COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri coach Frank Haith must wait out a five-game suspension before beginning his season, but his team gets started Friday night against Southeastern Louisiana.
How they handle their time without Haith, who was penalized by the NCAA for “failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance” when he was coaching at Miami, is just one question to consider as the Tigers begin their quest for a sixth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
What’s the big-picture prognostication?
Expectations outside of Mizzou Arena aren’t as high as last year after the Tigers lost four of their top five scorers. They garnered only three points in AP’s preseason poll, which put them in a tie with Saint Louis University for the 44th spot in the rankings, and they were picked to finish fifth in the Southeastern Conference in a preseason media poll. Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee and LSU were picked ahead of the Tigers.
“We’re not getting that much respect as I think we should,” says point guard Jordan Clarkson. “We have a young team and not too many guys are proven right now. But we’re going to wake a lot of people up.”
Missouri’s players don’t have to worry about being over-hyped, either. Unlike last year, when Phil Pressey was selected the conference’s preseason player of the year, no Tigers made the media’s preseason All-SEC first team. Junior guard Jabari Brown, the leading returner scorer, was voted second team by the media and also was named one of eight players on the first team in a poll of conference coaches. Senior swingman Earnest Ross was named to the coaches’ second team.
Where will the points come from?
The Tigers should get upwards of 50 points a game from their three-man backcourt of Clarkson, Brown and Ross. All three are considered good 3-point shooters who also can take the ball to the basket. Before transferring, Clarkson averaged 16.5 points in his second season at Tulsa. At least early in the season, look for him to have the ball in his hands at the end of tight games.
What’s the main concern?
Missouri’s bigs did not overly impress in their two exhibition games, particularly in a 92-79 victory over Central Missouri last Friday. Johnathan Williams III could end up as Missouri’s best inside player since DeMarre Carroll (Atlanta Hawks) five years ago, but he’s only a freshman. A skinny freshman, at that.
The play of junior college transfer Keanau Post will go a long way in determining the Tigers’ success this season. At 6 feet 11, 268 pounds, he will be Missouri’s most physical inside presence.
Tony Criswell, who averaged 13 minutes per game last season, brings rebounding and hustle off the bench. He was suspended for the opener but could return for Tuesday’s game against Southern Illinois.
Depth isn’t an issue on the inside. Sophomore Ryan Rosburg has the size (6-10, 252) and showed the strength as a freshman to hang with the opposition’s inside scorers. Freshman Torren Jones (6-8, 234) might be the team’s most physical presence. Stefan Jankovic, meanwhile, is the rare 6-11 forward with the green light from the 3-point line.
“When a coach tells you he gets angry when you don’t shoot the ball when you’re open, man, I’d love to be that guy,” Haith says. “I get angry when he doesn’t shoot and he’s open.”
Fuller, who played at Wake Forest in the mid-1990s, recruited many of the Tigers and was chosen by Haith to fill in because of his familiarity with the players.
“Our team is going to grow just as much as it would with coach Haith,” Ross says.
The schedule should not provide too much of an obstacle. Missouri’s toughest non-conference games will come after Haith returns. But first, it’s Southern Illinois, Hawaii, Gardner-Webb and IUPUI following the opener against Southeastern Louisiana.
In December, the Tigers play host to UCLA, West Virginia and Western Michigan while also playing Illinois in St. Louis (Dec. 21) and at North Carolina State.
How about a prediction?
While last season’s team seemed to regress at times as the season progressed, look for these Tigers to improve surely and steadily. They might not finish in the top half of the 14-team SEC during the regular season, but they’ll reach the semifinals of the conference tournament to assure the program of a school-record sixth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.