Kim English remembers the one and only time Missouri won the Big 12 Conference Tournament, back when a 2009 run branded the Elite Eight-bound Missouri Tigers as the talk of the league.
It was the last time Missouri, now ranked No. 5 nationally and seeded second going into this year’s tournament, entered the juncture as strong favorites to make the noise it has seldom exhibited in the month of March.
“It’s a great feeling winning it,” English said before practice Monday. “That’s one of my favorite memories in college.”
It was that Monday practice that English and the rest of the Tigers (27-4, 14-4 Big 12 Conference) would embark on “a new season,” as junior guard Michael Dixon calls it. They would watch film, break down the nuances of Oklahoma State and Texas Tech basketball and start the distant beginning to one final shot at cutting down the Big 12 Tournament nets.
First-year coach Frank Haith, who won zero conference tournaments in seven seasons at Miami, shares no such lasting memories. And on Monday, he wasn’t the least bit concerned with it either.
“I will take three different suits, so I’m prepared in terms of that,” Haith said of the tournament, which will take place at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. “But in terms of our focus, it is on that first game that first night against either Texas Tech or Oklahoma State. … That’s all we worry about right now — that game and those two teams.”
Haith’s focus is on the Cowboys (14-17, 7-11 Big 12) and Red Raiders (8-22, 1-17 Big 12) because in an opening-round game Wednesday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, the two league foes will clash to decide who will have the first shot at the Tigers in the tournament. And with March’s famous single-elimination format rearing its seasonal head, Haith said the Tigers can’t afford to think about much else.
“It’s simple now, you lose and you’re done — in both tournaments,” Haith said.
Regardless of how Wednesday’s precursor matchup turns out, the Tigers will face a very familiar foe in Thursday’s second-round contest. Missouri has played Oklahoma State and Texas Tech twice each, splitting the home matchups with the Cowboys and sealing a regular-season sweep of the Red Raiders with an 81-59 victory Saturday.
Oklahoma State is also a two-time victor over Texas Tech., which has suffered through a 1-17 Big 12 season in coach Billy Gillispie’s inaugural campaign. In two games against the Tigers, the Red Raiders are averaging a meager 54.5 points. The stat plays into the hands of a team that will make defense a concentration entering the tournament.
“Offense can come and go but defense you can bring every night,” sophomore point guard Phil Pressey said. “I feel like if we play our best defensive game every night we have a chance to win.”
The Cowboys present a more potent offensive threat to the Tigers. They boast All-Big 12 guard Keiton Page (16.8 points per game) and Big 12 Freshman of the Year Le’Bryan Nash, who went for 27 points in Oklahoma State’s 79-72 upset of Missouri in Stillwater, Okla.
Like its first two potential opponents, the Tigers will be familiar with any team they match up against in the Big 12 Tournament. Missouri split with Kansas and Oklahoma State, were swept by Kansas State and claimed season sweeps over Baylor, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.
“I was talking to (Texas) coach (Rick) Barnes today. True round-robin is hard,” Haith said. “We’ve been in it. Hopefully across the country everybody will see what we’ve done playing a true-round robin is remarkable.”
With all Missouri will plan for entering the tournament, Haith said the focus is not on the conference champion and No. 3 Jayhawks, the rival with whom the Tigers split two close finishes this season. The intent is instead to focus on opponents as they come, and Haith said the Tigers are equipped to do just that.
“We’d love to have a couple more guys, but I think the seven guys we have are pretty good,” Haith said. “We’ve played good teams and we’ve competed against good teams. Kansas is one of the best teams in the country. Our league is the second-rated league in the country.”
If an elephant resided on the Mizzou Arena practice courts as players shot around Monday, it was the possibility of Missouri landing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Haith and the players didn’t dismiss the enticement of the honor but maintained that the focus would remain on what they can determine themselves.
“We control our own destiny,” Pressey said. “As long as we keep winning, we should be good.”