If Missouri wants to separate itself from the pack in the middle of the SEC, the time is coming soon. The Tigers will play host to Kentucky on Saturday and then travel to Florida on Feb. 4 for their only games this season against the conference’s heavyweights.
After strong efforts in their past three games — yes, including the loss at LSU — the Tigers are about as ready as they have been this season. They know this is their chance, too.
"I always want to play against the teams the media says are the best teams in the league," Jabari Brown said after Missouri’s 82-74 victory over South Carolina. "I’m looking forward to showing them what we can do. I love playing against the best or the — quote unquote — best."
First things first, of course. The visit to Arkansas on Tuesday night promises to be every bit as tough as facing Kentucky or Florida. The Razorbacks are winless on the road but remain something special at home under former Tigers coach Mike Anderson. They’re averaging 87.9 points at home and have forced 255 turnovers in 13 games. By comparison, Missouri has forced 205 turnovers in its 19 games.
To make for an even more challenging night, Missouri has not won in six games at Bud Walton Arena. The past three losses, however, have been by a combined eight points.
This week: At Mississippi State on Thursday, Texas A&M on Saturday
Last week: Beat Alabama 68-62, beat Tennessee 67-41
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Gators are off to a strong start in conference play. They have won 17 straight games in January, with their last January loss coming at Tennessee more than two years ago.
2. Kentucky (15-4, 5-1)
This week: At LSU on Tuesday, at Missouri on Saturday
Last week: Beat Texas A&M 68-51, beat Georgia 79-54
The young Wildcats continue to come together, and figure to be in fine form when they visit Missouri this weekend. The game will be the first a Kentucky team has played in Columbia. If it’s anything like the 90-83 overtime contest the Tigers lost a year ago, what should be the first sellout crowd of the season will be in for a treat.
3. Mississippi (14-5, 5-1)
This week: At Tennessee on Wednesday, South Carolina on Saturday
Last week: Beat Vanderbilt 63-52, beat Mississippi State 82-63
Let’s not get too carried away with Marshall Henderson and Co. just yet. The Rebels still have two games left against Florida as well as road games against Kentucky and Arkansas. But unlike Missouri, Mississippi took advantage of its soft start to its SEC schedule.
This week: Vanderbilt on Wednesday, at Auburn on Saturday
Last week: Beat South Carolina 97-76, lost to Kentucky 79-54
What should be most encouraging if you’re a Georgia fan: The Bulldogs already have gotten their losses, uh, games against Florida and Kentucky out of the way. Also, the Bulldogs are hoping sophomore guard Kenny Gaines (leg bruise) will return soon. No one missed him more at Kentucky than fellow guard Charles Mann. No Gaines allowed the Wildcats to focus on shutting down Mann, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer. Shut him down they did, limiting him to 1-for-9 shooting. Mann did shoot 15 free throws, but made only seven.
5. LSU (12-6, 3-3)
This week: Kentucky on Tuesday, Arkansas on Saturday
Last week: Beat Missouri 77-71, lost to Alabama 82-80
A can’t-miss matchup this week comes Tuesday night when a couple of 6-foot-9, 250-pounders square off: freshman Julius Randle of Kentucky against junior Johnny O’Bryant III, LSU’s leading scorer and rebounder. O’Bryant led all scorers with 21 points in LSU’s 75-70 loss at Kentucky last season. Randle, of course, was still at high school in Dallas, where he was recovering from a broken foot this time a year ago.
This week: At Auburn on Wednesday, Tennessee on Saturday
Last week: Lost to Florida 68-62, beat LSU 82-80
As senior guard Trevor Releford rolls, so rolls the Tide. Releford scored 17 points in the first half against LSU and Alabama led by 13. He was limited to four after intermission and LSU nearly rallied to end what is now a 10-game losing streak at Alabama. Releford is averaging 18.2 points on 50.2 percent shooting and has reached double figures in every game he’s played. He could be the guy to keep either one of Missouri’s top guards from making first-team All-SEC.
7. Missouri (15-4, 3-3)
This week: At Arkansas on Tuesday, Kentucky on Saturday
Last week: Lost at LSU 77-71, beat South Carolina 82-74
If the Wooden Award had waited another week to announce the 25 players on its midseason watch list, it’s very possible Jabari Brown would have made the list instead of teammate Jordan Clarkson. There’s no doubt that Brown has been the Tigers’ best player in conference play. He has taken over the conference scoring lead (19.5) after going for 20-plus in his past four games, including a career-high 28 at LSU. Brown has made 16 of 24 3-pointers (66.7 percent) in the stretch, and he added a career-best six assists against South Carolina.
8. Tennessee (12-7, 3-3)
This week: Mississippi on Wednesday, at Alabama on Saturday
Last week: Beat Arkansas 81-74, lost to Florida 67-41
The Volunteers’ pitiful performance in Gainesville apparently didn’t sit well in Tennessee. Third-year coach Cuonzo Martin woke up Sunday morning to a column questioning his job security. The Florida game indeed was a debacle. Tennessee’s 41-point output was its lowest of the season by 15 points. One positive for the Vols: They’re done with the double dose of trouble known as road games at Kentucky and Florida.
9. Mississippi State (13-6, 3-3)
This week: At Florida on Thursday, at Vanderbilt on Saturday
Last week: Beat Auburn 82-74, lost to Mississippi 82-63
Home cooking, perhaps? In their loss at Mississippi, the Bulldogs shot just 14 free throws. But when the teams met two weeks earlier on Mississippi State’s home court, the Bulldogs shot 42, and won.
10. Arkansas (13-6, 2-4)
This week: Missouri on Tuesday, at LSU on Saturday
Last week: Lost to Tennessee 81-74, beat Auburn 86-67
The Hogs’ full-court pressure continues to confound opponents, at least when Arkansas is playing in Fayetteville. The Hogs have forced 345 turnovers, by far the most in the SEC and second in the nation to VCU.
11. Texas A&M (12-7, 3-3)
This week: At South Carolina on Wednesday, at Florida on Saturday
Last week: Lost to Kentucky 68-51, lost to Vanderbilt 66-55
The Aggies were holding their own in the conference until a disheartening home loss to Vanderbilt. One reason for their troubles: Poor shooting. The lowest-scoring team in the conference, Texas A&M shot just 35.1 percent last week.
12. Vanderbilt (10-8, 2-4)
This week: At Georgia on Wednesday, Mississippi State on Saturday
Last week: Lost to Mississippi 63-52, beat Texas A&M 66-55
When you’re down to seven scholarship players, you’d figure depth is an issue. It has been for Vanderbilt, which used only seven players in its home loss to Mississippi. Three Commodores played all 40 minutes, including junior guard Dai-Jon Parker. He has sat for a total of two minutes in his past five games.
13. Auburn (8-9, 0-6)
This week: Alabama on Wednesday, Georgia on Saturday
Last week: Lost to Mississippi State 82-74, lost to Arkansas 86-67
These Tigers have enough bodies to come off the bench, but the backups aren’t providing much production. Auburn got a total of 11 points from its bench last week, none in its loss at Mississippi State.
14. South Carolina (7-12, 0-6)
This week: Texas A&M on Wednesday, at Mississippi on Saturday
Last week: Lost to Georgia 97-76, lost to Missouri 82-74
The young Gamecocks rank next-to-last in SEC shooting but might have the purest shooter in the conference, senior guard Brenton Williams. No doubt he has been the best free-throw shooter in the country. After missing his first free throw of the season, Williams has made 59 in a row, an eye-popping 98.3 percent.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.