Nonconference games could show whether Mizzou is NCAA tourney material

Ryan Rosburg and the Tigers will famous numerous challenges in their 13-game nonconference schedule.

L.G. Patterson/AP

If challenging neutral-site games are the best way to prepare for the postseason, Missouri basketball should be in good shape.

For the seventh straight season, the Tigers will play only one true road game in their 13-game nonconference schedule, which the university released Friday morning. First-year coach Kim Anderson also released the schedule via Twitter; perhaps the SEC’s oldest coach at 59 wanted to show he’s still in touch with today’s social media-savvy generation.

He’ll certainly have his work cut out for him with a young group facing such teams as Arizona, Illinois and Oklahoma State in neutral arenas, though the nationally televised matchup with OSU at the Sprint Center in Kansas City should be a pseudo-home game for the Tigers. They’ll also play either Kansas State or Purdue in the second round of the Maui Invitational, along with a third game in Hawaii against San Diego State, Pittsburgh, BYU or host Chaminade.

That’s where Mizzou’s real tests will begin in late November after home games against UMKC, Valparaiso and a somewhat dangerous Oral Roberts team to open the season. The only good news about the draw in Hawaii is that Mizzou doesn’t have to play in the tournament’s opening game, scheduled for 9:30 a.m. local time.

Getting past Arizona would be nothing short of a monumental upset for the Tigers at a tournament where history has shown weird things can happen. The Wildcats might have lost top scorers Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon to the NBA Draft, but they return three starters from a team that was one point away from the Final Four last season and brings in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.

A young, up-and-coming Kansas State team figures to be the favorite against Purdue, which could provide a winnable opponent and some interesting story lines after Boilermakers coach Matt Painter turned down the Mizzou job after Mike Anderson left in 2011. It’s safe to say we’ll know a lot more about the Tigers and their nine newcomers when they return to Mizzou Arena to face Southeast Missouri on Dec. 2.

Missouri has won three of its last four nonconference road games, but this year’s trip to Oklahoma on Dec. 5 should be much tougher. The Sooners return four starters from a 23-10 team that earned a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament despite inexplicable home losses to Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech.

Finally, the Tigers begin the most critical stretch of nonconference play with their most intriguing home game against Xavier on Dec. 13, the first of three key games spread out over 18 days. The Musketeers lost star sophomore point guard Semaj Christon to the draft and will be heavily reliant on seven new faces with the departure of two other starters from an NCAA Tournament team.

Illinois and Missouri always provide entertainment in the Braggin’ Rights game at Scottrade Center, and this year should be no different with Illini coach John Groce looking to improve in the second season of his rebuilding process. The Tigers will then have more than a week to travel across the state and prepare for Oklahoma State, another NCAA Tournament team in 2013 that could have better chemistry after losing top scorers Marcus Smart and Markel Brown.

The schedule provides plenty of opportunities for marquee wins, which have been few and far between in SEC play in recent years. Arizona could easily be a top-five team, while Oklahoma, San Diego State, Kansas State and Pittsburgh are all possible Top 25 opponents for the Tigers.

Anderson won’t have an easy task molding this team into one capable of making the NCAA Tournament after the end of a five-year streak in 2014. But if the Tigers can get to January with fewer than four losses, it would be a great start.

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