By the time Missouri’s men’s basketball team opened SEC play for the first time last season, it already had positioned itself for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The 2012-13 Tigers knocked off Stanford and VCU during the Battle 4 Atlantis, topped Illinois and Bucknell and took UCLA to overtime at Pauley Pavilion.
Basically, Missouri needed only to avoid falling flat on its face during the conference schedule to get a berth in the Big Dance.
The time has arrived for the 2013-14 Tigers to start building a similar resume.
Missouri, 7-0, is undefeated but also largely untested.
That will change with a Big 12/SEC Challenge game at 6 tonight against West Virginia and a showdown against No. 18 UCLA on Saturday on national TV.
The Tigers are receiving votes in The Associated Press and USA Today/coaches’ polls, but nationally — and, to an extent, even within their own locker room — nobody’s quite sure what to make of coach Frank Haith’s third Missouri team.
Obviously, any evaluation is further complicated by Haith’s five-game NCAA suspension, but there’s nothing complicated about the week ahead for the Tigers.
With wins against the Mountaineers, 6-2, and Bruins, 7-0, Missouri would begin to set itself up well once again with an eye toward March.
“Every game is important, but there’s no question (it’s important) when you have an opportunity like a power-conference team,” Haith said.
The Tigers beat Big Ten also-ran Northwestern and a solid Nevada team during the Las Vegas Invitational. The win against Hawaii on a neutral floor was nice, but those aren’t the kinds of victories that the NCAA Tournament selection committee values.
The SEC’s strength as a conference won’t help. Much like last year, some bad early-season losses are going to weigh down the league when the bids are handed out.
That puts a premium on making a statement now.
“We’re looking at just winning games like usual,” Missouri junior guard Jabari Brown said, “but in the back of our mind, we know that it will play a role come tournament time.”
Both games are at Mizzou Arena, where the Tigers own the nation’s longest home winning streak at 22 consecutive games.
Missouri hasn’t lost to a nonconference opponent at Mizzou Arena since being upset in the 2005-06 season opener against Sam Houston State — a streak of 77 nonconference home victories.
“These two wins could be big resume wins for us, nonconference games that we really need to win,” sophomore forward Ryan Rosburg said. “With them coming here, we shouldn’t be scared, because we haven’t lost here in a long time. We’re really excited for the challenge.”
And it will be a challenge. The Mountaineers, who are coached by Bob Huggins, are a physical bunch. That’s a hallmark of Huggins’ teams.
“I’ve competed against coach Huggins’ teams in the past,” Haith said. “They’re always very competitive, they’re very tough, they’re very physical. They play with a chip. You’ve got to bring your lunch pail to play against them.”
Especially this season, now that Huggins’ squad has also found a shooting stroke, averaging 85.1 points per game and shooting 46.5 percent from three-point range — the fourth-best percentage in the country.
It will be a good test, and Missouri will find out a little bit about itself as well as a little about its future as a tourney contender, too.