At 30-4, Missouri already has the second most wins for a single season in school history.
If the No. 2 seed Tigers are to get where they want to go, they’ll need six more. Game one of what the Tigers hope is six remaining is set to tip at approximately 3:40 p.m. Friday in Omaha, Neb. against Norfolk State.
The No. 15 seed Spartans (25-9, 13-3) enter the NCAA Tournament winners of seven straight after defeating Bethune-Cookman for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship.
The Spartans, led by coach Anthony Evans, are dancing for the first time in school history, making this weekend even more special for them.
“We try to stay focused, we’re trying to keep a normal routine, as normal as possible, with all the media attention and everything,” Evans said.
The players said the experience is key.
“You’re in it to win it, but it also being a first experience you’re taking everything in, being at press conferences and interviews, you have jitter bugs, but at the same time you have to enjoy the experience,” senior center Kyle O’Quinn said.
Since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams 27 years ago, a No. 15 seed has defeated a No. 2 just four times, the last coming 11 years ago. Last year’s four 2s won their opening round games by a combined 74 points.
If the Spartans, who have the size advantage over the Tigers, are to become the fifth victorious No. 15, they’ll likely need a big performance from O’Quinn.
The versatile big man leads the Spartans in both points (15.9) and rebounds per game (10.4) and has recorded 19 double-doubles on the season.
Senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe will be tasked with defending O’Quinn, whom he compared to Baylor’s Perry Jones, citing O’Quinn’s length and tendency to face up to the basket rather than be a back-to-the-basket player.
“We can post up a little bit, but we think that Kyle is our best chance of creating mismatches against them,” coach Evans said. “Hopefully, he can kick it out to shooters to make shots.”
Two shooters O’Quinn will defer to Friday are senior swingman Chris McEachin (12.8 PPG, .395 field goal percentage) and sophomore guard Pendarvis Williams (11.8 PPG, .453 field goal percentage).
Although Evans employs a 10-man rotation, the trio of McEachin, O’Quinn and Williams account for nearly 60 percent of the Spartan offense.
Norfolk State is dancing thanks to winning the MEAC’s automatic bid, after finishing second in the conference during the regular season.
The Spartans have no wins against other teams in the field, but they did beat Drexel early this season in the Paradise Jam. Drexel had its bubble burst on Selection Sunday. Also in Paradise Jam play, the Spartans lost to Marquette twice, the first being by 31 but the second by just two.
Having faced the Golden Eagles twice and having gone through their MEAC conference schedule, Norfolk State is no stranger to the four-guard system Missouri uses.
“Yes, we are going against better players from a different conference, but guards getting up and down exploiting us in transition is not something we haven’t seen before, and we’re comfortable going into the game,” O’Quinn said.
The guard the Spartans will key in on is sophomore point guard Phil Pressey.
“He is the engine that makes them go,” Evans said. “I don’t think you can stop a guy like that completely. You try to contain him, limit him on what he does and try to make him give the ball to other people.”
Hobbled last weekend by injuries, senior guards Marcus Denmon (ankle) and Kim English (calf) are still receiving treatment, but each said his swelling has gone down and he will be ready to play.