Mandatory Credit: Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports
Don’t expect a big crowd on hand for this one. The Missouri Tigers and Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles will battle it out in Columbia on Sunday to what one could only predict will be a pretty small crowd. Not only is it Mizzou’s Spring Break, it’s also, the nature of this tournament.
Let’s face it. It’s hard to generate enthusiasm about being in the N.I.T. It’s the losers’ bracket. The ultimate consolation prize. ESPN.com doesn’t even post scores to these games, if you hadn’t noticed.
But make no mistake. This game is important to Mizzou, whether its fan base acknowledges it or not. The Tigers need a win. And their team absolutely must realize it as they get set to play. This isn’t a time to lie down and give up.
Unfortunately, not too much credit is given to this tournament. I mean, c’mon, when’s the last time you filled out your N.I.T. bracket? Never? Okay. But whether you pay attention to it or not, winning it is no easy task, just like any tournament. And one has to think that doing so earns a basketball program just a little bit of street cred.
Just ask Virginia. The Cavaliers won it last year. They have a No. 1 seed in the big dance this year. I’d like to believe that is only part coincidence.
Now, what’s this mean for Missouri. Well, the problem is, we don’t know if this team has much gas left in the rally tank. It, at times, has looked severely uninterested, as this season has wound down. That’s not to say that they didn’t snap out of it and look darn good in their tournament opener against Davidson earlier this week. But I’d like to see Mizzou really show that they take this game seriously. Like I said, it’s an important game.
So how do these two teams match up? Well, it’s sort of a head scratcher. The Tigers are much bigger, much faster and shoot the ball better. But Southern Miss is a different beast altogether. The Tigers haven’t really seen a team like this all year. And that makes this game a tough task for them
For any of The Golden Eagles’ struggles, they have some sort of advantage over Mizzou to go along with it.
Both teams turn the ball over, but Southern Miss also ranks 9th in the nation in forcing turnovers and they turn those turnovers into points. Both teams also foul a great deal. But Southern Mississippi knows WHO to foul. The Golden Eagles’ opponents rank 111th in the country in free throw percentages, while they themselves rank 11th nationally in free throws made, which is a pretty good trade.
Missouri gets to the line as well. It ranks 12th in free throws attempted. The Tigers will need to take advantage of their ability to get to the charity stripe and make those free throws. Strategizing to get their best free throw shooters, Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown, into positions where they can be fouled will be crucial.
The worst aspect of Mizzou’s game is clearly their inability to rebound. This could prove to be the ultimate dagger for the Tigers. They rank 127th in the country in defensive rebounding. USM? They build their entire offense on rebounding.
The Golden Eagles don’t shoot particularly well, but they still score a lot (expect them to get at least 70 points in this game). The team ranks 10th in offensive rebounding. They dominate the glass and create second chance points frequently. Missouri has been dreadful in keeping the second opportunities at bay. Again, this could be problematic in this game, and I foresee that it will.
Missouri’s best shot will be to get to take control of the pace early—move fast but not too fast—take care of the basketball as best as it possibly can, and get to the free throw line often. The Tigers must also defend the perimeter—something its had trouble with all year. USM shoots a not too shabby 35% three-ball.
For the Golden Eagles, their best friend is pacing, taking time to feed their better shooters and get into position to create rebounds. They will be a force at stealing the ball away, and I expect it to be something that gives them a boost in this game. This isn’t a hopeless cause for Missouri. They just need to stay on the same track as Southern Miss; keep the game close; make it a neck and neck battle. That gives MU its best chance to win.
The X-factor in this game, I think, is Southern Miss’ sense of identity, something Mizzou clearly lacks. The Golden Eagles are 21st in the nation in experience and have a really deep bench that scores a lot. They have that “team chemistry” element that Mizzou just doesn’t have, whether it be the lack of coaching that element, lack of overall team experience, or a combination of both. I just don’t know if Missouri has the drive to keep this thing going.
Missouri is good enough to stay in this game. Missouri is good enough to win this game. Whether they realize that will be the decisive point in this one.
When it’s all said and done in this one, we will be talking about another step closer to an important N.I.T. Final Four. Or we’ll be talking about how to clean up the mess in Columbia.
T.V./Time: ESPNU 4 P.M. CDT
Where: Mizzou Arena, Columbia, Missouri
Prediction: Southern Miss 71, Mizzou 67