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February 13, 2013

Powered Up: Five for the season

At the start of Missouri's season, I identified a three-game stretch that would determine exactly how good this team would be:

February 16th at Arkansas
February 19th vs Florida
February 23rd at Kentucky

At the time, I thought the determination would be whether Missouri was the SEC champ or the second- or third-place team.

That three-game stretch has now become five. The five games that will determine Missouri's season start tonight.

Mizzou faces Mississippi State in Starkville at 7 p.m. tonight. To be honest, this is not a game that should be in any doubt. This is a win and move on type of game. Some will argue so was Kansas at TCU, but there's a reason it is being called the biggest upset in college basketball in the last 20 years. It doesn't happen much. In addition, you can make a solid argument that TCU is actually a better team than Mississippi State (and it's tough to make a solid argument that TCU is a better team than ANYONE).

Anyway, tonight has become interesting only because of the baffling shortcomings of this team when it sees fans in opposing colors in the stands. Frank Haith said earlier this week that Missouri has played better on the road in its last two games, but now the Tigers simply need to finish. I'll give him part of that. Missouri was better at LSU and A&M than it was at Florida and Ole Miss. Of course, all that really means is that at some point in 40 minutes of those two games, Missouri actually showed up and looked like it had some interest in making things close. It also ignores the fact that maybe they were only better because LSU and A&M are far worse than Florida and Mississippi.

Either way, it is February 13th and Missouri hasn't won a game in the other team's home gym. That's not the type of thing the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee looks upon all that favorably. But the season offers Mizzou five more chances at a road win and, in this year's SEC, it still offers them some pretty good chances.

Tonight's game is a must win. Period. If Missouri loses this game, I'll tell you late tonight that this is not a tournament team. Tournament teams don't lose to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have lost eight in a row, have lost to Troy, Loyola (IL) and Alabama A&M, have an 11-point win over a Georgia team that was struggling severely at the time as their marquee W of the season and can barely field a starting five of scholarship players. So, yeah, this one defines "must win."

The other bookend of this five-game stretch is also a must win. Missouri can't lose at South Carolina on the last day of February. Period. Realistically, this is looking like (at best) a three of four road win team and South Carolina has to be one of them.

Now that we've gotten those out of the way, we're back to the three games that we said all along would define this season. Any thoughts of an SEC title (barring both a ridiculous collapse by Florida and Missouri suddenly doing a 180 and winning out) are out the window. But the goal is still to be an NCAA Tournament team with the best seed possible.

Florida might be the best team in the country. If it isn't, it's in the top five. Many will pick them to the Final Four, many will pick them to win it. If anyone's going to beat Missouri at home, the Gators are the safe bet.

Road games at Arkansas and Kentucky are intriguing as well.

The Razorback's home/road splits make Missouri look flat out consistent. Arkansas blast Florida at home, hung with Syracuse and beat likely tournament-bound Oklahoma. They lost by 18 at Vandy, 21 at South Carolina and 18 at Texas A&M. If Missouri is Jekyll and Hyde home and away, Arkansas is twice that.

Kentucky has been hot of late, winning five in a row before losing at Florida. But the Wildcats may also have lost Nerlens Noel for the season. And Rupp Arena has hardly been impenetrable this season. Kentucky lost to A&M there and had to hold off Tennessee and LSU late. It's not an easy game, but it's not exactly impossible either.

I'm not dumb enough to actually try to predict what Missouri will do in any of these games. They never lose at home so I won't be surprised if they beat Florida. They never win on the road, so it won't shock me if they fall in Starkville and Columbia. Instead of predicting, let's just look at what this five-game stretch will mean (and, yes, I'm foolishly assuming they will beat LSU and Arkansas at home).

Five losses in this stretch end Missouri's hopes for a tournament bid, short of winning the SEC Tournament. Period. That would give the Tigers, at best, a .500 record in a conference that just isn't very good. Four losses may not completely end the hopes, but it would come awfully close.

If the Tigers go 2-3, they are looking at a likely 10-7 record heading into the road finale at Tennessee. The most likely wins would be Mississippi State and South Carolina and that would mean the Tigers would have a chance at three road wins and a four-game winning streak entering the conference tournament. Barring an embarrassing loss in their first game in the SEC Tournament, that would probably get them in. But probably isn't a word coaches like to hear on Selection Sunday.

If Mizzou can manage three wins in this stretch, you're talking about a team that likely has an NCAA bid fairly secure as they go to Knoxville. It would mean at least two road wins and possibly three. If it was just two road wins, the other one would be a win over top ten Florida and that one would look nice on the resume.

Four or five wins? Well, then we're not talking about whether Missouri is in the tournament, but what the ceiling is for seeding. And we're also likely talking about a team that travels to Tennessee looking to lock up the second seed in the SEC Tournament and certainly has a double-bye to the tourney quarterfinals.

Everyone likes to say college basketball is a marathon. And it is. A loss in December or January doesn't mean much in the scheme of things. But the season has reached the point where teams who haven't done enough to be considered tournament locks have to start sprinting. In mid-February, Missouri sits unsure of this season's status and its post-season fate. But 15 days from now, we'll have a real good idea of both.

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