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.

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