COLUMBIA, MO. • Let’s be up front, shall we? If one didn’t know how good Missouri was before Saturday afternoon’s tilt against South Carolina, one still doesn’t know today. The Gamecocks, a rebuilding team that counts three freshmen and a sophomore among its starting five, are a barometer for bad rather than a barometer for improvement.
Missouri beat Carolina 82-74, the lowest margin possible.
The Tigers scored the game’s first 11 points. The visitors didn’t hit a field goal until almost seven minutes had lapsed. Threatened, Mizzou went on a late 16-point run to lead by 20 with under two minutes remaining in the first half.
The home team’s shaky free-throw shooting and a career game by Gamecocks senior guard Brenton Williams allowed the visitors to claw within seven points after many had bailed on the game. There was one time when Frank Martin’s undefeated Kansas State team left Mizzou Arena with its first blemish. In his second season at Columbia East, Martin’s current team slipped away 0-6 in the SEC.
As for the Tigers, who can say with certainty whether they’re good or bad? Six games into conference play they’ve unfailingly alternated losses and wins. They lost their conference opener at home before laying an egg at Vanderbilt. They found a way at Auburn, the other winless team in conference play, before blowing out eternally disappointing Alabama. Saturday, they were taut enough defensively to allow only 22 points in the first half before Carolina singed them for 52 in the second.
“Maybe you want to give South Carolina a little credit,” coach Frank Haith said. “Sometimes folks don’t want to see that.”
One wants to give Mizzou credit but the Tigers’ maddening inconsistencies make it difficult to commit. They elbowed their way into the Top 25 then resembled NIT gate-crashers.
The Tigers are a 3-3 SEC entry after arguably playing the league’s four weakest members. The next nine days they travel to Arkansas, host Kentucky and visit Florida, their toughest stretch of schedule.
“I don’t think any coach will tell where you think you’re going to be. There’s always room to improve and get better,” Haith said. “We’re no different than any team in the country. We haven’t played our best basketball. There’s definitely room for us to grow ... and we have to do that. We have to be more consistent.”
Haith sounded happy about his team’s performance post facto. But at times Saturday the process appeared to frustrate him. Mizzou is that kind of team (inconsistent) in this kind of year (down) in this kind of conference (uninspiring). The SEC boasts two ranked teams, Kentucky and Florida, and a bunch of others seeking a signature win. LSU, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are 1-4 combined against the Atlantic 10. Carolina’s loss left the league 29 games under .500 on the road.
One can hope Mizzou showed itself at its worst at Vanderbilt after flubbing its lines against Georgia. It dazzled by outscoring UCLA by 17 points in the second half of a December win. However, beginning with its Braggin’ Rights loss to Illinois has found itself exposed on its front line.
Saturday’s win offered a respite. Bigs Ryan Rosburg and Johnathan Williams III factored, scoring 16 points and missing just two shots from the field between them. (As for free throws: Oh, the humanity). Haith allowed senior forward Tony Criswell out of the doghouse for only six second-half minutes. Project Keanau Post got eight minutes, a rebound and two fouls.
Guard-dominant Mizzou reminded it is a good team when it gets its tempo. Haith won’t admit it but his team is as good as Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross. Saturday, they were very good; occasionally they touched brilliance.
The redshirt junior Brown mixed 24 points with six rebounds and six assists. Clarkson, the lead point guard, scored 22 with six rebounds and no turnovers in 35 minutes. The three guards made 17 of 20 from the line and seven of 14 beyond the arc.
Brown is averaging 19.5 points per game overall but a more impressive 22 points in conference play. While scoring 76 points the last three games, he is averaging 1.54 points per attempt. He is 16-for-28 (57.1 percent) shooting treys the last four games.
“He’s making plays,” said Haith, who sees little forced within the Oregon transfer’s game. “When it comes down to it, he’s just not making plays for himself. He’s making plays for others.”
Selfishness skewered Haith’s 2012-13 team. Now he sees expanding reason for hope. Mizzou ranked in the nation’s lowest 10th percentile in assists before Saturday. The Tigers averaged a league-worst 10.3 in their first five SEC games. They had 18 on 26 makes Saturday. Haith sees scorers growing into playmakers as well. Clarkson furthered the belief with a 15-foot no-look pass to Rosburg for a jam.
“When you’ve got three guys who really score the ball like Earnest, Jordan and Jabari, it takes time for guys to understand to share the ball with each other,” Haith said.
Brown plays a cool, expressionless game. He’s a fearless shooter but no longer a greedy one, according to his coach. Ross bring a senior’s poise to the line while leading the team in rebounding.
Now come the schedule’s three Ugly Sisters. A ready barometer awaits to measure a team that too often has folded on the road like cheap luggage.
“You guys can do that,” Haith said when asked about the temptation to draw larger conclusions from what’s just ahead. “I just want to take Arkansas. I’m sure you’ll write all you want to write about that based on these three games.”
Why, yes. Yes, we will.