Like everyone else, ESPN didn’t know.
The 24-hour sports network feeds had no idea before the 2011-2012 college basketball season that then-No. 25 Missouri would ascend to a top-five ranking. It had no indication that this season would be the Tigers’ finale as a member of the Big 12 Conference.
It’s what the network did know about the fierceness of the Border Showdown rivalry between Missouri and Kansas that etched Columbia, Mo., onto its calendar as a host to the top pre-game show, “College GameDay.”
And it’s what the show and country now know about the stakes of Saturday’s top-10 matchup that has an endless number of tents awaiting the broadcast and Hubert Davis recounting the last time the show’s atmosphere measured up to this game.
“This is the biggest game we’ve done probably in the last two or three years,” the celebrity analyst told reporters Friday at Mizzou Arena. “Both of these teams have a chance to go to a Final Four and win a national championship.”
Despite its status as a regular season matchup, Saturday’s meeting between No. 4 Missouri and No. 8 Kansas signifies much to college basketball and specifically the Big 12 Conference. It pits the first-place Jayhawks (18-4, 8-1 Big 12) against the second place Tigers (20-2, 7-2 Big 12), where the winner takes command of the league race.
For Davis, the game’s stakes symbolize just how far Missouri has come in only 22 games of first-year coach Frank Haith’s tenure.
“I think the number one thing you have to do as a new coach is you have to establish roles, and he did that at the beginning,” Davis said.
The players’ buy-in has made the marriage work, Davis said.
“I think guys like Kim English playing the four position as a two-guard, I think Michael Dixon who is a starter coming in off the bench … I think all of those guys have played their role for the betterment of the team and as a result they find themselves in a position to win the Big 12 and possibly win a national championship,” Davis said.
Analyst Digger Phelps predicted that both teams will experience much more success as the season wears on.
“Both are going to be in the final eight,” he said.
When Saturday night’s game tips off, Missouri’s ever-efficient offense (seventh-best nationally at 81.2 points per game) will look to outlast Kansas’ Big 12-leading scoring defense (60.6 points per game).
“I haven’t seen a team that’s more enjoyable to watch than Missouri,” analyst Jay Bilas said. “They play with a fearlessness that is really fun to watch. They’re a together group. They play a different style, playing four guards.”
Davis, Bilas and Phelps said they agreed the matchup to watch will be Missouri’s quickness against Kansas’ size.
“I think the thing (the Tigers) have to do when it comes to playing teams that are bigger than them (is) extend the defense,” Phelps said. “Force those teams to go up and down with you. Keep their big guys away from the basket by pressing.”
Davis was sure the challenge would be great for the Tigers, particularly with Kansas forward Thomas Robinson. A national player of the year candidate, Robinson ranks near the top of the Big 12 in both points (17.6 per game) and rebounds (12 per game). He will team with center Jeff Withy (8.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game) to lead the Jayhawks in the post.
“Those guys are all paint. They rebound in the paint, they defend in the paint and they score in the paint,” Davis said of the duo. “I think that’s going to be an issue because Kim English is a two-guard playing at the four position.”
Phelps was quick to point out that Missouri offers a talented big man of its own in senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe, who averages 14.7 points and a team-leading 6.7 rebounds per game.
“When they run that high post pick-and-roll, Ricardo’s the best,” said Phelps, who added that Ratliffe’s tendency to foul could put the Tigers in a real disadvantage. “What’s he shooting, 75 percent, leading the nation? Give me a guy like that, I don’t worry about missing free throws because you’re going to score all the time.”
The analysts expected to have an entertaining show, which will last from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday and will break down the game and the day’s other marquee matchups. The atmosphere expects to be more enthusiastic than most destinations due to the rivalry, the stakes and the prospect that this could be the last matchup between the two teams in Columbia, with Missouri set to move to the Southeastern Conference next season.
“It’s one of the great rivalries going, all these years with Kansas and Missouri,” Phelps said. “It’s like telling Army-Navy, ‘You aren’t going to play anymore.’”
Missouri and Kansas might never again play in Mizzou Arena after Saturday night, and for that reason the analysts anticipate a show to remember.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to hear very much,” Bilas said. “You better be a pretty good lip-reader tomorrow.”