Mizzou, Norfolk St with momentum in NCAA tourney
Marcus Denmon was asked to pick the high point of the season,
and the Missouri guard had plenty of options: Big wins over
Illinois and California, that dramatic win over rival Kansas and an
in-season tournament title in the Tigers’ own backyard.
None of them compared to their impressive run to a Big 12
tournament title last weekend.
”Winning the Big 12 championship in the tournament was one of
my most favorites,” Denmon said Thursday, ”because all season
long we strived to win championships, and that was one of the most
important ones we won this season.”
Not the most important one, though.
That tournament is only beginning.
The second-seeded Tigers (30-4) open the pursuit of their first
national championship on Friday against No. 15 seed Norfolk State,
the MEAC champions and winners of seven straight games. The winner
will play Florida or Virginia on Sunday.
”We’re just blessed that we are here and have the opportunity
to play and all we can do is prepare for our opponent, Norfolk
State,” Denmon said, ”and that’s where we have our focus.”
The NCAA tournament experience isn’t new to Denmon and the rest
of the Tigers.
They’re in the 68-team field for the fourth straight season,
which means seniors like Denmon, fellow guards Kim English and Matt
Pressey, and forwards Steve Moore and Ricardo Ratliffe have stepped
onto the hardwood under the brightest of lights plenty of
It’s only the sixth senior class in school history to qualify
for the tournament each season, and having already broken the
school record for most regular-season wins, the Tigers can break
the record for single-season wins by getting through two games in
the NCAA tournament.
Missouri won 31 games three years ago, when the seniors were
freshmen. That team also won three games to win the Big 12 title
before advancing to the round of eight in the NCAA tournament.
”Experience is helpful but it’s not more important than what
takes place in preparing, and more importantly, what happens during
a game,” said English, whose virtuoso performance against Baylor
in the Big 12 title game sewed up tourney MVP honors.
”Carmelo Anthony had no NCAA experience and won the whole
thing,” English said, ”so it’s not that important, but we’re
comfortable with the setting, the long time outs, the media, and
the intensity, and the level in which these games are played for
It’s a level of comfort that Norfolk State is sorely
The Spartans (25-9) qualified for their first NCAA tournament
after 15 years at the Division I level, knocking off
Bethune-Cookman in their conference title game for the automatic
berth. It was only Norfolk State’s second MEAC tournament
”We worked hard to get to that point,” Spartans coach Anthony
Evans said, ”and as a coach you know there are certainly
opportunities to get to the championship, we knew we were going to
have a good basketball team, and it turned out to be our
Norfolk State may not have the same kind of NCAA tournament
pedigree that Missouri carries into the field, but it also has
plenty of guys who have been through the grinder. Senior forward
Kyle O’Quinn averages 15.9 points and 10.4 rebounds, and at
6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, gives Missouri coach Frank Haith
flashbacks of defending Kansas big man Thomas Robinson.
Chris McEachin, the Spartans’ second-leading scorer, is also a
”With it being such a new experience and the first time the
school is going to it – being part of that – you take that as an
initiative of going in there and trying the to win the thing,”
O’Quinn said. ”You’re in it to win it, but it also being a first
experience you’re taking everything in, being at press conferences
and interviews, you have jitter bugs.”
He expects those to go away as the tipoff nears. After all,
Norfolk State hung tough in a two-point loss to Marquette earlier
this season, and beat another NCAA tournament team in LIU-Brooklyn.
The Spartans even went on the road in the ACC and played Virginia
Tech hard into the second half, falling 73-60.
”We’re trying to stay focused, trying to keep a normal routine,
as normal as possible,” Evans said. ”All the media attention and
everything is great, but we have a job to do.”
It’s a big job, too, against one of the nation’s hottest
”This is a senior-laden team and they have been focused all
year, stayed in the process, and with that said, I feel good about
us being focused,” Haith said. ”We’ve had opportunities to lose
that throughout the year, but this team has been determined and
resilient. I anticipate us having great focus on Friday