COLUMBIA — During the Missouri men’s basketball team's postgame press conference Wednesday laughter and jokes filled the air after its victory over No. 15 Texas, but one question changed the atmosphere.
A reporter raised his hand asking Missouri guard J.T. Tiller about the team’s outlook for the NCAA Tournament. It was the wrong question. The result was as awkward as missing a breakaway dunk.
Missouri (19-7, 7-4 Big 12) vs. Nebraska (13-13, 1-10 Big 12)
WHEN: 5 p.m.
WHERE: Devaney Center, Lincoln, Neb.
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR/102.3 FM
SERIES: MU leads 124-91. Last meeting 70-53 MU win on Jan. 23.
Defend the 3: Nebraska is the Big 12’s second-most accurate 3-point shooting team, and the Huskers nearly shocked No. 7 Kansas State on Wednesday by hitting 14 3-pointers.
Coach: Doc Sadler, 4th season
LAST SEASON: 18-13
(8-8 Big 12)
THE SKINNY: The Huskers are having a disastrous season and are easily the Big 12’s worst team. Not coincidentally, Nebraska is last in the conference in scoring, averaging just 66 points. With no postseason hopes, the Huskers are just trying to get through the rest of the season.
Richardson scoring: In Nebraska’s only conference win and in its near upset at Kansas State on Wednesday, sophomore Brandon Richardson scored at least 15 points. The guard averages 8.6 but has shown he can score in double-figures. But he has yet to prove he can do it consistently.
Lance Jeter: Nebraska’s junior point guard had 12 assists Wednesday against Kansas State. Like Missouri point guard Zaire Taylor, Jeter leads the Huskers in minutes played and has a strong assist-to-turnover ratio. Jeter can dictate Nebraska’s pace, which is usually a methodical, halfcourt one, a polar opposite of MU’s preferred style.
“No,” Missouri guard Kim English said sternly before J.T. Tiller could respond. “No. Nebraska, that’s it.”
The answer was nothing new for a Mike Anderson coached team. Missouri (19-7, 7-4) will rarely talk about the future. Even the team’s motto that wins and losses only last until midnight, prevent any comments about anything other than the next opponent. However, with just five games left to make an impression on the NCAA Tournament selection committee, even English knew how big the win over the ranked Longhorns was.
“I mean this is obviously a big win because it was a ranked foe from the south, they are really good and they were No. 1 at one point,” English said. “But we don’t look at any one team more than we look at any other team.”
Unlike the end of last season, Missouri has been anything but a lock for the NCAA Tournament. Led by seniors DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons, last season's Tigers were ranked for the last six weeks of the season and had just four losses total in the Big 12. The result was a No. 3 seed and a run to the Elite Eight, matching the farthest the Tigers have ever been in the NCAA Tournament.
This season, Missouri’s resume has had plenty of holes. Heading into the Texas game, Missouri had just one win against a top-25 opponent, and lost to a depleted Oral Roberts team that won’t make the postseason. Its 2-5 record on the road certainly does not help matters. ESPN senior college sports writer Pat Forde said the Texas win was important because it acted as white out for any bad losses in the Tigers’ resume.
"Holding serve at home is good, and beating a ranked opponent to me pretty well fills out their tournament resume," Forde said.
The win put Missouri in a tie for third in the top-ranked conference in the nation. However, the Tigers are tied with Baylor and Texas A&M, two teams it lost to this season, which would mean they would lose the tiebreaker.
However, this season has been considered a success. After losing its top three scorers, Missouri was predicted to finish seventh in the conference. Its surprise wins over then No. 10 Kansas State and No. 15 Texas have helped push them to the top of the conference again.
"Obviously this year has been a rebuilding job, but I think Mike Anderson has done a great job," Forde said. "I think most people thought it was going to be an NIT team, and they've been better than that."
The Tigers have five games left to play for a higher seeding. Forde projects the Tigers to be anywhere from a No. 6 to No. 8 seed in the tournament and potentially make the Sweet 16.
“It’s not as good a team as last year, and last year they made the regional final,” Forde said. “But I know this, with the style of play, I think there is a chance that nobody is going to want to see them in the bracket.”
This season, Missouri has a chance to be the first Missouri team to make the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons since 2003. Missouri had missed the tournament five straight seasons before last year, but now has a chance to renew Missouri’s basketball tradition.
“I think it’s huge,” Forde said. “Right now Missouri has moved back into the upper echelon of the Big 12 and how far they can go, you know if they can keep having season like this, they can move up to start challenging the elite.”