The questions about it started when the schedule was first released. More were asked at Monday’s postgame press conference with coach Mike Anderson.
Still, the Missouri men’s basketball coach wouldn’t budge. He refused to say the Tigers’ game against Arkansas is more important than any other game.
Missouri (7-0) faces arguably its toughest opponent of the young season tonight when the Razorbacks (5-0) visit Mizzou Arena at 8 p.m. Because of that, Anderson has tried to control his team’s excitement for the game, continually saying it’s “just the next game on the schedule.”
But tonight’s game is more than that. For the first time this season, Missouri will be televised nationally, with the game airing on ESPN2. And for many players, that means the first time in their careers they will have the chance to play in a nationally televised game.
“(Anderson) keeps saying it’s just another game,” freshman Keon Lawrence said. “But it’s more important. I’m up for this game. (Playing on ESPN2) is going to be great. I’m excited. Real excited. I’ve always dreamed about it.”
The Arkansas-Missouri matchup is also intriguing because Anderson coached at Arkansas as an assistant for 17 years. While trying to control his team’s emotions, Anderson has also hidden his own excitement about coaching against the Razorbacks.
“There’s probably some significance in a lot of other people’s minds because of my relationship and I’ve coached there,” Anderson said. “Arkansas gave me a great opportunity. They provided for my family, No. 1. I was there for 17 years. My kids were raised there.”
Anderson said he expects the coach he sat alongside at Arkansas, Nolan Richardson, to be at Mizzou Arena for the game. Richardson has made a few appearances to Mizzou Arena this season to watch his former assistant’s team play. Earlier in the season, he said he would be hoping for a Missouri win in the game.
Richardson’s replacement at Arkansas, Stan Heath, has taken the same approach to tonight’s game as Anderson. Heath said in his press conference on Tuesday that the game is about the players, not the coaches.
“With Mike there, it fuels some other things,” Heath said. “...Neither one of the coaches will be on the floor. None of the kids for either team have played for the other coach. I know Missouri will be sky high, but that’s because Arkansas is coming to town.”
The game also should provide the first true test for a Missouri team that has virtually breezed through its first seven games, with its closest win margin being six points.
“I think a lot of guys are looking more forward to this one,” junior Jason Horton said. “We all expected to win all the other games. And now we’re playing an SEC (Southeastern Conference) team, a team that made the tournament last year.
“I think it might be the first big test for us. It’s one of the most talented teams we’re going to play all year. It’s especially the most talented team we’ve played thus far. So it’s going to be a real challenge for us. It’s Big 12-caliber talent.”
Getting caught up in the media’s attention to the game could potentially be a problem for the Tigers’ newcomers. Horton said his teammates will settle down as the game goes on.
“You get the feeling it’s a bigger game,” Horton said. “There’s going to be a lot more fans in here. It’s a nationally televised game. But we can’t get caught up in that. The young guys will get a couple jitters at first. But once you start playing, you forget all that.”