Must-see TV: Don't count the Lions out just yet

Feb. 16—The Lions have won back-to-back games and have themselves up to sixth place in the MIAA conference standings because of those wins.

The Missouri Southern men's basketball team is currently tied for that sixth spot in the standings with Central Oklahoma at 9-8. Missouri Western was also tied, but after a 62-61 loss against Northeastern State on Thursday night, the Griffons are now 9-9 and sit alone in eighth place.

The best part about these three teams being in the race for sixth place in the standings, they will not play each other again in the regular season. Each team will control its own destiny for claiming that spot or moving higher.

As you look at the top five spots in the standings, the Lions trail Rogers State (10-7) for fifth place by one game. Then Pittsburg State and Washburn are tied for third at 11-6 — MSSU will play both of those teams in its final five games.

Missouri Southern beat PSU by 7 in Pittsburg, Kansas, in early January. The Lions fell 70-65 on Jan. 17 when visiting Washburn in Topeka, Kansas. Now they will try to earn two home victories late in the season. The Gorillas come to Missouri Southern at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, and then the Ichabods are in Joplin at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28.

Those are two massive opportunities to make a statement and show that it's too early to count the Lions out.

The other three remaining games are on Thursday, Feb. 22, at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (2-16, 14th in MIAA); Saturday, Feb. 24, at Fort Hays State (14-4, second in MIAA); and the regular season finale on Saturday, March 2, at home against Northwest Missouri (16-2, first in MIAA).

While I say it's too early to count the Lions out, they also have to take care of business. Against a bad team or not, when they go on the road to UNK next Thursday, they must do that. That's why you call it a business trip. They cannot fall asleep against an MIAA opponent in their home gym. That's a must-win in order to set themselves up for a good seed in the MIAA Tournament that begins March 6.

I think the Lions need to win three of these last five games. They have to beat their rival at home on Saturday. They need to beat UNK and then return home and take care of a Washburn team that they played close on the road.

Going to FHSU will be tough, as that's a team that won by 18 inside the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center on Jan. 11. NWMSU to end the season isn't easy. But it's an opportunity to smack the conference leader. If the Bearcats come in a little lackadaisical, the Lions have to take advantage. Plus, this was a 78-74 final in Maryville at the end of November.

Now let's talk about some keys for this team.

I've recently noticed that the Lions are at their best when playing with a lead early. They're able to control the tempo, not turn the ball over and they run their offense at an easy pace.

It's hard for defenses to speed MSSU up when they get out to quick leads. Even if it's just 4-2 or 6-2. That has recently turned into double-digit leads in a hurry.

The Lions do an excellent job of probing in the lane. Vinson Sigmon Jr. attacks the paint and makes the right decisions. That is sometimes shooting a midrange shot or sometimes kicking out to a teammate on the 3-point line. He even finds a post player below him for an easy layup.

But again, a lot of this comes when the team starts strong.

Head coach Sam McMahon has talked a lot about defense coming first. He sees his team in its best efficiency when getting key stops and getting down floor into its half-court offense.

MSSU has won four of its last five games. And the lone loss was by 4 points to UCO. Each opponent shot below that efficient mark of 45%, and three of them were below 40%.

One more thing: Darius Dawson has to be at or near the top of the scoring leaders at the final buzzer.

The junior has broken the 20-point threshold in five games this year and has done so three times in the last five games. He also led the Lions in scoring in four of the last five games. The one game he didn't? The loss against UCO where he had just 9 points.

Now, if Dawson can't get a bucket to go or is being guarded well, you must have a safety valve. But he has to be your first option unless he's being taken away.

And that's when you trust guys like Sigmon, Martin Macenis and Avery Taggart — who are all over 10 ppg — to get buckets. You can also mark Winston Dessesow down for at least one 3-pointer per game. He has 28 triples in 23 games.

Now, the Lions will likely have to win the MIAA conference tournament in order to gain a bid to the national tournament due to their sluggish start. But that isn't impossible. They just have to remember they've hung with Northwest once this year. No one is unbeatable.