Despite seed snub, Mizzou enters NCAA Tournament with optimism
The reaction of the Missouri players upon seeing their school’s name included in the NCAA Tournament bracket for just the second time in nine years was reserved. While some teams whoop and holler and celebration, Missouri, watching the tournament selection show from a suite at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, saw most of its players simply clap — the type of formal, unimpressed applause that might greet a golfer tapping in for a routine par.
Part of the stoicism could be attributed to the fact that there was little drama surrounding whether the Tigers would be included in the NCAA Tournament field. The team has spent virtually the entire season safely inside the bubble. But senior forward Jeremiah Tilmon also admitted there were a few players not exactly thrilled with the team’s draw. Missouri, which was included in the selection committee’s mid-season seed reveal as the No. 16 overall team, fell all the way to a No. 9 seed, a couple lines lower than most bracketologists predicted. It will face 8-seed Oklahoma in the Round of 64 at 6:25 pm CT on Saturday. The game will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The prize for the winner? No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga.
“Not everybody on the team was happy with it,” Tilmon said. “But me personally, like I said, I just wanted to make it. I didn’t really care how far we was ranked, as long as we got a shot at it, and we can go from there. But a couple people on the team was wishing that we had a better ranking.”
While the Tigers’ seed may have come as a bit of a surprise, the overall mood from head coach Cuonzo Martin and his players when they spoke to reporters on Zoom just a few minutes after learning their postseason fate was one of optimism. Martin said that, in his mind, the seeding doesn’t really matter. He noted that Oklahoma State, one of the hottest teams in the country over the last month or so, earned a 4 seed but drew just about as tough a first-round opponent in Liberty, which won the Atlantic Sun after pushing Missouri to the brink at Mizzou Arena early in the season. There are no easy games at this point in the year, Martin explained, but as long as you’re in the field, you’ve got a shot.
“More than anything, I’m really happy for these guys to get back into the NCAA Tournament,” Martin said. “It really means a lot to me, man. Guys fought, they fought hard, went through some bumps in the road, they stayed the course, and just to give these guys an opportunity to transition out when their career is over from a college standpoint, to be in the tournament, that’s a great feeling.”
There’s a fair amount of familiarity between Missouri and its first opponent, both recently and historically. The series between the Tigers and Sooners dates back to the two teams’ days as Big 8 and Big 12 foes. Oklahoma leads the all-time series 75-67. The two teams last met a year ago as part of the Champions Classic event in Kansas City. Oklahoma prevailed 77-66.
Tilmon called Saturday’s first-round tournament matchup “another revenge game for us.” Martin, after offering high praise for Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said he would definitely watch film of last season’s matchup in preparation for this one.
“There are certain tendencies that coaches and teams have, so we would always look at that,” he said. “I mean, why not, we’ve got plenty of time to do it. ... I would certainly watch last year’s game film, and then you kind of watch teams that play a kind of similar style that we play and how they played in that game. And Oklahoma’s normally not a zone team, so you don’t have to watch that as much, but you’ve got to be prepared for anything.”
One thing Missouri and its first opponent have in common: After strong starts, neither finished the season particularly well. Oklahoma was a 3 seed when the selection committee revealed its mid-season rankings. The Sooners finished the season losing five of their final six games, with their last two wins of the year both coming against an Iowa State team that finished 2-22. Missouri, meanwhile, lost six of its final nine contests.
One good thing about the NCAA Tournament, Martin said, is that it provides a new beginning of sorts. Missouri will have had more than a week without playing when it tips off against Oklahoma. Martin believes his team is at its best when it’s practicing a lot, which isn’t always possible during the grind of two conference games per week.
“I just think tournament time’s a fresh start for your team,” Martin said. “Often times, league play, teams get familiar with you, you have those same internal doubts that you have when you play against a team, didn’t play well. Good or bad, I just think this is a fresh start. Exciting times, man, and just a tremendous opportunity.”
Another reason Martin and his players expressed optimism about the Tigers’ ability to make some noise in the postseason: the team has plenty of experience, especially in the backcourt. While Martin did say Missouri needs to get Tilmon playing like he did during the early part of conference play once again, he noted that the key to success in March has almost always been guard play. The Tiger guards are battle-tested, particularly Dru Smith. Even though he’s never before played in an NCAA Tournament game, Smith is a fifth-year senior who was named to the all-SEC first team and all-defense team this season.
Combine Smith’s consistency with an effective Tilmon and sound defense, and Martin believes Missouri could be good enough to challenge anyone. He didn’t want to look past Oklahoma, but that would certainly be necessary if the Tigers wind up facing the unbeaten, No. 1 overall seed in the Round of 32.
“We’re as good as any if we’re a whole, we’re all together, inside, outside play, Jeremiah’s being effective, three-point, timely shots are falling, we’re defending, getting stops,” Martin said. “... But good teams make you get out of character. When you’re at this level, in this setting, Oklahoma will do something and you have to make an adjustment. We will do something where they have to make an adjustment.”
The week leading up to Missouri’s matchup against Oklahoma will look different than most, and not just because the team has a week to prepare with no games. After traveling from Nashville, the site of the SEC Tournament, to Indianapolis, where the entire tournament will be played, on Sunday, Missouri would enter the NCAA Tournament’s COVID-19 protocols Sunday night. Those include players being secluded solo in hotel rooms, only able to leave for practices or games.
Martin said he figured his players would handle the bubble atmosphere fine. Tilmon was a bit more honest.
“They’re on those video games all day anyway, so I think it’ll be fine,” Martin said.
“They got us in a room 24/7, we can’t leave, so I’m not looking forward to that at all,” Tilmon said with a grin. “I mean I’m going to do what I gotta do to make sure I stay safe. But I don’t think none of us are looking forward to that.”
Despite the unusual setting of this year’s NCAA Tournament and the stress that will accompany trying to win Missouri’s first game in the Big Dance since 2010, Martin said his primary message to his players Sunday evening was to enjoy the experience. While Missouri’s roster may be heavy on upperclassmen, only one, Tilmon, has ever appeared in an NCAA Tournament game.
The stage, Martin said, will set itself. He believes his players can rise to the occasion. He just hopes they also carve out a little time to soak it all in.
“You’ve got to enjoy the moment,” Martin said. “Because often times you go so hard, you stress out so much, you never get a chance to enjoy it. I mean, Drew Buggs, NCAA Tournament, Dru Smith, Mark Smith, all these guys’ first opportunities, I think you have to enjoy this. I’d be a fool to tell those guys not to enjoy it.”