A string of competitive games would appear to have given Missouri the ideal preparation for its inaugural SEC season.
If that is the case, the proof might begin to show Tuesday night when the 10th-ranked Tigers welcome Alabama to Mizzou Arena for its historic conference opener.Missouri's tune-up for the SEC began when it rallied for an 82-73 victory over then-No. 10 Illinois in St. Louis on Dec. 22. The Tigers (11-2) followed with an 97-94 overtime loss at UCLA on Dec. 28, a game in which they led by seven with less than four minutes to go in regulation, before getting past visiting Bucknell 66-64 on Saturday."Those three games were a good challenge for us. I thought we handled them well," said senior forward Laurence Bowers, who is averaging a team-best 16.8 points. "Obviously we fell short one game. I think we learned a lot from today even though we won. We just have to continue to get better ... and prepare for Alabama."Phil Pressey, the SEC's preseason player of the year, scored a career-high 26 points in this weekend's victory after setting a school record with 19 assists in the loss to UCLA.Even with its bevy of new players still meshing, Missouri is 8-0 at home and is 75-4 there since the beginning of the 2008-09 season. Alabama is 1-2 on the road this season and 20-53 since the start of the 2005-06 campaign."I love where we are at. I love our team. I love our attitude and our toughness," coach Frank Haith said. "You hear these guys talk about toughness and it is something that we emphasize. This is a really good team."The Tigers, who are 41-7 under Haith, will try to prove how good they are beginning with a seemingly winnable game against Alabama (8-5). The Crimson Tide won for only the second time in seven games Saturday, 65-45 over visiting Oakland.Leading scorer Trevor Releford, a junior guard who is a native of Kansas City, had a team-best 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting and increased his scoring average to 15.6.Alabama has only one senior, Andrew Steele, who returned from sports hernia surgery in Saturday's win, but nearly knocked off then-No. 17 Cincinnati on Dec. 1. The Crimson Tide fell 58-56 on a buzzer-beating shot and have lost nine straight to ranked teams.The Tide have also dropped 12 consecutive road games to Top 25 opponents since a 77-73 win over No. 4 Mississippi State on Feb. 21, 2004.To pull off another upset, Alabama might need to figure out how to beat one of the nation's best teams on the boards (46.7 per game and 16.5 offensive rebounds per contest). The Tigers have posted an average margin of 13.0 over their opponents this season while Alabama is being outrebounded by 0.3 per game."It's a huge concern," coach Anthony Grant said. "I have been really impressed watching them on film and the size difference will certainly be a challenge for our team."Alabama leads the series 4-1 but the No. 5 Tigers won the most recent meeting over the No. 22 Crimson Tide 75-68 on Nov. 20, 2001, in Kansas City.