Of Missouri’s 63 possible NCAA Tournament opponents, Evan Unrau couldn’t believe the Tigers’ first-round matchup.
Like many walks of life, college basketball can seem like a small world, and when Missouri (17-12) plays Stanford (24-6) at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday in Tempe, Ariz., Unrau will be in a familiar position.
Playing in the Big 12 Conference the past four years, Unrau has grown accustomed to playing against her friends and acquaintances. Playing the Cardinal will be no different for Missouri’s senior forward, who spent the past two summers working at Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer’s three-week summer basketball camp.
“When that name came up I was in shock,” Unrau said. “I have some friends on that team and just kind of developed a really good feeling out there so it was really weird when I saw the name pop up.
Unrau said Stanford’s rich basketball tradition, outstanding arena and the beauty of Palo Alto, Calif., attracted her to the camp. Edith Thompson, the Missouri women’s basketball director of operations, is acquainted with the Cardinal coaching staff and suggested Unrau give the camp a try as well.
Despite Unrau’s fondness for Stanford, don’t expect anything to get in the way of her desire to make the most of her second appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
In 2001, Missouri was the No. 10 seed in the East Region and upset No. 7 seed Wisconsin and No. 2 seed Georgia to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1982. Unrau and senior guard Tracy Lozier are the only remaining players from that team.
This season, Missouri is the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region and Missouri coach Cindy Stein said she thinks the team is more focused than the 2001 team and knows what to expect.
“I think that the first year we went to the NCAA, I think that we were just kind of wide-eyed and kind of looking around and I am not sure you really enjoyed it then,” Stein said “We want to win more than anything, and we will be very focused on that, but at the same time we want to show them a good time and we want to enjoy this experience.”
Back in the big dance
Missouri went to the WNIT the past two years, but the Tigers made it a preseason goal to return to the NCAA Tournament.
“I think all of us grew up watching the NCAA Tournament,” Unrau said. “It’s kind of the pinnacle of your basketball season, so it is kind of special feeling to be part of it.”
Win or lose, Stein and Unrau see Missouri’s NCAA Tournament appearance as a positive for the program. Stein said the team will be able to use the appearance as a recruiting tool, and Unrau said she is noticing an increase in the interest surrounding the women’s team.
“I think (the recognition) is kind of cool, as far as the community goes,” Unrau said. “All of a sudden people kind of pay attention to you. You’ll be walking in Wal-Mart and people will say ‘good luck.’ I think it’s something you don’t really get throughout the regular season.”
A late start
Whether Missouri’s fans will be able to stay up late enough to watch the Tigers is another question. To adjust to what will be Missouri’s latest tip-off this season, the Tigers practiced later than usual this week but Stein said she doesn’t expect the late start to affect her team.
“Really, it doesn’t matter what time you play,” Stein said. “If you aren’t excited to be in the tournament, you shouldn’t be putting those shoes on.”