As Missouri moves toward the NCAA tournament, the Tigers have won three of their last four, righting the ship after a tough end to January, but in order to be a dangerous team in March, Laurence Bowers must return to form.
Bowers sprained the MCL in his right knee on Jan. 8 against Alabama and missed the next five games. Up until that point, Bowers was averaging 16.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, and that was after missing last season due to a torn ACL in his left knee.
In his first 16 games, Bowers proved to be a great running mate for point guard Phil Pressey. Bowers runs the floor well, something that fits nicely with Pressey’s game, and he was Missouri’s most consistent player. Bowers scored at least 11 points in 15 of his team’s first 16 games.
Then came the injury. Missouri went 3-2 in Bowers’ absence, losing by double digits in quality road tests at Ole Miss and Florida. With Bowers out, other players were forced to step up. Alex Oriakhi upped his game with back-to-back double-doubles against South Carolina and Vanderbilt, the last two games Bowers missed.
Oriakhi has maintained that level of play since Bowers came back, but Bowers has not been the same. He has shown flashes that provide optimism, but his production has dipped. In his five games since coming back from the injury, Bowers is averaging 8.3 points and 3.8 rebounds, well below his pre-injury numbers.
Since his return, the Tigers are 3-2 with a 73-70 loss at LSU and a 70-68 loss at Texas A&M where Bowers only played 12 minutes. He has scored in double figures in three of the five games. So while the production has dipped, that does not mean Bowers has not been productive at all.
Missouri coach Frank Haith and Bowers also both insist that he is healthy, which is encouraging.
"Physically, he's fine - it's just a rhythm and timing thing," Haith said, according to Terez Paylor of The Kansas City Star. "When you've been gone for three-plus weeks, you've got to get back into the flow."
If Bowers does get his complete game going again, that would be a huge boost for Missouri, which currently sits on the right side of the bubble. Nonconference, neutral court wins over VCU, Illinois and Stanford, as well as a 7-5 record over teams ranked in the top 100 of the RPI, according to CBSSports.com, bode well for the Tigers.
Currently, Missouri is No. 33 in the RPI, according to Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com.
Still, Missouri is not a lock to make the NCAA tournament. The Tigers are only 1-5 in true road games, with the lone win against lowly Mississippi State. Missouri can rectify that moving forward with trips to Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee still on the schedule.
While getting to the tournament certainly is the goal, Missouri would like to atone for its early exit from a season ago when the Tigers were upset by 15-seed Norfolk State, a game Bowers missed because of his season-ending ACL injury.
This time around, the Tigers could be a scary team come tournament time. They have the point guard play with Pressey, the physical presence underneath with Oriakhi and the scoring on the wing with Jabari Brown and Keion Bell. Bowers could complete the puzzle.
If Bowers regains his early season form, Missouri can make a deep run in the tournament. He brings versatility, consistency and experience, three valued commodities come postseason play. If Bowers is limited, the Tigers might win a game but wouldn’t be a threat to do much more.