Missouri's stretch run in basketball begins Saturday.

Seems odd to say that, doesn't it? Nineteen games separate the Tigers from the SEC Tournament in Nashville. Nearly two-thirds of Missouri's regular season still remains, and the conference season is still a game away. The New Year just began.

 But make no mistake. The stretch run begins when Bucknell comes to Columbia for a 3 PM date with the Tigers on Saturday. From now on, there aren't any good losses left for Frank Haith's team. Louisville, that was a good loss -- despite the 23-point final deficit. UCLA, that was a good loss -- despite the fact that Missouri should have won the game.

So far, there have been four marquee non-conference games -- Louisville, VCU, Illinois and UCLA. Missouri is 2-2 in an otherwise yawner of a non-conference slate. All along, that was Haith's plan -- mix in some heavy hor d'oeuvres with a cracker-and-cheese plate.

"You try to do that. You try to base it on, with UCLA you were looking at their recruiting class and I talked to Ben about us playing, starting a series and we thought it would be great," Haith said to reporters during Media Day on Thursday. "Bucknell, they won the league. There was a team we identified that was gonna be a really good team. RPI, they're top 30 I think. That's a great game for us. There's no question, you get the mid-major teams, you try to get the best of those teams that are going to win their league."

Now, there aren't any moral victories. Those losses prepared Missouri for the final stretch. Now, if Missouri wants to be a one or a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament, it likely has to win out.

Is that probable? Maybe.

Missouri has three resume-building games remaining -- the home-and-home with Florida and an away game against Kentucky. Arkansas provides an emotional two-games, but doesn't provide a big RPI boost as the Razorbacks are currently 110th in the nation in that category.

As the conference schedule begins, the RPI of Missouri's opponents will fall. The SEC is top-heavy, and beyond Florida, Missouri and Kentucky, the rest of the conference leaves plenty to be desired.

After an 11-2 start to the season, the Tigers haven't worked out all the kinks. But -- and this is important -- they know those kinks. They know there's not a crunch-time answer at point guard behind Phil Pressey. They know Pressey needs to play within himself, especially late in the season. They know that Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers need to be on the court for defense in close and tight situations. They know that Jabari Brown is still finding his legs. They know that Tony Criswell's return from a broken finger will be paramount to this team's gritty depth late in the season.

Missouri is still a deep, talented and flawed team. We knew that going into the season. We knew that after Michael Dixon's Missouri career officially ended. What we didn't know is just how high Missouri's ceiling is. The problems have been identified, and now Missouri has to work them out while trying to run the table. Even if the Tigers fail in that goal, they need to peak as the season nears its end. Whether it's a 1 or 2-seed, or a 4 or a 5-seed, this team has the potential to provide an all-time great year in Tigers' history.

That goal starts on Saturday. No more mulligans.

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