COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri men’s basketball has reached its regular-season finale, with its postseason hopes of any kind very much in doubt.
The Tigers’ loss Wednesday at Mississippi derailed the path they hope to finish on.
Now it’s damage control as Missouri hosts Alabama for senior day. MU will honor its lone senior, center Reed Nikko, before playing in a critical game for Southeastern Conference Tournament seeding.
Missouri’s loss to Ole Miss, combined with Arkansas’ victory over LSU on Wednesday, saw the Razorbacks jump the Tigers for the conference’s No. 10 seed, the last slot for an automatic bye to the second round. That 10th seed is now the Tigers’ highest-possible finish.
A trio of events need to happen Saturday to guarantee Missouri won’t have to play Wednesday in the first round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville: a win over the Crimson Tide, an Arkansas loss on the road to Texas A&M and an Ole Miss loss at Mississippi State.
In addition, one of the following results also needs to happen: an Auburn win over Tennessee, a Florida win over Kentucky or an LSU loss to Georgia.
No matter what happens away from Mizzou Arena, the Tigers must take care of business with a win in their final home game of the season.
Saturday’s tip-off against Alabama is set for 1:30 p.m. on SEC Network and will be radio broadcast on KTGR (105.1 FM).
Here’s a closer look at the Tigers vs. Crimson Tide matchup. Below are projected lineups, players to watch, keys to the game and a score prediction.
Projected Missouri starters: Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson, Kobe Brown, Javon Pickett, Reed Nikko
Projected Alabama starters: Alex Reese, Herbert Jones, Kira Lewis Jr., Jaden Shackelford, James Bolden
Missouri player to watch
While plenty of eyes will be on Nikko, Missouri will need a spark from Javon Pickett after two straight scoreless performances.
Pickett injured his back after an awkward fall during the first half of last Saturday’s matchup against Mississippi State and hasn’t been the same since.
His movement on offense has looked limited, though he’s still been solid defensively.
If Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin doesn’t tinker with his starting lineup for this game, Pickett will play for much of the contest and will be tasked with guarding one of Alabama’s best offensive players.
That’s a role Pickett has been placed in all season, regardless of whether he’s starting or coming off the bench.
As the Tigers seek for all their moving pieces to become a united force, Pickett’s resurgence would greatly help those efforts.
Alabama player to watch
The Crimson Tide’s premier player is Kira Lewis Jr., who is averaging 18.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game this season.
Lewis scored 30 points in Alabama’s loss to Vanderbilt on Wednesday, which all but ended its hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.
Despite Lewis’ potential, Missouri held the 6-foot-3 sophomore to just 10 points in its 88-74 loss to the Crimson Tide on Jan. 18 in Tuscaloosa.
Lewis will look to get more out of Saturday’s game. Dru Smith is likely to draw the primary defensive assignment.
Missouri’s key to the game
Tiger fans remember that Missouri was 31-for-31 from the free-throw line in the game against the Crimson Tide earlier this season.
That started the streak in which Missouri set the NCAA record at 54 straight free throws made as a team, continuing the strong shooting the following game against Texas A&M.
MU still lost by 14 in Tuscaloosa because its offense didn’t find ways to click.
Missouri no longer has stretches to that degree where it can’t buy a bucket. Having consistent scoring throughout its lineup will be huge in taking down the Crimson Tide, who only got three bench points against Vanderbilt.
Alabama’s key to the game
The way the Crimson Tide took down Missouri seven weeks ago was by turning the game into a track meet.
As Jeremiah Tilmon was out of the lineup, Alabama drove to the rim and wasn’t really challenged in the paint.
Now with Tilmon healthy and Missouri getting quality minutes from a few low-post players, the road to victory will be a little tougher for Alabama.
It’s possible the Crimson Tide have lost a step or two since that previous victory over Missouri, evidenced by its home loss to league-worst Vanderbilt this week.
Final score prediction
Missouri 81, Alabama 76.