COLUMBIA — Numbers and records can be deceiving, especially in the world of college basketball, where teams from the top conferences hardly see each other for the first two months of the season.
The Missouri men’s basketball team has a 12-3 record heading into its Big 12 Conference opener against No. 11 Kansas State at 1 p.m. Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
Missouri Tigers (12-3) vs. No. 11 Kansas State (13-1)
WHEN: 1 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
RADIO: KFRU/1400 and KBXR/102.3
Game tickets sold out
Looks impressive. But it doesn’t say a whole lot about where the Tigers will go this season.
Last year, Missouri had similar success in nonconference play, going 13-2. It then went 12-4 in the Big 12 and reached the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight for the fourth time in school history.
But just a few years ago, in the 2006-07 season, Missouri posted another strong nonconference mark of 11-2. The Tigers then went 7-9 in conference play, finished a mediocre 18-12 overall and didn’t make a postseason tournament.
Which shows that a strong record entering the Big 12 schedule doesn’t necessarily translate to a successful season, mainly because most of the nonconference season for schools like Missouri is spent at home playing overmatched teams from weak conferences.
Going into Thursday night's games, Missouri’s opponents had a combined record of 106-113, and the Tigers’ strength of schedule is 285 out of 347 NCAA Division I teams. Only two Big 12 schools have a lower strength of schedule than Missouri: Baylor and Nebraska.
Not to say Missouri’s season-to-date has been a waste of time. Missouri has collected wins against respectable teams like Illinois, Oregon, Georgia and Old Dominion. But none of those games were on the road, and key road wins are one of the most important items for a team looking to play in a postseason tournament. Missouri's loss at Oral Roberts is the biggest blotch, considering the Golden Eagles had just seven scholarship players available when they played Missouri.
Despite the attractive record, Missouri coach Mike Anderson knows there’s a steep climb ahead.
“Hopefully we have enough experienced guys who have been through the wars that understand when you get to conference play, it goes up 20 notches, the intensity level, the physicalness, and you’ve got to bring it in order to win,” Anderson said during Thursday's Big 12 coaches teleconference.
The Big 12 looks to be as strong this year as it has been in a while. The league’s teams have gone 140-29 in nonconference play. The wins are a Big 12 record, and the losses are the fewest in the nation this season. And, other than Colorado, all of the conference's teams seem to have legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes.
“I thought the bottom of the league was going to be the strongest that its ever been, and I think its proven to be that,” Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said.
The Tigers will find out quickly how they stack up against some of the better teams in the conference. After hosting the No. 11 Wildcats on Saturday, Missouri heads to No. 22 Texas Tech on Wednesday and visits Oklahoma on Jan. 16. Less than two weeks later, the Tigers make their trip to Lawrence to play No. 1 Kansas.
“This part of the year you really find out more about your team,” Anderson said.
And whether a dominant nonconference record was a preview of a strong season or just a delusion.