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

forty minutes.”

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