Missouri needs March magic against Florida State

The Tigers will meet Florida State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday, but with Jordan Barnett suspended, they’re more depleted than ever.

The selection show was complete, the grueling odyssey of a speculation-filled season narrowed down to one simple, decisive matchup, Missouri’s fate in America’s most scrutinized bracket at last cemented.

So as junior Kevin Puryear sat at the podium in Mizzou Arena’s interview room, still soaking it all in, he laid it out quite plainly.

After all this, he was just glad the landing spot wasn’t Wichita.

“I was praying to God we wouldn’t end up in Wichita,” he said. “There is nothing in Wichita.”

For a few days, there was nerve-wracking potential for a Missouri-Kansas Border War rematch — but alas, with half the bracket revealed, the Missouri Tiger wasn’t the unmasked logo beneath the blue Jayhawk. Instead, Missouri was given a draw as kind as it could’ve asked for.

The Tigers are a No. 8 seed in their first NCAA Tournament since 2013, taking on No. 9 seed Florida State at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, at 8:50 p.m. on Friday. The game will be televised on TBS.

“I got some pretty good memories at Bridgestone Arena,” Puryear said, referring to his buzzer-beater to top Auburn in the SEC Tournament last year. “I'm really excited to go back there. Nashville is just a really great city for the fans.”

The winner will most likely meet 1-seed Xavier, barring a historic upset.

But if the Tigers have learned anything from this season, and especially from last week, they won’t give the second round a second thought as long as another team stands in their way first.

They may have been guilty of that in St. Louis last week. While Michael Porter Jr.’s months-in-the-making return brought the team national attention, and a potential Mizzou-Kentucky Round Three loomed ahead of the SEC Tournament, the 12th-seeded Georgia Bulldogs snuck by Missouri 62-60, handing the Tigers a premature bus ride back to Columbia.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s a good thing that Missouri wasn’t slotted in alongside its distracting Westward neighbor. Yes, the extinct rivalry would’ve been a spectacle on a March Madness stage, and the chance to avenge that preseason scrimmage defeat was a compelling thought for every Missouri fan — but with another game to win first, it would’ve presented nothing but another hypothetical. And those have rarely turned out as expected for the Tigers this season.

With that out of the way, it’s clear where Missouri’s focus needs to be: Florida State.

“That's the beauty in the tournament," Puryear said. "Playing teams that you never really played before. It's going to be a fun matchup for us.”

The Seminoles (20-11, 9-9 ACC) tied for eighth out of 15 teams in what is widely considered the best conference in the country. Like Missouri, they lost their first conference tournament game to go into the Big Dance on a sour note. They went 6-5 on the season against teams who made the NCAA Tournament, including impressive ACC wins over Clemson (5-seed), Virginia Tech (8), Miami (6), Syracuse (11) and the crown jewel, North Carolina (2).

They also earned an imposing, 17-point non-conference win on the road against then No. 5 in the country Florida, now a 6-seed in the tournament. Florida is the only common opponent between Missouri and Florida State this season, a team that beat Missouri in Columbia when Chris Chiozza intercepted a Jordan Geist pass and took it for a buzzer-beating layup.

But now, coming into this showdown losers of three of their last four, the Seminoles need to find their winning formula again. What does that entail?

A lot of speed and a lot of scoring.

Florida State has averaged 81.7 points per game this season, ranking 31st in the country. What might be more astonishing is that it has accomplished this without a single player averaging more than 14 points per game. 6-foot-6 guard Terance Mann leads the team with 13.2 points per game, and it’s a balanced attack down the line from there.

Mann is also the Seminoles’ leading rebounder, totaling 5.7 per contest on a team that totes two seven-foot players and a lot more length.

Those two giants — 7-foot-4-inch Christ Koumadje and 7-foot Ike Obiagu — aren’t primary role players for the ‘Noles, but Missouri might see a lot of physicality from them and their other bigs, who include senior Phil Cofer. Cofer averages 13.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, and the Tiger bigs will have to be careful with him as Florida State tries to wear them down and draw fouls by pounding the post.

Missouri can’t afford to get in early foul trouble like it did against Georgia, when five players had been whistled twice or more in the first 15 minutes. After 32 games, the Tigers are already almost impossibly depleted as it is, working with just eight players ahead of Friday’s game — and those include a rusty Michael Porter Jr. and Brett Rau, who averages 3.7 minutes per game.

It certainly doesn’t help that the Tigers will be losing 34 minutes of playing time normally filled by senior Jordan Barnett. Barnett, who was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated early Sunday morning, will practice and travel with the team, but is suspended through at least the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

That means a lot more work for Porter Jr., who shot just 5 of 17 against Georgia and will be playing only his second full game of the year on Friday.

So how can a starved Missouri roster beat an up-tempo, lanky and exhausting Florida State team?

In essence, by doing two things: controlling the pace of the game and shooting the lights out.

Florida State knows Missouri has very little depth left. It’s going to try exploiting that weakness in every way possible. That means getting the Tigers in foul trouble early and running out in transition to tire out the remaining Tigers late.

Missouri is by nature a slower team that prefers to function in halfcourt, so if it keeps the game moving at its own tempo, it will last longer with a short bench and prevent Florida State from finding a rhythm.

The other thing that characterizes Missouri at its best is lethal outside shooting. And there’s no better team to get hot against than Florida State, which was the worst in the ACC at defending 3-point shooting and ranks 235th in the nation with 74.5 points allowed per game.

That means graduate transfer Kassius Robertson will be center stage, trying to bounce back from a 3-for-10 shooting day against Georgia. Even more weight is on his shoulders with the loss of Barnett, unless Porter Jr. is able to shake his shooting rust.

“It will be the next man up,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said, “and we keep moving.”

As the Big Dance nears, Missouri can only hope it’s moving toward having a next game up.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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