Last year, Frank Haith’s squad went into Ames, Iowa, and outplayed an Iowa State team that featured first-round pick Royce White. It was a tight game that the Tigers sealed in the final minute.
That was the first time I’d watched Mizzou live from press row. And I was impressed with its grit. The Tigers refused to back down in a hostile environment. They lacked depth, but they made up for it with their toughness and efficiency.
This year, however, the Tigers -- who face Georgia on Wednesday night in Columbia -- appear to possess the depth they lacked last season, but they’re not tough enough, according to Frank Haith.
Haith was recently critical of his team’s effort in a 64-49 loss at Ole Miss on Saturday.
“Emotions and toughness, they’re two different things,” [Haith] said. “I want emotion. I want passion. I want energy. I want all those things. But that to me isn’t toughness.
“Toughness is a lot of things. Toughness is helping your teammates every single time in rotation. That’s toughness. When there’s a 50-50 ball (and) you’re laying out for that ball, that’s toughness.
“When I tell (them) you’ve got to get that ball moving from side to side, you don’t go out there and shoot it (immediately), that’s toughness.
“Because you don’t let the environment make you do something you’re not supposed to do. That’s how I define toughness.”
Even if his emphasis doesn’t seep in immediately, and even without star forward and leading scorer Laurence Bowers for a second straight game because of a knee injury, MU figures to muzzle the Bulldogs before getting road-tested again Saturday at No. 10 Florida.
Missouri is still one of the best teams in the league.
But the Tigers are certainly flawed. Their 19 turnovers against Ole Miss were indicative of the challenges they’ve had with their ballhandling all season (ranked 89th in turnover rate).
Bowers’ absence was obviously a factor, too. He’s one of the toughest players on that roster. And teams feed off that. Without him -- he’ll miss Wednesday’s game, too -- Missouri didn’t play the scrappy basketball that led the Tigers to a win against Illinois in St. Louis last month.
This group, however, is still seeking the continuity and chemistry that last season’s Tigers enjoyed.
The bottom line, however, is that Haith expects more tenacity from this group, and he should.
As weak as the SEC appears to be, the results over the past two weeks prove that this is a conference with a lot of parity.
Perhaps the Ole Miss loss was wakeup call for a Missouri team that could evolve into the top team in the league.
Saturday’s matchup at Florida will be a major barometer for Haith’s program. A road win against Florida would boost the Tigers in the standings, and it would also enhance the team’s confidence.
But that game should be a battle that demands the sort of “dive on the floor for every loose ball” basketball that Haith craves.
It will be interesting to see how Missouri responds against the Bulldogs and the Gators this week.