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March 13, 2012
The Missouri Tigers will face the Norfolk State Spartans in their first NCAA Tournament game on Friday afternoon. For an in-depth report on the 15th-seeded Spartans, PowerMizzou.com talked with Rich Radford, who covers the team for The Virginian Pilot.
Missouri fans don't know much about Norfolk State. So give us the thumbnail sketch of this team.
Radford: The Spartans are in the NCAA Tournament field for the first time. In the 1980s and early 1990s, they were a powerhouse team in Division II. They moved to Division I in 1997 and have struggled until this season. In the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which is historically one of the weaker D-I conferences, the Spartans are giants, starting a lineup that goes 6-6, 6-5, 6-6, 6-7 and 6-10. Their center, Kyle O'Quinn, is a late bloomer who had one scholarship offer coming out of high school. He has set Norfolk State's record for blocked shots with 276 and is a 1,500-point, 1,000-rebound guy, Norfolk State's first since moving to Division I. He was the league's player of the year, is a two-time defensive player of the year and was the MVP of the MEAC Tournament.
What is Norfolk State's biggest strength and biggest weakness?
Radford: The Spartans defend the 3-point line well and have big guards. With Missouri essentially being a four-guard lineup with Ricardo Ratliffe in the middle, this was a good a matchup as the Spartans could hope to get as a 15th or 16th seeded team. If O'Quinn stays out of foul trouble, which will be a huge if, the Spartans could end up giving the Tigers problems. There is also history on Norfolk State's side. Of the four times in NCAA history that a No. 15 seed has won, two of those teams were from the MEAC. In 1997 Coppin State upset South Carolina and in 2001 Hampton shocked Iowa State. Norfolk State's big weakness is they can be sloppy with the ball and they try to hit home runs too much with dazzling and athletic plays rather than taking the safe route. That leads to sometimes large numbers of turnovers.
What is Norfolk State's history in the tournament?
Radford: Norfolk State's history in the tournament begins in Omaha, Neb.
If Norfolk State plans to keep this game close, what do the Spartans absolutely have to do?
Radford: The Spartans can't let the Tigers get good looks from the perimeter. While Norfolk State has won seven straight coming in, they have not played particularly well down the stretch. They played their best basketball earlier in the season. The Spartans have to look beyond the shock of playing in a huge arena in front of a huge crowd and remember that they scared the heck out of Marquette in the championship game of the Paradise Jam in November, falling 59-57 when a last-second 3-pointer by O'Quinn rimmed out. And they cannot let Ratliffe go crazy.
Can Norfolk State keep this game close?
Radford: Absolutely. Norfolk State thinks it's a better team than Old Dominion University, and ODU gave the Tigers fits before Missouri escaped Norfolk with a 75-68 victory on Dec. 30. The Tigers won't surprise Norfolk State: The Spartans players say they've all watched Missouri plenty on TV this season. The opposite cannot be said by Missouri's players, who probably cannot name a Spartan without some help. This is not the David vs. Goliath matchup that the elitist fan of the Big 12 may mistakenly think it is. This could, and should, be a scary game for Missouri fans. Then again, the Spartans could get all big-eyed by the surroundings and lay an egg.
Anything else you think we need to know?
Radford: Norfolk State has two players who have lost teeth in games - Chris McEachin and Brandon Wheeless. They have no fear of getting up in somebody's face and they play hard-nosed defense. They can do that because they legitimately go 10 deep without losing much. In fact, they gain some with reserve forward Rob Johnson, a 6-7 junior who transferred from Marist and has a very good mid-range game.
PowerMizzou.com will arrive in Omaha on Thursday morning and will provide complete on-site coverage of the Tigers as long as they continue to play in the tournament. If you are not yet a member, just try out our free trial.