Missouri back on track after beating Florida

February, 20, 2013
2/20/13
3:10
AM ET
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri coach Frank Haith has always been pleased with Phil Pressey's ability to take charge on the court. Lately, though, he’s been imploring his junior point guard to do the same thing in the huddle.

Pressey finally obliged in Tuesday’s 63-60 victory over fifth-ranked Florida.

And it only took one word.

Believe.

Time and time again at Mizzou Arena, Pressey delivered that message to his teammates as they encircled him during dead balls and timeouts. He said it when the Tigers trailed No. 5 Florida by double digits midway through the second half. And he uttered the word again in the game’s waning minutes, after Florida stormed back to take the lead.

Believe.

“That’s what I kept telling them,” Pressey said. “Whether you’re up by 12 or down by 12, you always have to believe you can win.”

[+] EnlargeMissouri's Phil Pressey
Dak Dillon/USA TODAY Sports
Especially when so many others don’t.

More than a few fans and pundits had written off Missouri prior to Tuesday’s victory over the Gators. Ranked as high as No. 7 earlier this season, the Tigers have been nothing short of maddening in SEC play. Blowout home wins over Alabama and Ole Miss were tempered by road losses to bottom-feeders such as LSU and Texas A&M.

Overflowing with athleticism, size and length, Missouri’s players turned heads at airports and during pre-game warm-ups. But they were overrated on the court. That was the Cliff’s Notes version, anyway.

After what happened Tuesday, the storyline has changed.

“They’re very dangerous,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “They have answers at every position. I can’t imagine there is a team in the country that is more individually talented.”

All those individual pieces came together as one unit Tuesday, and when it happened the Tigers looked like one of the most impressive teams in the college basketball. At the very least Missouri has officially become the school no one wants to play in March, the squad that could upset a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament without it really feeling like that big of a deal.

That was certainly the vibe Tuesday.

Beating the country’s fifth-ranked team when you’re unranked may be an upset on paper, but it’s obvious that, when Missouri is playing well, there isn’t a huge difference between the Tigers and the rest of the nation’s top squads.

“I’ve said all along that we were going to be a different team in February and March than we were in December and January,” Haith said after the game. “I couldn’t be any more encouraged. We’re playing well, and the exciting thing is that we have a chance to get so much better.”

Indeed, while most of the college basketball’s top teams are close to reaching their ceiling, Missouri may have more room for improvement than any school in the country.

The Tigers are like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces have always been there for a beautiful picture, it’s just taken a bit longer to fit them together.

And understandably so.

Pressey is the only player on Missouri’s roster who contributed to last year’s 30-5 season. Leading scoring Laurence Bowers was on the shelf with a knee injury, Keion Bell, Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown were sitting out under NCAA transfer rules and Alex Oriakhi was still playing for Connecticut.

Any criticism Haith has received for his team’s shortcomings thus far is foolish. Last season’s national coach of the year has basically been working with an entirely new team -- and Missouri still entered Tuesday’s game with an 18-7 record that included wins over schools such as VCU, Illinois and Ole Miss, all of which have spent time in the Top 25.

[+] EnlargeMissouri's Laurence Bowers
Dak Dillon/USA TODAY SportsLaurence Bowers scored 17 points and had 10 rebounds for a Missouri team that could make some noise in March.
Name one other coach who has done something similar with basically a completely new roster.

The Tigers have encountered other challenges, too. Michael Dixon, who was expected to contend for All-American honors, was forced to leave school during the fall following an off-court incident. Bowers (five games), Bell (four) and Tony Criswell (four) have all missed time because of injuries. And Brown didn’t became eligible until mid-December after transferring from Oregon.

“You take an All-American (candidate) like Michael Dixon off of most teams,” Haith said, “and people would be like, ‘What are we going to do now?’ Then you throw in our injuries and the fact that we’re incorporating all these new guys ... for the most part, we haven’t been whole all season. It’s a unique situation.”

That’s part of the reason for Missouri’s putrid performances away from home. The Tigers have just one true road win. But it’s also been a means of encouragement, the thing Pressey said kept players going during times of adversity.

“I know how good we can be,” Pressey said. “The coaches know how good we can be. We just have to put it all together. We’ve had a couple of guys play good (one game), a couple of guys play good (the next).

“But we really haven’t had a ‘team’ win like this. This is a big win for us. Everyone contributed. Everyone played well.”

The same type of resiliency Missouri has shown throughout the season was on display in the second half against a Florida team that embarrassed the Tigers 83-52 on Jan. 19 in Gainesville.

Let that sink in for a moment. The Tigers defeated a team it lost to by 31 points just one month earlier.

Missouri trailed by as many as 13 points midway through the second half before uncorking a 23-8 scoring run that ended with the Tigers leading 59-57 with less than 2 minutes remaining.

Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin made a 3-pointer that put the Gators back up 60-59 with 1:40 left. But a short jumper by Bowers on Missouri’s next possession gave the Tigers the lead for good.

Facing heavy defensive pressure by Missouri, Florida missed three 3-pointers in the game’s final 57 seconds.

Missouri outrebounded Florida 40-28 and limited the Gators to 40 percent shooting. Pressey finished with 10 assists while Bowers had 17 points and 10 rebounds.

“Pressey is one of my favorite players,” Donovan said. “He makes the game easy for everyone else. Brown is as dangerous as any shooting guard out there, Oriakhi won a national championship at UConn, Bowers can do a little bit of everything, Bell is starting to play well for them ...

“There just aren’t a lot of holes there.”

The only question now is whether Missouri -- now a virtual lock to earn an NCAA tournament bid -- will build off what could be a season-altering win or revert back to its inconsistent ways. Will the Tigers continue to resemble the cohesive group we saw in Columbia on Tuesday, or will they look discombobulated and out of sorts when they face a reeling Kentucky squad Saturday in Lexington?

Haith is confident the former will occur.

“I love where we are right now,” Haith said. "This was a big step for us tonight. We just played a great game against one of the top teams in the country.”

As they left Columbia, the Florida Gators probably felt that way, too.

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