The Missouri men’s basketball team doesn't need a reminder.
It knows all too well how good the Big East Conference is.
Eleventh-seeded Missouri Tigers (23-10)
vs. sixth-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats (25-8)
WHEN: 8:50 p.m. CT
WHERE: Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM
Finally Cincinnati has come full-circle. A program that was plunged into chaos after Bob Huggins' ouster is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since he was head coach. It is a breakthrough for a program that was a tournament regular under Huggins.
"When I first got here, we went through a lot of tough games," junior forward Yancy Gates said. "We went through a couple this year. But it's all gotten to this point and getting back to the NCAA Tournament. It feels good. So, I think it was worth it."
The Bearcats moved into the Big East after Huggins left before the 2005-06 season. They didn't have a winning record in Big East play until this season, when they finished seventh in the league.
— The Associated Press
The past two years a Big East school has ended the Tigers' season. Last year, West Virginia beat them in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In 2009, Connecticut beat them when a berth in the Final Four was on the line.
Most who follow college basketball say the Big East is the best conference in the country.
“I remember people joking around saying the whole Big East Conference was going to be in the tournament,” Michael Dixon said.
Only five teams from the conference didn’t make this year’s NCAA Tournament. Of the record 11 teams that did get in, none received a seed lower than Missouri’s No. 11 seed.
As a result, the Tigers' first opponent in the tournament, No. 6 seed Cincinnati, has a resume that seems formidable on the surface. The Bearcats finished with a 25-8 overall record and 11-7 record in Big East Conference play. Although they finished seventh in the conference, all of the their losses came versus teams in the tournament with better seeds than Missouri, which finished with a 23-10 overall record and 8-8 record in Big 12 Conference play.
But it’s hard to compare teams from conferences that rarely play each other. Missouri coach Mike Anderson thinks his team’s unique, fast-paced style of play can be beneficial against teams who aren’t used to playing against it.
“If we play it the right way,” Anderson said with a smile.
Despite the Big East’s success in recent years, Cincinnati is making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2005. After the Bearcats were listed as the No. 6 seed in the West Region during ESPN’s Selection Sunday show, Missouri, expecting to be an 8 or 9 seed, was surprised to see its name appear below Cincinnati as the No. 11 seed.
But it didn't take long for the Tigers' thinking to shift.
“When I saw Cincinnati, the first thing I thought about was the games I had seen them play earlier in the year,” Missouri guard Marcus Denmon said. “They’re a really good team.”
Anderson, who was just happy to make the tournament, said his familiarity with the Bearcats was limited.
“I’ve had a chance to watch maybe parts of their games,” he said. “I know they have Yancy Gates, the big kid. He’s playing phenomenal for that team. I know they have a lot of size. Justin Jackson, a young man we recruited out of Florida, very athletic.”
The Tigers had seen bits and pieces of games involving Cincinnati as of Sunday night, and they described the Bearcats as "big" and "physical."
Gates, a 6-foot-9 forward, is leading the Bearcats with 11.8 points per game. His 6.8 rebounds per game also lead the team, which averages almost five more rebounds per game than its opponents.
Missouri forward Ricardo Ratliffe admitted that he didn’t know a lot about the Bearcats, but he did know about Yates.
“I’m going to have to bring my A game, be physical and keep him off the glass,” Ratliffe said.
More than anything else, however, the Bearcats' strength is their defense. They lead the Big East in scoring defense, allowing just 59.2 points per game. The Tigers score more than 81 points per game.
Something has to give.