Last week was not one of the best Missouri basketball has had, to put it lightly. The Tigers got smoked 91-73 at home by Auburn and then lost 74-62 at Mississippi State. Both seemed like about 50-50 games heading in, but both were double-digit defeats.  

In between, Missouri indefinitely suspended backup point guard Terrence Phillips for disciplinary reasons. Phillips had not been playing well lately, but he was an experienced player who gave the Tigers some depth at perhaps their thinnest position.

Missouri (13-8, 3-5 in SEC play through Sunday) showed its weaknesses on Saturday in Starkville. The Tigers’ starting point guard, Jordan Geist, scraps, hustles, and comedically embellishes contact in an effort to get calls from the refs. He’s doing what he can to help, but it would be nice if Missouri didn’t have to lean on him so much at the point.

The Tigers have turned to shooting guard Kassius Robertson to run the point some because he’s a steady, skilled player, but that puts extra responsibilities on one of Missouri’s best scoring options. Their other top scorer, Jordan Barnett, looked out of sorts against Mississippi State. Bad games happen, but it showed how much Missouri needs his scoring abilities.

In the post, Jeremiah Tilmon finally had a game where he largely avoided foul trouble. He shows flashes of his great length and potential, but he also has plays that show he’s a freshman, particularly on rebounding and positioning.

This team has some pieces, but the way they’re fitting together right now isn’t working. All season I’ve thought this was an NCAA Tournament team despite the loss of Michael Porter Jr., but the Mississippi State game was the first time I’ve started to think that might not be the case.

Missouri ended the week tied for 9th place in the SEC.

Add in that the SEC appears to be a tough league. A lot of programs in the conference have improved, and on Saturday the SEC won the Big 12-SEC basketball challenge 6 games to 4. (Since the SEC has four more teams than the Big 12, not every team participated.)

Missouri has another tough test on Saturday when the Kentucky Wildcats visit Mizzou Arena (1 p.m. on CBS). No opponent puts more of a charge into SEC arenas than when the Wildcats and “Big Blue Nation” come to town.

Kentucky (16-5, 5-3 in SEC) has a very young team, even by their usual fountain of youth standards. But they might be heating up, and on Saturday they rallied for a huge win on the road against a very good West Virginia team. Kevin Knox, who considered Missouri before choosing Kentucky, poured in 34 points and seems to becoming more assertive. The Wildcats also might be coming around defensively.

Coach John Calipari and his teams seem to thrive in hostile atmospheres, and they’ll get one Saturday in Columbia. For Missouri, a win over the SEC’s historic top program would be a huge step toward getting this season back on track. This one should be worth a watch.

By Benjamin Herrold