Frank Haith has been in the coaching business for 27 years, which means he’s watched a few NCAA Tournament selection shows.
But Sunday’s show brought an interesting first for Missouri’s coach.
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“This is about the quickest I’ve ever seen it — we were up first,” Haith said.
Indeed, the Tigers learned their fate only one minute into the show. They are the No. 9 seed in the Midwest Region will play eighth-seeded Colorado State around 8:20 Thursday night at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. The game will be televised on TBS.
Missouri’s players and coaches, at a private watch party in the team’s locker room at Mizzou Arena, were delighted by the chance to be one of only three teams from the Southeastern Conference to make the field of 68. This marks the fifth straight year Missouri has made the NCAA Tournament.
“A lot of teams don’t get this opportunity,” senior forward Laurence Bowers said, “so whenever you see your name … it’s kind of joyous.”
But after the announcement was made, the Tigers turned their attention to preparing for Colorado State. At first glance, Haith seemed impressed by the Rams.
“I know Larry Eustachy is a really good coach,” Haith said. “I know they’re big, one of the better rebounding teams in the country. Colton Iverson, who was at Minnesota in my time at Miami, we played against him and he’s a load inside. So we know we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
On the NCAA’s official seed list, Missouri was ranked 33rd out of 68 teams while Colorado State was ranked a few spots higher, at No. 30. The Rams, who finished 25-8 and second in the Mountain West Conference, are 4-7 against teams that made the tournament this season, while Missouri is 5-5. Colorado State’s best wins came at home against UNLV and San Diego State, both of which made the field of 68.
But much like Missouri, one of Colorado State’s greatest strengths is rebounding. Led by Iverson, a 6-foot-10 senior who averages 14.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, the Rams rank fourth in the nation with 40.4 rebounds per game, only two spots behind Missouri, 23-10, which ranks second nationally with 41.4 rebounds per game.
“We always say rebounding comes down to heart and will, so it’s going to test us,” senior forward Alex Oriakhi said.
Haith spoke highly of his team’s evolution on Sunday, despite the fact the Tigers continued their trend of losing close games with a 64-62 defeat against Mississippi in the SEC quarterfinals Friday.
“The sense of urgency, I thought we had it in the conference tournament,” said Haith, whose team led the Rebels by 10 with eight minutes left. “Ole Miss played great down the stretch and beat us, but I think this team has played great the last half of the year. I’m really encouraged by how we’ve been playing, and now you get an opportunity to compete for a national championship.
“I think our guys are excited about playing when the lights are the brightest.”
Haith said he wants his players to be appreciative of the opportunity that stands before them.
“The way you respect that opportunity,” he said, “is by how hard you go in our prep work and how hard you compete when you get out there.”
Junior point guard Phil Pressey said the Tigers are prepared to do both, though the road to the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis will be anything but easy. If Missouri gets past Colorado State, it will likely then have to face top-seeded Louisville — the same team that hammered the Tigers 84-61 in the Battle 4 Atlantis in November.
“You just have to be ready — it doesn’t matter who you play, anybody can be beat,” Pressey said. “Our mind-set is we’re going to win the whole thing.”