Sunday, March 13, 2011

Missouri looks to spring upset in the Big Dance

Less is more, and lower can be better, which may have been the case for Missouri on Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament. Most projections had the Tigers as a No. 8 seed, but when the brackets were revealed Missouri was an 11 seed, scheduled to play 6 seed Cincinnati at 8:50 p.m. Thursday in Washington D.C. in the West Regional.

The Tigers are the lower-seeded team in their first game, but they now play a 3 seed if they win. If they were an 8 or 9 seed, they would have had to play a 1 seed in the second round.

But the hypotheticals are done now. The 11 seed showed Missouri had slipped very close to the bubble, going 8-8 in Big 12 play and losing four of its last five games, including an absolute drubbing at the hands of Texas A&M in the Big 12 Tournament.

It was a bit shocking to see Missouri fall to an 11, but it was largely a shocking day for Big 12 teams. Texas and Texas A&M also had lower seeds than projected, and Colorado was left out of the 68-team field. The Buffaloes were done in by an incredibly weak nonconference schedule (ranked 325th in difficulty). With Colorado’s exclusion and Missouri’s inclusion, only two of the eight Big 12 teams that have gone 8-8 have made the NCAA Tournament, this year’s Tigers and the 2007-08 Texas A&M Aggies.

Missouri got in with its 14-1 nonconference record and lack of bad losses, but the Tigers less-than-challenging noncon schedule clearly hurt their seed. They would be wise to schedule some tougher opponents in future years, if they value higher tournament seeds.

Cincinnati, out of the vaunted Big East conference, is led in scoring and rebounding by junior Yancy Gates. The Bearcats (25-8, 11-7 in Big East play) finished sixth in their 16-team league. They began the season 15-0 before losing three of four to begin conference play. They recovered and won six of their last eight games, but were routed 89-51 by Notre Dame in the Big East Tournament.

To peek ahead, if Missouri wins, they would play the winner of the Connecticut-Bucknell game. Bucknell is known for shocking Kansas in the 2005 NCAA Tournament. They were a 14 seed then, too. Connecticut just reeled off five wins in five days to win the Big East Tournament, a staggering feat. The sensational Kemba Walker, a national player of the year candidate, leads the Huskies.

Heading into this tournament, Missouri carries the dubious distinction of having the most NCAA Tournament wins without reaching a Final Four (22, tied with Boston College). The Tigers are 22-23 in their 23 alltime NCAA Tournament appearances. Missouri’s 24th tournament appearance trails only BYU for most Big Dance appearances without a Final Four. (This is the Cougars’ 26th NCAA Tournament bid.)

The Tigers are probably a Final Four long shot this year. But it’s been an unpredictable season, and it seems there are no dominant teams. Coach Mike Anderson’s teams have outperformed their seeding in each of the last two seasons, his two NCAA Tournaments at Missouri. The regular season ended with a thud, but the Big Dance is a fresh canvas.

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