Final Fours aren’t easy to come by. Look no further than the empty rafters at Mizzou Arena.
This is Missouri’s 25th trip to the big dance. Only BYU (26) has more NCAA Tournament appearances without a Final Four banner to show for it.
The Tigers (30-4) are the No. 2 seed in the West Region, where they are matched with the fourth No. 1 seed, Michigan State.
Missouri is the first team from a power six conference (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac 12 and SEC) not to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after finishing the season with 30-plus wins, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“It doesn’t matter whether we’re a No. 1 or No. 2 seed,” coach Frank Haith said. “The only difference is what color jerseys we’ll be wearing. We just want to win games.”
Although surprised, like its fans at receiving the eighth overall seed, the team isn’t fretting it.
“We could possibly be the No. 1 team in the country next week in the AP Poll,” Haith said. “So... I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”
The Tigers were left off the top line, but they very well might be better off for it. Having to play the later rounds in Phoenix instead of Missouri’s backyard in St. Louis might also prove advantageous.
“It would have been nice to have a bit more fan support in a late-round game like that being in St. Louis, but that’s not going to make a lot of a difference,” senior forward Kim English said.
Instead, Missouri landed in the same region as Michigan State. The Spartans were Big Ten Conference co-champions in the regular season and edged out Ohio State for the Big Ten Tournament championship Sunday.
At 27-7, the green and white gang is led by Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green (16.1 points, 10.4 rebounds per game).
The Spartans are without freshman forward Branden Dawson, who tore his ACL. Dawson was averaging 8.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game for Michigan State, which has reached the Final Four six times in the last 13 seasons under coach Tom Izzo.
Sticking true to its Big Ten affiliation, Michigan State plays a slow style of basketball. The Spartans contrast the hypersonic Tigers, who get up and down the court for more than an average of 80 points per game.
Junior guard Michael Dixon believes the team’s up-tempo style of play will be even harder to stop now that teams will play every other day the next two weekends.
“People are going to have to scout and worry about us in a short period of time, and I think that’s to our advantage,” Dixon said.
But the Tigers have three wins to take care of before potentially breaking out their away jerseys.
No. 15 seed Norfolk State is up first Friday afternoon in Omaha, Neb. In 27 years, the 15-seed has defeated the two-seed on just four occasions.
Should the Tigers prevent Norfolk State from becoming the fifth, the winner of the Florida-Virginia game awaits in the round of 32.
Full of high-scoring guards like Missouri, Florida has fallen just short of knocking off one of this year’s titans on three separate occasions. The Gators lost to No. 1 seed Kentucky by three in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game, at No. 1 seed Syracuse by four and at No. 2 seed Ohio State by seven.
If the Tigers survive the opening weekend, they will be off to Phoenix, a familiar tournament venue for Haith’s current seniors. It was in Phoenix where then-freshman English, Marcus Denmon and Steve Moore were bounced by Connecticut in the Elite Eight.
Denmon said he isn’t concerned with where the Tigers lace up.
“It really doesn’t matter where we play,” Denmon said. “… That’s our No. 1 goal, to win games, and we’re going to take one game at a time.”