COLUMBIA — Zaire Taylor’s overtime shot Tuesday night at Iowa State not only won the game, it might have sealed the Missouri men's basketball team’s NCAA Tournament chances.
A loss to Iowa State could have popped the Tigers' tournament bubble. Now, with 10 wins and just one game left in the season, the Tigers are tied for third in the Big 12, the No. 1-ranked conference in the nation. As Taylor's shot fell through the basket, the question might have changed from if Missouri will make the tournament to what seed it will receive.
Kansas vs. Missouri on Saturday at Mizzou Arena
With a key win against then-No. 10 Kansas State and nonconference wins over Illinois and Old Dominion, Missouri’s (22-8, 10-5) tournament resume is looking stronger every week. Though the NCAA men's tournament selection committee doesn't finalize its choices until March 14, ESPN TV analyst Steve Lavin projects the Tigers as a lock for the tournament. They possess the three main attributes the committee uses to select teams. They have the quality wins, play in a strong conference and can impose their tempo on opponents.
“Right now Missouri is looking at an eight or nine seed, but can elevate their position in the conference tournament,” Lavin said. “If they can accumulate some wins they could secure a six or seven seed.”
However, Missouri’s resume isn’t perfect. The Tigers seeding will be hurt by their losses to Oral Roberts (19-12) and Big 12 bottom-feeder Oklahoma (13-16, 4-11). And with Texas falling out of the rankings, it leaves Missouri with only one win against a ranked opponent. However, Lavin doesn’t expect it to affect Missouri’s seeding too much because of the overall strength of the Big 12 even though the committee claims it doesn't use conference affiliation as a part of its criteria.
“The high tide rises all ships,” Lavin said. “And when you look at the conference as a whole, that is what's going to help Missouri when the committee evaluates who deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament.”
Once in the tournament, Missouri’s full-court pressure defense and hectic pace will give opponents trouble despite the seeds. Lavin said if the Tigers can get past the first game, anything could happen. Last season, Missouri proved its effectiveness when it dismantled the heavily favored No. 2-seed Memphis in the Sweet 16.
“The combination of the Tigers personnel and style of play makes it a strong possibility that they could advance to the Sweet 16,” Lavin said. “When their name is called on Selection Sunday, there are going to be some coaches and teams out there that prefer not to play against that style, which is difficult to prepare for and play against.”
However, Missouri will have to overcome an injury, something it didn't have to do last season. Junior forward Justin Safford tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Feb. 24 against Colorado, leaving him questionable to return this season. The injury leaves an already thin frontcourt with just three players and the team loses some much-needed experience. ESPN senior college sports writer Pat Forde said the injury could be a factor for the selection committee.
“They’ve got to seed the team that will be on the floor for the tournament. I don’t think it will affect them getting in, but it will affect their seeding,” Forde said. “If they play well the rest of the way they should be all right, but we’ll see.”
Missouri still has plenty of chances, though unlikely, to impress the NCAA selection committee before the final seeding on March 14. The Tigers will have an opportunity to add another quality win to their resume Saturday when they host No. 2-ranked Kansas, who beat them 84-65 in January in Lawrence, Kan.
Lavin said that if the Tigers can make a run in the Big 12 Tournament they can improve their seeding. However, it will be easier said than done. The tournament will be held in Kansas City and Missouri has struggled on the road. It has just a 4-6 record away from Mizzou Arena, and the wins all came against the bottom of the Big 12.
“With a win over Kansas combined with a deep run in the conference tournament, it would allow Missouri to make a quantum leap in their NCAA seed position,” Lavin said.