Missouri Basketball is back in the NCAA Tournament for a school record-tying fifth consecutive year as the Tigers face former Iowa State Head Coach Larry Eustachy and the Colorado State Rams on Thursday night at approximately 8:20 p.m. CT at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. The game will be shown on TBS (Ian Eagle – Play by Play / Jim Spanarkel – Analyst / Allie LaForce – Sideline)
Missouri last played in five consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 1986-90 and 1999-03 … The Tigers have never made six consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament in school history, but this current run of five straight trips to the Big Dance is the longest active streak in the SEC … Florida is second with four.
Missouri is a No. 9 seed for the fourth time in program history. Mizzou’s most recent stint as a No. 9 seed came in 2001 under Quin Snyder, when the Tigers toppled now conference foe Georgia (70-68) before falling to No. 1 seed Duke (94-81) in Greensboro, N.C. Mizzou was also a No. 9 seed in 1981 and 2000.
On Wednesday, the Tigers held their public workout and met with media. The focus will be on the Rams’ inside presence with Colton Iverson and Pierce Hornung and executing on both ends of the floor. As you’ll read, despite late losses, Laurence Bowers thinks many of the troubles start earlier in the game.
Frank Haith continues to preach that his team is not as bad in late games as many thinks and he always points to Bucknell and Illinois, but those games were in late December, early January. In road or neutral sites games since January 30, Mizzou is 3-6 with five of those losses by a combined 11 points.
Media Q & A session.
Q. Alex, wondering what you thought — think about Colorado State’s post presence and how you guys match up with Colton Iverson and Pierce Hornung?
ALEX ORIAHKI: The big fella is averaging 14 and 9. Obviously he’s a guy you got to box out. The 4-man crashes the glass pretty well. I think me and Laurence match up pretty well because we’re able to rebound and score in the post as well. I think it’s going to be a great game but a great battle.
Q. Both you guys. You guys have a lot of talent, but y’all have made mistakes at the end of games. What are some of the things that y’all believe you have to do to make a long run in this NCAA Tournament to overcome some of the things that cost you during the regular season?
Laurence Bowers: Well, better execution down the stretch, you know. I’ve been telling people this all year, you know, I don’t feel that the games that we have lost have come down to the last possession. I feel like it’s been a combination of things that we did throughout the whole game, and I think that from each game, even though it’s a negative that you lose, there are positives that you can take from it and the biggest thing for us is just stand together.
Like you said, we have talent. As long as we stay together and believe we can win a game, I think that those are the key things besides playing defense, you know, those are the key things for us to go on a national championship run.
ALEX ORIAHKI: Pretty much what Laurence said. We have to do a better job of finishing games. Lot of our tough losses have come down, down the stretch in games where we weren’t able to get a stop or we weren’t able to execute the right way. But I tell guys, you know, you better figure it out now, because if you don’t, you’re going to be home. I think it’s something that we’ve definitely learned from and we’re excited to go there and play. See if we learn from our mistakes.
Q. Alex, could you just sort of reflect on winning a national title with UConn and what are the traits of a winner and what are the things that you had in that team that you might see in Missouri?
ALEX ORIAHKI: It was something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I think it was very remarkable what we did, but, you know, I feel in order to win a national championship, you definitely got to take it one game at a time. Never look too far ahead. That’s what I really try to tell these guys.
I see a lot of similarities as far as team chemistry and the talent we have and not just a matter — matter of putting it altogether, but the only thing I can say, you have to take it one game at a time and don’t overlook anybody, because everybody is hungry in this tournament.
Q. This is for Alex. I was wondering if you could just speak to the sense of fulfillment or satisfaction, you leave Connecticut because they’re not going to be eligible and you’re here where you want to be. Does it all feel fulfilling now?
ALEX ORIAHKI: Definitely. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to end my career at UConn. But I think it’s a blessing in disguise. Lot of people don’t get to transfer and play right away. I was fortunate with the opportunity, and I’ve been around a great coaching staff and great teammates. I feel they made me the offensive player that I never really thought I would be. Everything is a blessing in disguise. Everything happens for a reason. So I’m happy to be a Mizzou tiger.
Q. If either one of you can talk about some lessons learned from the SEC tournament, and I guess, Alex, you just kind of alluded to some of the things about UConn, but what was different about the SEC that y’all are kind of carrying into this that maybe help you finish some games?
Laurence Bowers: Well, obviously we didn’t finish the tournament the way we wanted to, and, you know, whenever it comes to post season, everyone is 0-0 and everybody is fighting for their lives. So, there’s a greater sense of urgency in every game. Teams are playing a lot better than what they played in the regular season, because there are no more games if you lose. And the game, our game that we lost in the SEC tournament, you know, I thought we played great, you know, until the end part there, but I think, you know, coming off of a loss, you know, we’re very hungry and we know that we have a very strong opponent and our sense of urgency has to be through the roof. That’s what Coach has been preaching to us.
Q. Laurence, when you saw the Colorado State pop up on the screen Selection Sunday, what were your first thoughts? Have you seen your opponent play this year?
Laurence Bowers: My first thoughts were that’s the fastest we ever heard our name called since I’ve been here. On to Colorado State, they’re a very physical team. It’s kind of ironic that I played with Colton Iverson in AAU. I kind of know how he is. But they come from a great conference, Mountain West. They play against really top major teams, New Mexico and those type of guys. We just got our work cut out for us. We got to prepare, and we know it’s going to be a battle.
Q. You guys played Bucknell earlier this year, are you surprised to see them and could you give a little bit of a scouting report for Butler fans?
And then second part of this, Alex, you matched up against Muscala both in the tournament two years ago at UConn and again this year, how has he improved and changed?
ALEX ORIAHKI: Obviously I’m not surprised to see Bucknell in the tournament. We played them at our house. We’re down to the wire in the game. It was a definitely close game. Muscala is a heck of a player. He can definitely shoot the ball. Butler has to be on the lookout for that and he can also take it inside. He’s definitely hard to guard.
That’s pretty much it.
THE MODERATOR: Other questions for the student-athletes? Okay. Thank you very much, gentlemen.
Coach Haith, at the University of Missouri. Questions for Coach.
Q. Frank, Colorado State, like you guys, very good at rebounding the basketball. You see that as a key, whoever can kind of neutralize the other team on the glass would have an advantage in this one tomorrow?
COACH HAITH: Well, I think it’s going to be very important. I think rebound and effort plays are always important to success in a basketball game. They thrive in that area. I think their 50/50 balls, taking charges, rebounding, they do it that very, very well. We must do that to be competitive. If we don’t, it could be a long night for us. That’s a key.
I think there’s other things are going to be very important to have a success in this ballgame tomorrow. Guard play, I think us being patient on both ends of the court. There’s no question rebounding is a big part of it, too.
Q. Just to add to that, do you like playing a team that seems like a very similar style of play or would you rather have somebody opposite you guys?
COACH HAITH: I like playing. So, I mean, being in a tournament I think is exciting and, you know, our guys are — whatever style we play against, it doesn’t matter as long as you continue to play.
Q. Frank, how important is Dorian Green to what Colorado State does based on what you’ve seen? He obviously missed a game recently with the ankle injury and hasn’t totally recovered.
COACH HAITH: Goes back to my first answer. That’s going to be extremely important. I think our point guard play and Phil Pressey and I think Dorian when he plays for them, when I watch him, he’s an outstanding player. He plays with such great intelligence, great pace. He can shoot the ball. They’re obviously a different team when he’s not out there. I think he’s such a key for them and their success as well as Phil is for us.
Q. Frank, what is the biggest challenge when you have a kid like Phil who dominates the ball so much and you rely on him and particularly in the past where he’s given you great moments but then he can give you real frustrating ones as well?
COACH HAITH: Phil, he’s a game changer and I think that it’s a fine line as a coach and how you coach a guy like that. I want him to still be confident in what he does and how he plays. I said something to him, I was watching some video of last year’s team, and he had some moments when he played with such great bursts. He really hasn’t done that as much this year, and we need him to get back to playing with bursts on missed shots and just taking off. He’s been more probing this year and we need him utilizing his speed.
But with that said, it’s just being under control and still understanding how defenses are playing you. Trust me, I want to play with a Phil Pressey than without a Phil Pressey, because he can make plays for you. So it hasn’t been as frustrating as people think, because I feel confident Phil is going to have those moments where he’s going to make plays for us and help us win games.
Q. Coach, with what happened last year, is there any motivation from the loss, any discussion of that?
COACH HAITH: We only have one player on our team, that’s Phil Pressey. Doesn’t have an effect on our guys at all. This is a whole new ball club. Our guys understand it’s a new season. We tend to stay in the present and not worry about the past, because you can’t do anything about the past.
Q. Before you left, you talked about the biggest surprise in the locker room for leaders is Alex Oriakhi. Is that surprising that he’s the most vocal guy out there?
COACH HAITH: We’ve encouraged Alex to be that guy for us because of his experiences. He’s won a national championship. So he has such great things to talk about because he’s been to the mountaintop. And I think that it’s just about Alex being willing to accept that role. And, you know, you got to understand, it had to be hard for him. There’s a young man coming in playing with a team the first year, not sitting out getting to know your guys, so it’s been a gradual process for him because he’s such a great kid. He had the respect of his teammates right away.
I think you see Alex being more vocal in the locker room. Every great team has that locker room guy. Alex is becoming that for us. You’ve seen it on the court. He’s learned how to channel his emotions in a positive way. I think that’s really helped our team.
Q. Frank, with some of the struggles in the close games away from home, is there ever a thought of changing strategy-wise just for change’ sake? Are you aware it’s in their head specifically, like maybe do you just try to extend the lead instead of shortening the game, stuff you wouldn’t normally do based on what’s happened?
COACH HAITH: That’s a fine line. You got to go on feel. You don’t want to continue to take quick shots. I think we got to have — it’s about feel at that point in time and depending on the game. I don’t want it to mess with our guys’ head. We’ve lost two games in our last five games, last four by 2 points. We’ve gotten better in that area.
Something that people are not talking about, we did have some close wins. Bucknell, Illinois was a close win. We have finished ballgames. It hasn’t been that we haven’t — we’ve lost every one of those games. I think that, you know, what we do is we got to have guys making plays when they need to make plays. And I’m not going to not stop relying on Phil Pressey. I think that’s important. If I did that, I don’t know that we would win any of those games. So Phil is that guy along with other guys.
We need Keion Bell, who is a great free throw shooter. When you win tight ballgames you got to be able to get to the line. That’s something we stress with our guys, understanding when you get to the 1-1 how to shorten a game is get to the line. That’s something we’ve got to do better and more is attacking when it’s late game and putting the pressure on the defense.
Q. Coach, I remember you telling us earlier in the year that a lot of the best teams in the country were teams that were loaded with veterans, if you will, and guys that have played together for a long time. The Rams certainly have that in spades.
Is that kind a reflection of what you see when you tell me they do the good things, the 50/50 balls, they don’t turn the ball over, is that a by-product of them being old and having played together for a long time?
COACH HAITH: There’s no question. I know Larry really well has a coach. Their team, you watch them, you can see that as a coach, you can see their team. They thrive and know how to win. Knowing how to win is those things. It’s not making all the shots. It’s about the little things, about the 50/50 balls, getting the extra possession or understanding late game and drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. That’s winning basketball.
But a veteran team understands that. They’ve been in those situations and they understand how to play that way in order to give themselves a chance to win.