After capping off an impressive run to the Big XII Tournament championship Saturday night in Kansas City, the Missouri Tigers could do nothing else to decide their postseason fate. They put together the best late-season run they were allowed to make, defeating Baylor 90-75, their third win over the Bears this season, to claim their second crown since 2009. The team and fans packed into Mizzou Arena on Selection Sunday to find out what seed they would get and what their road through the NCAA Tournament would look like.
The Tigers, who put together a 30-4 overall record and went 14-4 in the Big 12 regular season, were given the No. 2 seed in the West Region of the bracket. A case for a No. 1 could have been made, and Missouri has become the first team from a power conference with at least 30 wins to not receive a No. 1 seed. But Mizzou was projected as a two-seed after Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Michigan State cemented their place on the top line of seeding, so receiving a No. 2 wasn’t a big shocker. Some surprise came, however, in an interview with the chairman of the selection committee Jeff Hathaway following the announcement of the brackets on CBS. Hathaway said that Missouri, despite winning 30 games, their conference tournament championship, and being ranked third in the recently released coaches’ poll, was last No. 2 team selected, essentially meaning a No. 8 overall seed in the tournament behind other two-seeds Duke, Ohio State, and Kansas. Hathaway cited that all of those other teams had tougher non-conference schedules than Missouri, even though each one had worse overall records and fell at some point in their conference tournaments. The selection committee almost can’t help but create controversy with its selections, but that argument is for another time.
Despite being the last No. 2 seed selected, Mizzou still drew what appears to be a favorable bracket in the West. They could have been thrown into Kentucky’s region, where the Wildcats have clearly distinguished themselves as the best team in the country and are hungry for a championship. The Tigers were instead placed into Michigan State’s bracket, along with Marquette and Louisville out of the Big East as the other top seeds.
Missouri plays its first game of the 2012 tournament on Friday, March 16 in Omaha, NE against the Norfolk State Spartans. The Spartans are 25-9, 13-3 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and are in March Madness after winning their league tournament over Bethune-Cookman 73-70. Teams seeded second have only lost their opening round game four times in the past 27 years, but the Spartans should not be overlooked. They are led by a very talented senior center Kyle O’Quinn (15.9 PPG, 10.4 RPG), who stands at 6’10” and has scored in double figures in 30 out of his 34 games this season. The biggest storyline and matchup issue for Missouri in this tournament will be their lack of size, and while O’Quinn may have a solid game, the Spartans aren’t as balanced as the Tigers and are expected to see an early exit as a 15-seed.
In March, teams cannot afford to look ahead to potential matchups in the next round and falling into a classic March Madness upset. Despite that, we’re going to start looking straight ahead to who else is in the West bracket. The winner of the 7-10 game, either Florida of the SEC or Virginia of the ACC, awaits the 2-15 winner. Florida is similar to Missouri in size and boasts a balanced, guard-oriented, potent offensive attack. The backcourt trio of senior guard Erving Walker (12.1 PPG, 4.7 APG), junior Kenny Boynton (16.3 PPG, 2.5 APG), and freshman St. Louis native Bradley Beal (14.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG) lead the attack that, if they are connecting from deep, can be a dangerous offensive team. Their counterpart, the Virginia Cavaliers, have a much more defensive style of play, though All-ACC senior forward Mike Scott (18.1 PPG, 8.4 RPG) is one of the most productive players in the conference, if not the country. But like Mizzou and Florida, they don’t boast a great deal of size, with Scott standing at 6’8” being the tallest of the Cavaliers’ top four players in terms of minutes per game. Mizzou will avoid their size nightmare in the Round of 32, but the contrasting styles of Florida and Virginia could be difficult to prepare for on short notice. Florida can shoot the lights out and put plenty of points on the board, but have been inconsistent this season, while Virginia will try and rely on Scott and solid defense to spring some upsets.
If Mizzou can advance to the Sweet 16, there could be a number of teams capable of advancing to face them. One is the Murray State Racers, the champions of the Ohio Valley Conference with a record of 30-1. The Racers opened the year on a 23 game winning streak and are one of the more dangerous mid-major teams in the field. They are led by one of the elite point guards in the country, junior Isaiah Canaan (19.2 PPG, 3.7 APG) and are one of four teams in the tournament with 30+ wins. The Racers biggest name opponent is Memphis, but other than that their opponents are not that impressive, plus they lack size much like Missouri. Their only player over 6’7” is little-used junior Brandon Garrett. The other pair of teams Missouri could potentially face will be determined by a First Four play-in game between BYU from the WCC and Iona out of the MAAC. Iona’s inclusion in the field has been criticized, but the Gaels’ talent can’t be doubted. They are a great offensive team, ranking first in points and assists per game and second in field goal percentage. Iona has a trio of talent, including senior forward Mike Glover (18.5 PPG, 9.0 RPG) and junior guard Momo Jones (16.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG). Their leader is senior point guard Scott Machado (13.6 PPG, 9.9 APG), who is one of the elite point guards in the nation and leads the country in assists per game.
Iona is a talented team that is capable of pulling off a VCU-like run from the First Four to a deep tournament run, but they will have to earn their way past BYU to face Marquette, the three-seed in the West. The Golden Eagles are a small but talented team similar to Mizzou with talented guards, fast pace, and an undersized forward manning the middle. That man is no slouch, however. That is the Big East Player of the Year senior forward Jae Crowder (17.4 PPG, 8.1 RPG), who feeds off a plethora of talented guards, the best of which is senior Darius Johnson-Odom (18.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG). Missouri and Marquette play similar styles, with both using quickness and getting out in transition to make up for their lack of size. They both have a number of talented guards, but Mizzou’s have had the better numbers this season, outside of Johnson-Odom, while Crowder and Mizzou senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe (13.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG) would give a great matchup of talented forwards.
There are dangerous teams in the bottom of the bracket in the West, but none that Mizzou can’t match up against. The very top of the bracket is where the biggest, most physical team in the West resides, and would create an epic Elite Eight matchup if both teams were to get there. Michigan State, the one-seed and champion of the Big 10, a conference that most people believe is the best in the country, has the best chance to give Mizzou problems inside. The Spartans’ leader and catalyst is senior forward Draymond Green (16.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG), a big physical player who can do it all. The Spartans also have big men sophomore Adreian Payne, who stands at 6’10”, and Derrick Nix at 6’9” who may be able to have their way inside against Missouri’s small and shallow frontcourt. Michigan State boast the best combination of strength, depth, and talent in the frontcourt, especially with Green. He is one of the most versatile players in the country and is the main reason that the Spartans had the season they had.
However, if Green struggles to find his game, Michigan State is quite beatable, which means it won’t be a lock for MSU to make it to the Elite Eight. They will be the favorites, obviously, but either Memphis, who started slow but have played well of late behind sophomore guard Will Barton (18.1 PPG, 8.1 RPG), or St. Louis, who won’t wow you in the box score but play at a unique pace, lurk in the Round of 32 and are no pushovers. In the Sweet 16 there could be fourth-seeded Louisville, riding the momentum of a Big East Tournament championship and capable of making a run, or No. 5 New Mexico, a talented under the radar team whose senior forward Drew Gordon (13.4 PPG, 10.9 RPG) is a constant double-double threat. It is also foreseeable that a team like No. 13 Davidson with its five players averaging double-digit scoring, or No. 12 Long Beach State, who is more battle tested than perhaps any team in the country playing a bevy of non-conference games against elite teams, could make a cinderella run into the late rounds of the tournament.
March Madness always comes down to in-game matchups and how well you can exploit them in your favor. As it has been said all year, Missouri’s biggest concern is a big, physical team that can kill the Tigers in the paint. There may be no better guards in America than the ones in the black and gold coming out of the Big XII, but they have a weakness that teams will look to exploit this time of year. The teams most capable of doing so are Michigan State and Florida. The Gators rely on their stellar guards as well, but a player like sophomore forward Patric Young (10.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG) could see success. The Tigers do seem to matchup with the bottom of their bracket very well, though, and avoid big, strong teams that can impose their will inside. This could prove to be huge as the Tigers are looking for their first Final Four appearance in school history. They have a great chance to do it, based on their bracket, but it will all come down to execution, as it so often does this time of year. If they can play like they did in Kansas City this past week, it could be very difficult to slow them down and keep them from reaching New Orleans.