COLUMBIA — March is Mike Anderson’s favorite month.
That’s why, as the Missouri coach told his team after practice Monday, he packed four suits for this weekend’s Big 12 Conference Tournament. He is expecting to wear them all.
Thursday at 6 p.m. Missouri tips off a new season. Beat Nebraska and play Friday against Kansas. Beat Kansas and play again on Saturday. Win Saturday, and again on Sunday, and Missouri wins the conference tournament, which grants them an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
At 16-15 and 6-10 in the Big 12, Missouri won’t be getting an at-large bid, so winning these next four games is the only option for an invitation to the Big Dance.
That sounds intimidating, but it’s not impossible. Just ask Anderson.
In 2000, when Anderson was an assistant at Arkansas, the Razorbacks finished the regular season 15-14 and 7-9 in the Southeastern Conference; good for seventh in the SEC.
But when they arrived in Atlanta for the SEC Tournament, the Razorbacks beat Georgia, No. 16 Kentucky, No. 10 LSU and then No. 23 Auburn in consecutive games to win the conference tournament and receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
“It was the one way we were going to get into the tournament,” Anderson said. “It was one of those deals where we went out on the court and did the unthinkable.”
Missouri is in a similar predicament this year, but the players, like their coach, are confident about their chances.
“I’m telling you, if we get that first W, I think we can just roll with it,” guard Matt Lawrence said.
When Anderson arrived in 2006, his résumé had Missouri fans dreaming of tournament success. Right at the top of that résumé was the 2004 NCAA Tournament, when Anderson led the mid-major University of Alabama – Birmingham to the Sweet 16, defeating top-seeded Kentucky on the way.
Anderson has yet to recreate anything like that in his first two years at Missouri — the Tigers were upset by 11th-seeded Baylor in the first round of last year’s Big 12 Tournament and weren’t invited anywhere else — but the Tigers are hoping this year will be different.
“The way we play is made for tournament-style basketball,” forward DeMarre Carroll said.
The logic is that, with Anderson’s high-pressure, full-court-defense style of basketball, teams can find it hard to prepare, especially when on short rest. It worked in 1994, when Arkansas won the national championship with Anderson as an assistant coach.
“That’s the positive thing we’ve got going into the tournament,” Carroll said.
The negative: Missouri still finished 10th place in a 12-team league this year, and Anderson’s style of play is unproven in the Big 12.
The Missouri players are not looking past Nebraska, but they also aren’t talking about the National Invitation Tournament or the new College Basketball Invitational, the second-tier tournaments that the team is bound for with anything less then a Big 12 championship.
The last time Missouri made the NIT, in 2004-05, a crowd of 5,997 showed up to see the Tigers lose a first round game to DePaul. A bigger crowd showed up to watch Missouri take on Coppin State two days after Christmas this year.
That’s no fun for anybody. March is all about the NCAA Tournament, especially for Anderson.
“It’s his favorite month of they year,” Lawrence said. “He loves playing in March, he loves the tournament style of play.”
This year’s players, for all the ups and downs this season, don’t want it to end either.
“Everybody right now, we hate spring break,” Carroll said. “We don’t want a spring break. We’re just going to go in there now with the mindset that we don’t have a spring break.”
Three of the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament take place during Missouri’s spring break this year.
Carroll said Anderson hates spring breaks too.