Sunday, March 11, 2012

Missouri eyes first ever Final Four

The dancing began immediately after Missouri’s 90-75 win over Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament championship game. The Tiger players, clad in championship shirts, championship shirts and the joy of victory, broke out into dancing on the Sprint Center Court in Kansas City. An emotional coach Frank Haith hugged his family. The conference tournament title, Missouri’s second in four years, capped a 30-4 regular season for the Tigers.

And now the moves continue, with the Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament. Missouri is the No. 2 seed in the West Region. The Tigers’ 30-win season and high seed have fans thinking this could be the team that breaks through the program’s glass ceiling, that fills the void in Missouri basketball… the Final Four.

Missouri has won conference titles, played in the Tournament many times, notched over 1,500 wins, but has never made it to the Final Four. Five times Missouri has stood one win away from the Final Four, five times the Tigers have fallen short, most recently in 2009 in Arizona.

This is Missouri’s 25th NCAA Tournament appearance, trailing only Brigham Young for most Tournament bids without reaching the Final Four. Also, Missouri’s 22 NCAA Tournament wins are tied for the most without a Final Four.

This Tiger team is capable of making a run in the Tournament, but it will be challenging.

Missouri first plays Norfolk State at approximately 3:40 p.m. on Friday in Omaha. The game will be broadcast on TNT.

The Norfolk State Spartans won the MEAC Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans are 25-9 this season, and are led by 6-10 senior Kyle O’Quinn, who is averaging a team-leading 15.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. O’Quinn is the kind of big, skilled interior player who could give Missouri trouble, but the Tigers’ speed and guard play should more than negate this.

Should Missouri get by Norfolk State (only four times has a 15 seed beaten a 2 seed in the 64 to 68 team era, which dates back to 1985), the Tigers would face the winner of Friday’s Florida-Virginia game in a Sunday matchup.

Virginia is led by Mike Scott, a first-team all-ACC player. Scott is a game-changer, but I’d look for Florida to prevail to be Missouri’s Round of 32 opponent.

Beating Florida could be tricky. The Gators tied for second in the SEC, and just last week they pushed mighty Kentucky to the limit before bowing out in their conference tournament. Florida has talented guards in Kenny Boynton and Bradley Beal, who is from St. Louis.

Plenty of tough opponents lurk in the West Region, such as 3 seed Marquette and 6 seed Murray State, who only lost one game this season. And that’s not to mention No. 1 seed and Big Ten champion Michigan State, whose green Spartan logo is about as omnipresent in March as greening grass.

So yes, the road in March is tough. But Missouri has a deep senior class, tremendous chemistry and momentum following the Big 12 Tournament win. If the Tigers’ hot shooting continues, this could be the year Missouri dances on to the Final Four.

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