NASHVILLE — As flower buds begin to blossom in mid-March, colors creep their way into the Missouri-valley wilderness.
Snow melts along I-70 as gold dormant grass fights its way back to daylight. Darting southeast on I-55 towards Memphis, periwinkle lines the highway, dividing pavement from crop fields and crop fields from the murky Mississippi River that snakes alongside. Cut a harder angle towards Music City and orange jewelweed laces the roads, melding into the chisel-cut rock face that cavern the interstate.
Flying by at 70 miles per hour, if you stopped to take in the hues and shades that swirl the Midwest and South, your six-hour journey could take a matter of days. Besides, you could see the same colors packed into Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena where the Southeastern Conference packed the fanbases of its 14 member-schools into 19,395 seats.
Alabama crammed crimson into the south end of the stadium and Volunteer orange filled the remainder of lower bowl, spilling into the 200 sections.
But in section 102, Missouri gold poked past the cacophony of tones to pronounce itself in bright fashion, sparkling in the northwest corner to fulfill the band Smash Mouth’s 1990s stadium anthem “Allstar.”
All that glitters is gold.
Though he’s seated on the isle of row JJ in section 102, Tom Miltenberger might be tough to miss. His son Trent, 27, will grab your eyes instead. The Westminster College graduate is draped in black Missouri basketball jersey a size too big with a gold undershirt, gold Mardi Gras beads and sunglasses with the Tiger logo printed on the lenses. And don’t forget the Kelly green beads, he says. After all, St. Patrick’s Day is two days away.
Though Tom played basketball for Missouri from 1966 through ’68, he even has numbers 35 and 55 retired in his name, Trent is the one getting attention. When ESPN cameras or jumbotron producers point his way, Tom slides across the isle to an open seat in section 101. “I disown him most of the time people see him,” Tom says with a laugh.
“I used to have one of those (Mizzou-themed) reggae hats with the dreads he hated,” Trent chimes in.
The Miltenberger tandem are Tiger basketball season-ticket holders and get to a few away games every year. For the past 15 years, they’ve headed to Kansas City for the Big 12 Conference tournament. After Missouri switched conferences to the SEC, the slightly longer trip for the St. Louis natives would not keep them away from the conference tournament.
“We would have gone whatever the distance,” Tom says.
It’s 3 p.m. and section 102 is full though Missouri’s quarterfinal battle with six hours away. Instead Alabama and Tennessee are at the half and Bridgestone’s concourse is clearing out, but Tom and Trent aren’t going anywhere. The Crimson Tide and Volunteers are locked in a heavyweight battle. Big 12 basketball isn’t something the Miltenbergers are pining for.
Maybe the fans don’t travel as well, Tom offers, though Kentucky faithful would beg to differ. Or maybe there aren’t the same rivalries, but Bridgestone is a nice venue, he says, and the talent level is right up there and fans are welcoming as can be.
“I’ve had one bad experience today, but other than that everyone’s been really great and really opening about Mizzou coming to the SEC,” Trent says. “All the Nashville have bending over backwards saying, ‘Welcome to the SEC, welcome to Nashville,’ stuff like that.”
Unlike football, the Tigers have made their mark on their conference come basketball season. Though Tennessee fell to Alabama earlier Friday, the Vols point to Senior Night victory over the Tigers as their signature win on their NCAA tournament resume. So does Ole Miss, who will face Missouri tonight at 9 p.m.
Widely considered a bubble team, the Rebels need a tournament win over the Tigers to consider postseason play. They’re playing “desperate,” says Missouri forward Alex Oriakhi. "Everyone is come tourney time."
But even if Missouri falls tonight, in section 102, its gold contingent will remain until the tournament wraps up Sunday afternoon.
“Oh yeah,” Tom says. “We got the tickets. If we lose I’m sure somebody from Kentucky would buy ‘em, so we’re covered but we’re staying.”