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NOTEBOOK: Missouri prepping for season finale against Alabama

With the Crimson Tide coming into town, the Tigers have one last shot to get a win inside Mizzou Arena.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Disappointing is the best word to describe Missouri’s last matchup with Alabama on Jan. 18.

The Tigers knocked down 31 of 31 free throws, a historic number at this level of basketball, but still lost by 14 to the Crimson Tide. Alabama knocked down 13 of 39 3-pointers and made just six less free throws than Missouri. The Tigers also had an almost 11 minute stretch in the first half without making a shot, and they missed 16 of their last 19 shots in the second half.

“I honestly think that’s a completely different team,” Reed Nikko said of the Missouri team he saw when watching film of the team’s last meeting. “That early SEC team, different than the one that we’ve been playing like recently.”

Out of everything the team did wrong offensively in that game — and a lot did go wrong, as Missouri shot 31.1% from the field and 25% from deep — the one aspect everyone at the Tigers’ media availability Friday morning pointed to was the lack of success at the rim.

Missouri’s total of missed shots in the paint reached double-digits, and that included a few gimmes that didn’t fall.

“I think the biggest thing, we missed a lot of easy shots at the rim. I think just need to finish there,” Nikko said.

“We’ve got to concentrate when we get to the rim. Watching film back, we missed probably honestly about 20 layups or shots that were close to the rim,” Dru Smith said. “So just concentrating when we get in there.”

The Tide also have the added benefit of the return of John Petty Jr. He hasn’t played since Feb. 25 due to an injury suffered against Mississippi State, but he also dropped a game-high 20 points against the Tigers back in January. Petty Jr. wasn’t alone in getting buckets against Missouri, as Jaden Shackelford (17), Alex Reese (17), Herbert Jones (11) and Kira Lewis Jr. (10) also reached double figures in the Alabama win.

So, even if Petty isn’t at full health, the Tide still has a ton of firepower to go around.

“Well, I know they’ll play guys that can make threes,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “As we approach the game, we approach it as if (Petty will) play. That’s how we look at it, but we know what they do. They obviously spread you out.”

One game at a time

With the SEC Tournament on the horizon, speculation on seeding is rampant.

Missouri has fallen to 11th in the conference after losing to Mississippi State and Ole Miss, one game behind 10th-place Arkansas. If the standings hold, the Tigers will have to play in the Wednesday play-in games that will feature each of the bottom four teams. Not only does Missouri need the Razorbacks to lose in College Station against Texas A&M on Saturday, but it also needs to knock off Alabama to have a shot at moving into a tie for 10th.

But for now, Missouri isn’t worried about the tournament. The Tigers are on a bit of a slide over the past week, so they’re focused on ending the regular season on a high note and letting the seedings fall how they may.

“It’ll take care of itself if you win the games, (...) if you want to be an NCAA Tournament team, you get there you have to win games anyway, so it doesn’t matter at this point but winning basketball games,” Martin said.

And there are other things for Missouri to be worrying about prior to its trip to Nashville.

Senior night is Saturday, so the team wants to send Nikko — the lone graduating senior — out on a high note. The Tigers also have to stay focused on the Crimson Tide team that blew them out less than two months ago in Tuscaloosa. And especially considering the only way Missouri can possibly avoid the Wednesday play-in game is by beating Alabama, it makes total sense that the Tigers want to keep the focus on the regular season finale.

“There’s not a lot to lose. I mean, we’re just going out, we’re trying to win every game that we can, and we got one left in the regular season,” Dru Smith said.

Playing for Reed

Nikko has gone through a cycle of nicknames throughout his Missouri career. Big ‘Sota, Big Reed, Big Dove (don’t ask Dru Smith how that one came to be, just know Jordan Geist came up with it).

But even with the different names, one thing has always been true for Nikko: his teammates respect the hell out of him.

Nikko spent most of his Missouri career as a backup big man, and it wasn’t until Jeremiah Tilmon’s injury in early January that Nikko was thrust into the spotlight. He’s taken it stride though, and the years of constant work behind the scenes has seen Nikko’s game take off over the last two months.

Because he’s always been the guy his teammates can count on to his job, they want to do their jobs and send him off with one last home win Saturday for Senior Night.

“We just have a lot of respect for Reed and just what he’s done over these last probably 15 games,” Dru Smith said. “The player that he’s grown into, and I wouldn’t even say ‘grown into’ but just the player that he’s let everybody else see, I think it’s just something that we’re all very proud of. That’s why we just want to do everything we can for him tomorrow.”

Nikko is one of two players on the roster who were recruited by former head coach Kim Anderson. The other player from the 2016 class on the team, Mitchell Smith, has one year of eligibility left because he took a medical redshirt his sophomore year to recover from a torn ACL and meniscus.

Because of that, the senior spotlight will be squarely on Nikko.

“I might get a little choked up out there seeing Reed walk across there because we’ve really been together since Day 1,” Mitchell Smith said. “To see his growth over the years, it’s great. I’m proud of him, for sure.”

Nikko is hardly the guy that wants the spotlight on him. Admittedly a shy person, Nikko said he wishes Smith was going to be getting honored as well, not only because they came to MU together but also to take a little bit of the pressure off of him. But because Nikko is the lone senior playing his last game at Mizzou Arena, his teammates want him to bask in it.

“My teammates, they’re kind of giving me a hard time because they know I’m kind of a quiet guy, I’m not always comfortable with this much attention, this much spotlight,” Nikko said. “Kobe (Brown) just told me before I came in here, he was like, ‘Hey man, it’s OK, you can be conceited for one day. You’ve kind of earned it.’”