COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin doesn’t want to hear about winning the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament — and not because the Tigers have never been close to winning the trophy since joining the league ten years ago.
As his team embarks on the enormous challenge of winning five games in five days, Martin posed a question to his players: What should they be doing this week in Tampa, Florida?
“All, or most of them, said, ‘We have to go out there and win five games,'” he recalled on Tuesday.
“No,” he said. “We have to win a game. One good at a time. It’s the only thing we can control. You can’t win five games in one game. You have to win one at a time. It’s not impossible, but the most important thing is to get that first first.
Luckily for Mizzou, in a season mostly mired in bad luck, the No. 12-seeded Tigers (11-20) open with an opponent they know they can beat, No. 13 Mississippi. The Tigers have always struggled with Ole Miss, but this season has swept both games against the Rebels, a team that hasn’t been the same since the loss of first-year goaltender DaeShun Ruffin to an injury. knee a month ago. The Rebels (13-18) traveled to Tampa after losing eight of their last nine games.
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The winner of Wednesday’s game at 5 p.m. (St. Louis time) will face No. 5 seed Louisiana State (21-10) around 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
This year’s event is moving from its traditional home of Nashville to Amalie Arena, home of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, where the SEC played its last conference tournament in 2009.
Regardless of location, the Tigers have struggled to string together wins in this event, reaching the quarter-finals just three times in 2013, 2014 and 2021 – but never further. MU sat out the 2016 tournament while serving a self-imposed post-season ban for NCAA violations. At the start of the pandemic, the SEC ended the 2020 tournament a day before the Tigers were set to face Texas A&M on day two of the event. Martin Mizzou’s teams are 2-3 in the SEC tournament. It is the second time under his guidance that they have played on the dreaded opening day, when the bottom four seeds face off.
Only five SEC teams in the bottom four seeds (Nos. 11-14) have advanced to the quarterfinals since the conference expanded to 14 teams in 2012-13: No. 13 South Carolina beat 5th Arkansas in the second round of 2014; South Carolina’s No. 11 beat No. 6 Ole Miss in 2015; No. 13 Auburn beat No. 5 Texas A&M, then reached the semifinals with a win over No. 4 LSU in 2015; No. 12 Tennessee beat No. 5 Vanderbilt in 2016; and No. 12 Georgia beat No. 5 Missouri in 2018 at St. Louis in Martin’s first season, the game is remembered as the return of Michael Porter Jr. after a long-lasting back injury all season.
Otherwise, the bottom four seeds have never made it past the second day of the tournament since the group grew to 14 teams. Vanderbilt, the No. 11 seed, takes on No. 14 Georgia in Game 2 on Wednesday.
Opening night is usually played to the smallest crowds of the week, but for lower seeds it’s a chance to acclimate to new surroundings for what they hope will be a long stay.
“Stick to your strengths. Don’t let the crowd get to you,” said United junior striker Kobe Brown. “It’s a big step. But it’s nothing we haven’t done all year or managed all year. The gymnasium is a bit bigger and there are more lights, more cameras and so on. But that’s basketball at the end of the day. So stick to what you are good at.
To sweep the Rebels this year, Mizzou avoided what he’s not good at: making 3-pointers. In both wins, the Tigers shot 4 of 7 and then 7 of 14 from deep, two unusually tight games from a team that shot 27.8% for the season, the worst in the SEC and the worst in history. of Mizzou by a few percentage points.
A similar strategy could be United’s best chance of winning a third game against the same opponent on Wednesday, something the Tigers haven’t done since 2012, when they beat Texas and Baylor twice in the regular season and again. in the Big 12 tournament. It was also the last time the Tigers won a conference tournament.
“You never know what level of energy people come into this game with, level of focus, shot making, confidence, whatever,” Martin said. “You just have to be ready to play the game. They can score the ball. They can make plays. They have a low post that is physical and productive. They have perimeter guys who can make plays.
“It won’t be easy.”
In this tournament, for Mizzou, this is never the case.
Mizzou and Ole Miss meet on day one of the SEC tournament in Tampa, Fla., with the winner set to meet Louisiana State.