Nonconference matchups such as this give college basketball fans the kind of goose bumps they usually get in March.
After all, No. 3 Missouri and No. 17 Gonzaga have made five straight NCAA Tournament appearances each.
It’s only December, but spring fever is spreading. The teams meet in Saturday’s “Battle in Seattle” at 1 p.m. at the Key Arena.
Missouri senior Rickey Paulding said his team needs an early-season matchup of this caliber.
“I think the games kind of test us early on as a team, and it kind of makes us come together quicker,” Paulding said. “We can’t wait necessarily until March to start playing well and put everything together.”
The Tigers (3-0) can’t wait until halftime, either.
This season, opponents have outscored the Tigers 105-96 in the first half.
A late 21-2 run salvaged Missouri’s perfect record against Indiana on Saturday, but the team can’t afford a slow start against the Bulldogs (6-1).
Missouri coach Quin Snyder has been preaching his team philosophy for eight weeks of practice: Defense is the team’s identity. It took a 14-point deficit and almost 33 minutes before the Tigers executed Snyder’s philosophy for a 63-58 win against the Hoosiers.
After Indiana’s perimeter players picked apart the Tigers and hit 7-of-13 first-half 3-pointers, Snyder said the Tigers’ chances against Gonzaga rely on his guards’ outside rebounding.
“They’re going to have to rebound like crazy,” Snyder said. “Although we beat Indiana on the boards pretty good, our perimeter guys haven’t been rebounding.”
Paulding knows how dangerous Gonzaga point guard Blake Stepp is from 3-point range. He and center Arthur Johnson were Stepp’s teammates on the United State’s 2003 Pan American Games team.
ESPN.com’s Andy Katz named Stepp to the Weekly Watch Honor Roll after Gonzaga’s 82-68 win against Maryland on Saturday. Stepp made 7-of-11 3-pointers and led the Bulldogs with 27 points.
Stepp’s scoring has not hurt his ball-distributing responsibilities. He added 11 assists against Maryland.
For Missouri’s Jimmy McKinney, the matchup is an indicator of how well he has adjusted to point guard. He said he hopes his progress shows against Stepp.
“It’s a big challenge for me,” he said. “For me, individually, it’s a big step for me to prove where I am at right now.”
Stepp is not the Bulldogs’ only weapon. Snyder said Gonzaga big men Ronny Turiaf and Cory Violette also have professional-level talent. Turiaf, a 6-foot-10 junior forward, and Violette, a 6-8 center/forward, have the size and the muscle to compete with Missouri’s frontcourt.
Turiaf’s 29 points against George Washington on Sunday matched his career-high and led the Bulldogs to a 96-91 win in the BB&T Classic Championship.
The Bulldogs’ preparation includes twice as many games, but Snyder said the Tigers need to face a ranked opponent before their national status means anything.
“My sense is, watching them on tape, they’re just further along than we are right now,” Snyder said.
“It will help them understand, even more fully, the level that they have to play on to be the No. 3-ranked team in the country. That ranking is largely fictional at this point of the year.”