The Maneater

Gateway Getaway: Everything Missouri fans need to know ahead of the SEC men’s basketball tournament

The Tigers finished fifth in the SEC and will tip off postseason play on Thursday in St. Louis.

Jontay Porter boxes out Kansas guard Lagerald Vick on Oct. 22 during the Showdown for Relief.

It’ll be a Gateway greeting for the Missouri Tigers come Thursday.

The men’s basketball team, formidable beyond all expectations after it lost a certain 6-foot-10-inch freshman two minutes into this season, has seemingly caught its stride at the right time. It will groove into St. Louis this weekend a winner of 20 games, 10 in the Southeastern Conference, having locked up the No. 5 seed in the 14-team SEC Tournament at the Scottrade Center.

More importantly, two colossal wins to close the regular season last week likely landed the program its first berth since 2013 in a much bigger dance: the NCAA Tournament.

That doesn’t make the SEC’s biggest stage a trivial one for Cuonzo Martin’s team by any means, though. Here’s a rundown of everything there is to know about this weekend’s bracket, schedule and, most importantly, implications toward Selection Sunday:

Round 2: Thursday, March 8, approx. 2:30 p.m. CT, SEC Network: 5 Missouri vs. 12 Georgia / 13 Vanderbilt

Missouri (20-11, 10-8 SEC) just missed out on a top-four seed in the conference standings that would have granted it a double bye until Friday’s tournament quarterfinals. Still, the Tigers finished top tier enough to wait for the winner of one of two Wednesday night play-in games.

The one they’ll be watching is Georgia vs. Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs finished 16-14 and lost three of their last four. The Commodores were the same in their final stretch, but went 12-19 overall. Vanderbilt did, however, win in its only meeting with Georgia. Both teams only clashed once with Missouri during the regular season, and the Tigers were winners against each.

Both games followed similar patterns, as well. Missouri had to overcome rocky first halves that both ended with the team trailing, but then cruised to double-digit leads for much of the second frame each time. It toppled Georgia 68-56 in Columbia in January, and Vanderbilt 74-66 on the road last week.

Whichever team Missouri faces off with Thursday, SEC All-Freshman Team recipient Jontay Porter will be its most important individual component. The 18-year-old stretch-four led the team in scoring in both regular season matchups. He posted 15 points and 10 rebounds for a double-double to lead the way against the Bulldogs.

He followed it with perhaps Missouri’s most dominant individual performance of the season, coming off the bench to score 24 points on 9-of-10 shooting — 4 of 4 from 3-point range — and to add seven rebounds and six assists. It was a coming-of-age outing against Vanderbilt, one that carried over to last Saturday’s 19-point effort against Arkansas.

Missouri’s key to success in the two regular season wins and its hottest hand lately will need to make his presence felt on Thursday, whether off the bench or not.

Quarterfinals: Friday, March 9, approx. 2:30 p.m CT, ESPN: 5 Missouri vs. 4 Kentucky

A win Thursday for the Tigers would set the stage for a highly anticipated decisive third game of 2018 against a college blueblood whom Missouri has split its season series with thus far.

The SEC’s No. 4 seed Kentucky Wildcats were largely criticized most of the year for being insufficient by head coach John Calipari’s standards. That may not be the case anymore, though, as they seem to have figured out something that’s working down the stretch. Winners of four straight before a loss at Florida ended the regular season, Kentucky (21-10, 11-8 SEC) has used a balanced attack to dominate its conference competition late in the season.

In all four games, the Wildcats had five players scoring in double digits. The result? 88 points per game and four wins all by double-digit margins, including an avenging statement in Lexington over Mizzou.

Missouri had shined in the first showdown in Columbia, upsetting the nation’s then-No. 21 team 69-60 in what became part of a four-game skid for Kentucky. It was a win paved by shooting woes for the Wildcats and by one of the best all-around second halves of the season for the Tigers.

There was no such half in the rematch, as an angry Kentucky team blew Missouri apart, 87-66. The Tigers struggled to stay afloat, needing a constant flow of outrageous 3s from graduate transfer Kassius Robertson and ultimately just couldn’t keep up.

Whether Missouri sees four-game-losing-streak Kentucky or four-game-win-streak Kentucky on Friday remains to be seen (as does whether Missouri sees Kentucky on Friday at all) — but one player stands out as a must-slow-down for the Tigers.

Freshman and likely NBA lottery draft pick Kevin Knox has been Kentucky’s most perfect asset in an imperfect season. The young talent, who almost committed to Missouri, was still shut down at Mizzou Arena by unlikely defensive hero Cullen VanLeer. Knox led the Wildcats’ onslaught at home with 21 points. He scored 5 in Columbia.

Missouri’s chances will increase mightily if they can produce a winning formula against Knox again, but this time, the team won’t have VanLeer to help after an ACL tear last Saturday. If only the Tigers had a freshman phenom of their own to fill that hole and take the challenging matchup with Knox …

Semifinals: Saturday, March 10, 12 p.m. CT, ESPN: 5 Missouri vs. 1 Auburn / 8 Texas A&M / 9 Alabama

If Missouri gets this far, the breadth of potential opponents is too great and the odds of each matchup too low, so we won’t bother you with any speculation.

Against these three teams in the regular season though, Missouri had a mix of success. It took its worst loss of the season on its own floor to Auburn, 91-73, split its two matchups with Texas A&M and notched maybe its biggest road win of the season at Alabama.

Finals: Sunday, March 11, 12 p.m. CT, ESPN

Missouri would need quite a Cinderella run to win the SEC Tournament or even get to its championship game, but either way, the Tigers should be smiling a few hours after this game come Selection Sunday.

Selection Sunday: March 11, 6 p.m. CT, TBS

The Tigers’ await their NCAA Tournament seed at the end of all this. Just getting in will be a vindictive moment for Martin and the program, but their spot on the bracket will undoubtedly mean more than they’re willing to admit.

Success in the SEC Tournament may or may not be enough to reach another, smaller goal: getting off the 8-9 seeding line. As things stand, ESPN’s acclaimed “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi has Missouri projected as a No. 8, playing Butler for the right to most likely take on No. 1 Virginia. Since the winner of each 8-9 game in the NCAA Tournament has to play that regional’s No. 1 seed, Missouri would love to boost itself up to a No. 7 and set up more favorable matchups.

Winning Thursday may or may not be enough to do the job. Beating Kentucky on Friday probably would be.

Also factoring into all of this is Missouri’s biggest elephant in the room: Michael Porter Jr. Thursday or Friday might finally put an end to the will-he-won’t-he-play game that fans and media have been playing for months. It’s another reason that winning this week, at the very least on Thursday, is so crucial; if Porter Jr. is given the green light, Martin will want to get him as much in-game playing experience as possible before the Big Dance.

In short, more games means more time to experiment.

Whether or not Porter Jr. steps onto the court in a Missouri Tiger uniform, March Madness seems sure to excite for the rest of them. And for an overachieving Missouri team and its fans, there’s no better place to tip off that madness than St. Louis.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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