As 22nd-ranked Mizzou gropes for stability amid three losses in its last seven games with a depleted lineup, as the Tigers seek a springboard into the most meaningful parts of the season, coach Frank Haith isn’t as concerned with where his team resides in the Southeastern Conference standings (a three-way tie for fourth place) or win-loss columns (14-4 overall, 3-2 SEC) as he is with a more simple notion:
Getting better. Now.
The mission, of course, would be enhanced by the return of leading scorer Laurence Bowers, who has missed the last four games with a knee injury, and guard Keion Bell, who sat out the South Carolina game Wednesday with an ankle injury.
“I’m not sure that they’re really struggling as much as they haven’t had all their key pieces,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose Commodores (8-9, 2-3) play at Mizzou Arena at 4 p.m. today, told reporters in Nashville.
On Thursday, Haith said, “We’ll see. We got some real positive news with Laurence, but I just don’t know for sure which way we’ll go with that one. Keion has a chance.”
As of Friday afternoon, Bell was considered probable but Bowers’ status was improving yet uncertain.
Regardless of personnel, though, one of the most evident issues for Mizzou right now is offensive execution.
Including its last two games, the season’s-worst shooting efforts of .327 against Florida and .333 against the Gamecocks, MU is hitting .378 (82 of 217) over its four games without Bowers.
Most notably, Mizzou is 22 of 91 from 3-point range (.241), including 11 of 51 in the last two games.
Haith attributes the funk less to mere shoddy marksmanship than to poor and impatient shot selection.
So he’s prescribing “longer possessions” and extra passes – elements of the game that came easily to a team last season that largely had been together for years and are a labor for a team that has only Phil Pressey back from that team.
“We’ve been our own worst enemy. … We’re breaking the offense off,” said Haith, who on 3-pointers said, “You tell ’em, ‘Hey, guys, we’ve got to get a paint touch before we take another 3.’ ”
Or maybe five passes as a minimum.
“When you miss a number of 3’s, even (if) you’re open, you’ve still got to get something going to the basket,” he said, adding that “higher-percentage plays” become all the more essential as part of “IQ stuff we’ve got to continue to help our team with.”
The IQ is pretty good between Pressey and Bowers, who played together two seasons ago only for Bowers to miss all of last season with an injury to his other knee.
But it’s erratic among Pressey and the herd of newcomers and part of why Pressey is having such an up-and-down season.
Again using the Bowers-free last four games as a sampling, Pressey is 10 of 32 from the field with 24 assists and 20 turnovers.
“I think that he sort of seems to have good days when he has good days and maybe a few bad days when he just has bad days,” said Stallings, a Collinsville native. “I’m not sure there’s a lot that anybody can do to slow him down.”
Don’t doubt that Stallings has some ideas in mind, though, especially because he has an accurate read on the ability of Pressey — who reminds him of Pressey’s father, Paul, against whom Stallings played while he at Purdue and Paul Pressey was at Tulsa.
Phil Pressey “has as much quickness and vision combined in one player’s body that you’ll see,” he said. “He’s so extraordinarily fast with the ball and … his vision with the ball to find others is really incredible, so you just hope that he doesn’t just absolutely annihilate you.”
And Stallings’ team has experienced some drubbings this season, including a 50-33 loss to … Marist, a 56-33 loss at Arkansas and a 74-48 shellacking at Oregon.
But the Commodores also have won their last two, including at South Carolina. And they fell only by a basket to Kentucky and lost in overtime to a Mississippi team that crunched Mizzou 64-49.
Haith called Vanderbilt well-coached and said it would be a challenge to handle its Princeton-style offense.
Mizzou is 26-1 at home in two seasons under Haith, though, and if it expects to get some traction, now is about the time.
“It’s important for us to continue to have some growth as we move forward (for the) rest of the season,” Haith said.