The Sprint Center in Kansas City will be the site of many firsts Monday night.
The arena will play host to its first college basketball game when No. 2 UCLA plays Maryland at 6 p.m. in the first semifinal of the O’Reilly Auto Parts College Basketball Experience Classic.
But the second semifinal game of the night, between the No. 12 Michigan State Spartans and Missouri, will have its own set of firsts that are important for the Tigers’ basketball team this season.
The game marks the first time this season that MU plays a ranked opponent, and it will also be the first time MU is not the favorite to win.
“Now we're getting ready to play the big boys, so to speak,” coach Mike Anderson said.
Michigan State is the first of many Tiger opponents that are ranked in the Top-25 this season, a list that includes No. 4 Kansas, No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 16 Texas and No. 22 Kansas State. Arkansas is currently ranked eighteenth, but that is expected to change when the new polls are released today, because the Razorbacks lost to Providence on Friday.
Tonight’s game against Michigan State also means MU will play against Spartans’ senior guard Drew Neitzel. Neitzel was selected to the AP Preseason All-American team and has been predicted to take home Big Ten Player of the Year honors by Athlon College Sports and Lindy’s College Basketball magazines.
He is the first player of that caliber that MU plays this season.
But Michigan State is by no means a one-man show. Neitzel is joined in the starting lineup by forwards Raymar Morgan and Marquise Gray and center Goran Sutton. All four of those players started for the Spartans last season as they went 23-12 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Guard Travis Walton, the fifth starter from last season’s team, is also back with the team this year, but he has come off the bench in the Spartan’s first two games.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Anderson said. “They have a very good basketball team. Coming in (to the game), they’re the prohibitive favorite, no question about it.”
Anderson said that he is viewing tonight’s game as an opportunity to see how well MU plays against an experienced team.
“Hopefully we can play at a level that will give us a chance,” Anderson said.
The Tigers are not going to get caught up in the glamour of a Michigan State program that since the 1997-98 season has not missed NCAA Tournament, been to four Final Fours, and won a national championship.
“We look at them just like we look at any other team,” forward Leo Lyons said. “We take it game by game. They are just like anybody else we are going to play. We are going to go out there and give it a full effort.”
There are a few other intriguing story lines for MU’s trip to Kansas City. The game is MU’s first away from Mizzou Arena this season, but the Tigers have, by far, the shortest distance to travel for the final two rounds of the tournament. The location of the tournament is something that could be an advantage for MU.
“You could say that (it’s an advantage) if we get some of the fans out there,” forward DeMarre Carroll said. “It’s on a neutral court, but hopefully we can go down there with the same intensity and the same energy level.”
Anderson isn’t as sure about the advantage as Carroll is.
“I don’t know if you’re talking as much of an edge,” Anderson said. “The arena’s black and gold, I like that part about it.”
Carroll said that there will be a different type of basketball used at the tournament in Kansas City. MU will have to adjust to playing with “The Rock” basketball as opposed to the Nike basketballs the team normally uses.
“Hopefully we can get our shot on and come up with some big wins,” Carroll said.
Something all four teams that will be playing in Kansas City must get used to is shooting in a new arena, which can be difficult for players. Carroll is not too concerned with this potential difficulty, though.
“We’re not going to have that much time (to get used to the new arena) but we’re basketball players,” he said. “We just got to pick up the ball and put it in the goal.”