COLUMBIA, Mo. — As winning streaks go, Missouri’s 78-gamer against non-conference opponents at home tends to elicit more shrugs than superlatives.
Look at the opponents to understand why. For every win over a West Virginia, there’s been about a dozen against a Farleigh Dickinson. The Tigers’ list of victims includes more cupcakes than a bakery.
Well, there’s nothing soft about the team that will visit Mizzou Arena Saturday morning. UCLA is one of the most storied programs in the land and one of the most impressive teams of the early season. The Bruins (8-0) are averaging 90.6 points, shooting 55.3 percent and have climbed to 18th in AP’s top 25.
“A tremendous challenge,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said after Missouri’s 80-71 victory over West Virginia. “They put four guys out there that can make a three(-pointer). They’ve got length and their front line is huge. (Sophomore) Kyle Anderson is such a unique guard, he’s 6-8, 6-9, and he does a great job. Their offense runs through him. He’s a tough matchup for us.”
The Tigers, 8-0 and the SEC’s only remaining unbeaten team, also will be tested by a quick turnaround following Thursday’s 6 p.m. tip-off. Missouri’s players already had returned to the gym Friday morning, shooting promos for the CBS telecast as well as studying video of the Bruins (Don’t worry, there were no classes Friday).
And with Missouri’s football team kicking off in the SEC Championship at 3 p.m., the Tigers’ home-court advantage might not be as raucous as it would under different circumstances. After a so-so crowd of 7,292 turned out Thursday night, Haith did not sound like he was expecting a sellout for Saturday.
“Hopefully we get a group of those folks to come out to see a high-level game (against) a ranked opponent,” Haith said. “Then kick back and watch us win the SEC championship.”
The Bruins are coming off a lackluster 89-76 victory over UC Santa Barbara on Tuesday night. Like Missouri, UCLA also spent Thanksgiving in Las Vegas, beating the same teams as the Tigers. While the Tigers won by 13 over Nevada and 11 over Northwestern, UCLA’s margin of victory was 19 and 16, respectively.
In Los Angeles last year, UCLA beat Missouri 97-94 in overtime in what was one of the most entertaining games of the season. Much has changed for both teams in the year since. Namely, the Bruins now are coached by Steve Alford and not Ben Howland, who was fired. For Missouri, Jordan Clarkson is running the offense instead of Phil Pressey, who is averaging 11.9 minutes and 2.1 points for the Boston Celtics.
Clarkson, a transfer from Tulsa, isn’t likely to threaten Pressey’s assists records at Missouri but he’s proving to be just as valuable. The 6-5 junior lifted his scoring average to 20.4 points with his fourth consecutive 20-point outing Thursday night. He is shooting an impressive 53 percent, thanks to his ability to drive to the basket. A rules emphasis that prevents hand-checking out top has not hurt, either.
“Guys like him really benefit from the way they’re calling the game now,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “He’s got good length and he’s very good with the ball.”
To have a chance against the Bruins, Missouri will need more from its big men than it got Thursday night. Ryan Rosburg was limited to eight minutes because of foul trouble and freshman Johnathan Williams III made only one of his five shots. Keanu Post, subbing for Rosburg, picked up two fouls in less than a minute. Tony Criswell, with eight points and 10 rebounds, was the only big man to make much of a contribution.
A lack of production from the bigs didn’t matter against the Mountaineers as Missouri jumped to leads of 9-0 and 25-11 behind the play of Clarkson and fellow guards Jabari Brown (18 points) and Earnest Ross (16).
“It’s always good to get a fast start,” Clarkson said. “You can’t let somebody come in here and hit us in the mouth. We wanted to come out and hit them first and let them know it was our home floor.”
The Tigers haven’t lost to a non-conference foe on their home floor since falling to Sam Houston State in 2005. They haven’t lost to any team at Mizzou Arena since February, 2012, when Kansas State won 78-68. Their 23-game home winning streak ranks as the nation’s longest.
“We want to keep that going,” Clarkson said. “We can’t let nobody come in here and do whatever they want to do. We have to make sure we protect the house.” You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.