NCAA Tournament fans are promised an action-packed game in the West Region with the pairing of two old rivals the No. 9-seeded Missouri Tigers against the No. 8 Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday.
After both teams stumbled down the stretch of their regular-season schedule, each notched an opening-round win in their respective conference tournaments before falling in close contests. Each team has to come in focused with the winner most likely facing No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the second round.
Missouri notched their 28th appearance in the Big Dance after posting a 4-1 record against top-25 teams that included top-10 wins against Illinois, Tennessee, and Alabama. When Missouri takes the ball inside, the Tigers have great success, but at times they fall in love with the 3-point shot despite only making 32 percent of their attempts.
The Sooners enter the NCAA Tournament battle-tested with 11 games played against top-25 squads, posting five wins in the marquee showdowns. In mid-January, OU started looking the part of a formidable team by winning three consecutive games against top-10 teams in Kansas, Texas, and Alabama. But after a mid-February double-overtime win against then-No. 14 West Virginia, Oklahoma has gone 2-4, with the two wins coming against a 2-22 Iowa State squad.
West Region: No. 9 Missouri (16-9) vs. No. 8 Oklahoma (15-10)
Time: Saturday, March 20 at 7:25 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium
Spread: Oklahoma -1
Keys for Missouri
For Missouri to advance, their Big Three in Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson, and Jeremiah Tilmon, have to control the game. Smith, a first-team All-SEC selection, is the driving force of the offense. Tied for the lead in scoring average (14.1 ppg) with Pinson, Smith leads the team in assists (97) and steals (51). Tilmon is the big body in the paint altering shots and controlling the boards.
Missouri has to play with a different sense of urgency than demonstrated during the second half of the regular season. The team averaged 73.6 points per game while allowing 71.9 on the year. After an 88-82 road loss on Jan. 26 to Auburn, seemingly every victory and defeat was within five points — outside of taking down South Carolina 93-78. They don’t get to the line as often as Mizzou, but if the game comes down to a free throw contest, the Sooners are hitting 74.4 percent of their attempts to Missouri’s 69.8 percent.
Keys for Oklahoma
Oklahoma has four relied upon players, with the focus on leading scorer Austin Reaves. The senior guard led the Sooners in scoring (17.7 ppg), rebounds (131), and assists (108). After a hot start to the season, forward Brady Manek has had a resurgence, scoring double-digits in three of the last four games. The swing in the game for Oklahoma may come from guard Umoja Gibson. When OU was lighting up teams midseason, he was consistently filling up the scoring column. He is also the Sooners' top 3-point shooter.
Oklahoma's second-leading scorer, De'Vion Harmon (12.9 ppg), is out against Missouri after testing positive for COVID-19. Harmon's absence will impact more than just how the Sooners will try to create offense. He also leads the team in court time at nearly 32 minutes per game. Expect Alondes Williams (6.4 ppg), Jalen Hill (4.1), and Victor Iwuakor (3.0) to fill the void for Harmon.
Which team can adapt to the unfamiliar surroundings quickly gets the advantage. Just a reminder, Lucas Oil Stadium is home to the Indianapolis Colts... a cavernous space for long-range shooters. Playing away from Mizzou Arena, the Tigers are 8-5 while OU is 5-7 outside of Lloyd Nobel Center.
The loss of Harmon comes at the worst time of the season for Oklahoma.
Prediction: Missouri 76, Oklahoma 68
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.