Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tough path awaits Missouri in NCAA Tournament

Celebrate, college basketball fans, the NCAA Tournament is back. Along with all of the madness and buzzer-beaters, dunks and daggers, the Big Dance brings a fresh start.

Missouri and its fans are probably ready for a fresh start after one more disappointing close loss in the SEC Tournament. This one was a punch in the stomach, a 14-point blown lead against Mississippi.
But now it’s all about the big tournament, a chance to make up for all the season’s tough losses with success when it matters most. However, thanks to how the season played out, Missouri’s road to even the Sweet 16 is rugged.

Missouri, the 9 seed in the Midwest Region, plays 8 seed Colorado State in its first game, on Thursday in Kentucky’s Rupp Arena (approximately 8:20 p.m. on TBS).

Colorado State (25-8, 11-5 in Mountain West Conference play) has a familiar face in coach Larry Eustachy. Eustachy was the coach at Iowa State for five seasons in the late 1990s and early 2000s, winning two Big 12 titles and advancing to the Elite Eight in the 2000 NCAA Tournament.

Eustachy resigned from Iowa State after a scandal stemming from photos of him drinking at a party near the MU campus following a game in Columbia. He later underwent treatment for alcoholism, and is back to doing what he does very well, coaching basketball.

This game features strength vs. strength, as both Missouri and Colorado State are in the top five nationally in rebounds per game. Senior big man Colton Iverson leads the Rams with 14.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Senior forward Pierce Hornung is listed at just 6-foot-5, but he also pulls in more than nine rebounds per game. Senior (see the pattern here?) guard Dorian Green, from a little town named Lawrnece, Kan., can score and has a 2.2 assist to turnover ratio.

Missouri is certainly capable of winning this game, and the Tigers had generally been playing pretty well up until the last 16 minutes against Ole Miss. It should be fascinating to watch this battle for rebounds play out.

Now, the bad news. If Missouri beats CSU, they will almost certainly face No. 1 overall seed Louisville, last seen going on an awe-inspiring 27-3 run against a very good Syracuse team in the Big East Tournament championship. Louisville hammered Missouri by 23 in November in the Bahamas. Louisville has a suffocating defense, and the Cardinals forced the Tigers into 21 turnovers in that game.

Louisville has great guard play in Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, plus length in center Gorgui Dieng. The Cardinals also have a coach, Rick Pitino, who has been to six Final Fours.

Missouri is making its 26th NCAA Tournament appearance, second only to BYU in tournament appearances without a Final Four. The Tigers also have 22 NCAA Tournament wins without a Final Four, tied with Boston College for the most all-time. The road to that grand stage is particularly tough this year, but after two straight first-game losses in the tournament, just winning against CSU would be a nice step.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Missouri heads into its first SEC Tournament

Missouri heads to Nashville this week for its first SEC Tournament. It’s been an up-and-down season for the Tigers, who finished the regular season at 22-9 overall and 11-7 in SEC play, earning the 6 seed in the conference tournament.

Missouri was unbeaten at home, but struggled mightily on the road, even in the weak SEC. The Tigers went 2-7 in SEC road games, 2-8 overall on the road, and the many close losses left fans wondering what could have been in this first SEC season.

Missouri’s last road loss, at Tennessee last Saturday, was like plenty of the others. It was close and Missouri had some bad possessions late, notably yet another horrible Phil Pressey missed three-pointer, this one an air ball that prompted an eruption of wrath from coach Frank Haith.

This road loss was unique in that the Tigers, a pretty good rebounding team, got beat soundly on the glass by the hungry Volunteers, a team fighting for its NCAA Tournament life. Behold, the power of a desperate home team.

Now Missouri heads back to Tennessee, this time to the Music City, for the conference tournament. It’s a jolt from the tradition and familiar faces of the Big 12 Tournament, but with multiple teams jockeying for NCAA Tournament position and plenty of flawed-but-capable teams, this SEC Tourney could be fun.

But just so you feel at home, Missouri will likely open against fellow ex-Big 12 member Texas A&M, assuming the Aggies get by woeful Auburn Wednesday night. Missouri faces the A&M-Auburn winner at 9 p.m. on Thursday (SEC Network).

Should the Tigers win, they get the rubber match with Mississippi, the three seed, at 9 p.m. on Friday (SEC Network). The Rebels won big at home against the Tigers, who were without senior forward Laurence Bowers; Missouri returned the favor with a big home win over Ole Miss that included a near-fight. This game could have some edge.

Should the Tigers keep advancing, they would play at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the semifinal (ABC), and then the championship is at noon Sunday (ABC).

Frankly, pretty much nothing Missouri would do in Nashville would be a huge surprise. They’ve lost to Texas A&M already this season and have had some flops. But, if the tournament follows the seeding, Missouri would need to beat Texas A&M, Mississippi, Kentucky and Florida to win it. Missouri has wins over two of those teams, and lost close road games to Texas A&M and Kentucky, so winning the whole thing isn’t impossible.

But being a six seed makes the road tougher. Missouri would need to win four games in four days. The Tigers won two of their last four Big 12 Tournaments, but each required just three wins in three days thanks to byes. Missouri twice played four games in four days in the Big 12 Tournament, but ran out of gas both times, losing the championship game.

If I had to guess, I’d say the Tigers play deep into the weekend, at least to Saturday’s semifinals. But with the ups and downs this team has shown, maybe write that in pencil.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Does Missouri have a Tournament run in it?

Missouri had a nice week, picking up a road win over South Carolina and a home win against an LSU team that had been playing better lately.

With these wins, Missouri (21-8, 10-6 in SEC play through Sunday) began this week having won five of its last seven games. The only two losses were the agonizing last-minute loss at Arkansas and the very respectable overtime loss at Kentucky.

This raises the question, is Missouri improving at the right time to make a run in the NCAA Tournament?

The case for Missouri making a March Madness run would have to start with rebounding, especially offensive rebounding. LSU jumped ahead of Missouri last Saturday with some hot shooting. But Missouri kept grinding away on the glass, getting second-chance points and points in the paint, eventually reeling in LSU.

Tom Izzo’s Michigan State teams are annual March stalwarts, often outperforming their seed with great rebounding. It’s as though the Spartans’ honor is on the line every time a missed shot bounces off the rim, up for grabs. For Missouri, second nationally in rebounds per game, dominating the glass could help spring an NCAA Tournament upset. Senior Alex Oriakhi leads the charge, with double-digit rebounds in five of the last seven games.

Beyond that, Tiger fans have seen how good the “good” Phil Pressey can be. Phil has had some bad moments late in close games, but when he’s playing well, he is a game changer.

But there is also certainly a case against these Tigers making a March run. The NCAA Tournament will not be played at Mizzou Arena, and the Tigers’ body of work away from home isn’t great. The Tigers still have some defensive lapses. (LSU was wide open for plenty of those threes it buried against Missouri last Saturday.)

Also, it’s tough to make a run without winning some close game in the NCAA Tournament, and Missouri has struggled in close games this season. The Tigers have won some close games, notably the Florida game, but Missouri’s possessions late in close games have been more misses than hits. Too often, Pressey dribbles a bunch then fires up a tough shot. Getting good ball movement is crucial in these situations, and Missouri probably won’t go far without it.

So what happens? Tournament matchups will no doubt be a big factor, and every seed Missouri can improve helps its chances.

Missouri has a chance to do that with its season-finale at Tennessee on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPN).

Tennessee (17-11, 9-7 in SEC through Sunday) had won six straight games to move into the NCAA Tournament discussion, although the Volunteers then suffered a loss at Georgia last Saturday. Tennessee plays good defense but struggles to score at times, ranking 203rd in the nation at 66.4 points per game at the start of the week.

The top four teams in the 14-team SEC Tournament get a “double-bye” into the quarterfinals. This game could well determine if Missouri, which is tied for fourth entering the final week, gets a double-bye. So the stakes are high for this one, but in March, they get noticeably higher each week.