COLUMBIA – When ESPN’s Joe Lunardi released his most recent projection of this season’s NCAA tournament field Monday, Missouri (18-7, 6-6) was slotted as a No. 11 seed.
The 11 seed is the highest Lunardi has pegged the Tigers since mid-January when they were a nine seed. Lunardi currently projects Missouri to play No. 6 seed Oklahoma in Milwaukee to open the tournament.
Lunardi, who has developed an expertise at picking the NCAA tournament field, correctly projected all 68 teams in last season’s tournament. He accurately projected 98.2 percent of the tournament field over the past six seasons. So when Lunardi says Missouri currently is in the 68-team field, odds are Missouri indeed has a spot in the field.
In a phone conversation with the Missourian on Tuesday afternoon, Lunardi said what he believes the Tigers need to do to feel comfortable about securing one of the tournament’s 36 at-large bids with Selection Sunday (March 16) less than a month away.
“I would say in Missouri’s case, if they can get one more high-profile win and avoid any losses to the bottom portion of the league, that would do it,” Lunardi said.
If that’s the case, the Tigers remain completely entrenched on the bubble.
Missouri has six regular season games remaining: Vanderbilt, at Alabama, at Georgia, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and at Tennessee. Florida and Kentucky are the only Southeastern Conference teams Lunardi classifies as “high profile" this season, so Missouri’s only chances to obtain the high-profile win Lunardi mentioned would have to come in the SEC Tournament.
“That doesn’t sound particularly helpful to me,” Lunardi said of Missouri’s remaining schedule. “A sweep of Tennessee is probably the best thing that they can put on their resume at this point in case those two are sitting there for one of the last spots.
“Bad losses are always bad, but they’re doubly bad at this point in the season. Let’s be honest – you get to the end of the line and the (selection) committee is looking for reasons to get finished and eliminate teams and get to their number of at-larges, which is 36 this year. You don’t want to be team No. 34 and give them a reason to keep you out because then you have a way of becoming team No. 38 faster than you would like.”
Lunardi said there is no “magic number” of wins for Missouri to reach; rather the quality of wins is what will weigh more heavily on the minds of the selection committee, “provided that along the way you’re not having bad losses to teams that aren’t headed to any postseason.”
Lunardi counts three of Missouri’s seven losses – Illinois, Georgia and at Vanderbilt — as bad losses. The other four losses — at LSU, Kentucky, at Florida and at Mississipppi — all were to teams currently safely in the tournament or on the bubble.
Those losses to fellow bubble teams like LSU and Ole Miss added importance to Missouri’s matchups against Arkansas and Tennessee inside Mizzou Arena last week.
“They were huge because they were both wins over teams that they’re competing almost directly with for the at-large field,” Lunardi said. “To get two head-to-head wins over two teams that you’re right with, it becomes almost like a play-in situation, to the extent you can have that with three weeks to go.”
Lunardi counts that pair of wins as two of the Tigers’ strongest, along with their late-December road victory against North Carolina State and their nine-point victory against UCLA.
“It would’ve been great for Missouri if N.C. State had pulled out that game against Syracuse,” Lunardi said of the Wolfpack’s loss on a last-second shot to the Orange last week. “You always have to be fans of the best teams you’ve beaten – them looking good makes you look better.”
One defeat that’s looked worse as the season has gone on for Missouri is its one-point loss to Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights game. The Fighting Illini are 4-10 since that game and are currently last in the Big Ten Conference, but Lunardi says that won’t be the deciding factor if the selection committee leaves the Tigers out on Selection Sunday.
“Because they didn’t finish high enough in the SEC or they suffered a bad loss in the conference tournament,” Lunardi said when asked why Missouri would potentially miss the tournament.
And while it’s been a month since Missouri was seeded this high, the Tigers are far from a position where they can feel comfortable about their odds at securing an at-large big. Such is the precarious life of a bubble team.
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.