As winter moves in on Columbia, the Missouri men's basketball team is enjoying a warmer climate.
For six days, the Tigers and seven other teams will be treated as guests of honor in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the second annual Puerto Rico Tip-Off, hosted by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. Mari Jo Laborde, the company's director of marketing and promotion, said they've gotten plenty of activities planned to welcome the teams and their fans.
Missouri (2-0) vs. Xavier (2-0)
WHERE: The Coliseo de Puerto Rico, San Juan, Puerto Rico
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM
"It allows us to showcase Puerto Rico to college students who might want to come later for spring break or some other time," Laborde said.
The Tigers will play games Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Although the Big East Conference officially hosts the tournament to give it an NCAA affiliation, Big East Associate Commissioner Dan Gavitt said ESPN regional television and ESPNU are handling the administrative duties.
"I think that ESPN's goal is to grow this event into an event that can rival Maui and some of the other elite tournaments," Gavitt said.
The players and coaches arrived Monday, then attended a welcome banquet last night. Laborde said all of the guests have been invited to a party on Saturday night, when no games are scheduled. The company has also made available information about tourist attractions, such as El Yunque National Forest and El Morro, a 500-year-old Spanish fort in an historic part of the capitol.
Last year's tournament, which was won by Miami, featured three teams that later made the NCAA tournament and two teams who competed in the National Invitational Tournament. This year's field could be even stronger, led by defending national runner-up No. 13 Memphis and 19th-ranked USC. Both teams are on the bottom side of the bracket, meaning they wouldn't face Missouri until Sunday.
"There's a lot of good teams up there," forward Leo Lyons said after the Tigers' 103-75 win against Chattanooga, who is also a participant in Puerto Rico. "A lot of long, athletic players. So it's going to be real competitive."
Missouri's first-round opponent, Xavier, was one game away from the Final Four last season before they fell to UCLA 76-57. The Musketeers have lost some key players in the backcourt, but they're still near the top of the teams receiving votes in the latest polls.
Last year's tournament attracted crowds of less than 2,000 in the first year of the tournament. More than 5,000 watched the final between Miami and Providence, and Gavitt and ESPN are optimistic about increased interest this year. Laborde said some teams got planes to charter in large groups.
"This is the second year we're hosting the tournament, and we already have seen a great improvement in terms of the U.S. teams and their fans," Laborde said.
Gavitt said the tournament's location gives it an advantage over others, such as the Maui Invitational, because of its proximity to good schools on the East Coast. The Coliseo de Puerto Rico, which was opened in 2005 and seats 18,000, is better than host sites at other tournaments that are often not much better than a quality high school gym, Gavitt said.
"It's an NBA-style arena," Gavitt said. "It has all the amenities of an arena anywhere in the United States, and the hotel accommodations they have set up down there are fantastic."
Since their three easy exhibition wins in Canada around Labor Day, Missouri coach Mike Anderson and his team have been deflecting questions about its first real test of the season. The same is likely true for Xavier, Memphis, USC and Seton Hall, who are a combined 8-0 with an average margin of victory of 22.1 points.
"I want to see us get better," Anderson said Monday. "I want to see us continue to develop our bench."