
Brown leads the team in 3-pointers even though he wasn’t eligible until the semester break in mid-December, and had a pair of 23-point efforts. Ross had a season-high 23 points against Auburn, his old school.
Melding that group with point guard Phil Pressey, the lone holdover starter from the 30-win team in Haith’s first season, has not been easy. Pressey was a first-team All-SEC pick with six games of 10 or more assists and four double-doubles for points and assists, a school record, yet struggled with a spate of questionable late-game decisions.
The tournament gives Pressey a chance to put those troubles behind him.
“It doesn’t matter who you play, anybody can be beat, everybody brings their A game come NCAA tournament,” Pressey said. “Our mind-set is we’re going win the whole thing, so we’re going to bring our A game just like everybody else.”
Forward Laurence Bowers, who missed last season with a knee injury, is the only other player with NCAA experience.
“A lot of teams don’t get this opportunity,” Bowers said. “So whenever you see your name it brings, I don’t know, it’s kind of joyous.”
Missouri is in the tournament for the fifth straight season, matching the school’s longest runs, from 1986-90 under Norm Stewart and from 1999-03 under Stewart and Quin Snyder.