SACRAMENTO, CA — After a full season of overachieving, Missouri gets another opportunity to prove itself, this time on the biggest stage in college basketball. The Tigers make their 29th appearance in the NCAA tournament in program history this week as a No. 7 seed in the South region, hoping to pick up their first win in the Big Dance since 2010.
They’ll be taking on No. 10 seed Utah State, a team that finished as the runner-up in the Moutain West Conference. The Aggies will likely be a sleeper upset pick in many March Madness bracket pools across the country. No. 7 seeds only beat No. 10 seeds roughly 60% of the time. Vegas oddsmakers favor Utah State by a slim margin. ESPN’s Jay Bilas predicted the Aggies to come out with a win. The team’s head coach, Ryan Odom, pulled off the biggest upset in the tournament’s history in 2018, leading the No. 16 UMBC Retrievers past No. 1 seed Virginia.
Utah State plays a similar style to Mizzou, pushing the ball ahead in transition and taking a high number of 3-pointers — both teams rank in the top 15 in the country in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating. The Aggies are just a tad more efficient.
“They have five guys out there that can dribble, pass and shoot,” Odom said. “Quite honestly, that’s what we love, too. This team doesn’t necessarily have that, our team. Last year’s team did. We had five guys at all times that our center could initiate offense and bring it up. They have that. Certainly, it makes it extremely challenging.”
The game holds a lot of significance to Dennis Gates. It’s his first tournament appearance as MU’s head coach. He has the chance to lead the Tigers to their 25th win for the first time since the 2011-12 season. He’s going up against a Utah State team he saw multiple times before while he was an assistant coach at Nevada from 2009-11. He’s taking part in a game just 77 miles from where he played college basketball at Cal-Berkeley. He invited his old coach, Ben Braun, to come out and watch Mizzou play.
Thursday’s game is what the team has been building toward all season long. Gates is looking forward to seeing his team give their best effort.
“Ultimately, man, I’m thankful to be here,” Gates said. “We have nothing but respect for our opponent. We will always do those things. May the best team win. They’ll have a scouting report, we’ll have a scouting report. It will be a great environment that both institutions are excited to represent their school, their conference, and also build memories for young people.”
TIP TIME INFORMATION
Missouri (24-9, 11-7 SEC) vs. Utah State (26-8, 13-5 MWC)
WHEN: 10:40 a.m.PT/12:40 p.m. CT
WHERE: Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, California
SERIES: Tied 1-1
LINE: Utah State -1.5
KENPOM PREDICTION: Utah State 82, Missouri 79
BY THE NUMBERS
BEST LINEUP OF THE LAST 5 OUTINGS (per CBB Analytics)
Sean East II-D’Moi Hodge-DeAndre Gholston-Noah Carter-Kobe Brown
Minutes played: 24
Offensive rating: 141.4
Defensive rating: 87.8
Net rating: +53.6
KEYS TO THE GAME
1. “Get back and make sure that we lock up on our guys and on the shooters and make sure that they don’t have open looks,” assistant coach Dickey Nutt said. Utah State is one of the top shooting teams in the country. The team ranks 60th in the nation according to KenPom with 42.1% of their field goal attempts coming from long range. Triples account for 35.1% of the Aggies’ points. They knock down 38.5% of their 3s, which ranks 11th in the NCAA. Four different players — Steven Ashworth, Max Shulga, Sean Bairstow and Taylor Funk — are shooting at least 36% from beyond the arc. And playing at the pace they play at, it can be hard to keep track of all four shooters. Denying USU good looks from outside has been important in nearly all of the team’s losses, as the Aggies have only connected on 30.5% of 3-pointers in their eight losses combined. It’ll likely be important again on Thursday.
2. Turn Utah State over. The Aggies don’t necessarily have the same type of athletes that SEC schools do. Instead, the team has to rely heavily on ball movement to get defenses in motion, with 62.3% of its field goals being assisted on, ranking 10th in the country. Despite the number of passes the team throws, USU doesn’t give the ball up at a high clip, turning it over on just 17.4% off possessions. Ashworth is a big reason why, the junior starting point guard posting a 2.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio this year. Turnover margin has been a big factor in Mizzou’s most important games of the year — the Tigers were plus-three in their win over Tennessee in the SEC quarterfinals and plus-13 in the semifinals against Alabama. To get the Aggies out of rhythm, Missouri will need to disrupt the natural flow of their offense.
3. Get to the paint. Utah State is one of the better teams in the nation at defending the rim, the Aggies only allowing opponents to shoot 45.9% on 2-pointers, ranking 36th in the NCAA. But Mizzou is one of the best interior scoring teams in the country, making 55.9%, ranking 13th. The Tigers struggled inside against Alabama, shooting just 37.2% against the Crimson Tide. But they also sank 64.5% of their 2s against Tenneseee, proving to be the difference in the eight-point win. USU boasts length similar to Alabama, with all three of its starters in the front court listed at 6-foot-8 or taller. But just one player, starting center Trevin Dorius, is listed at 240 pounds — 10 pounds lighter than Missouri leading scorer Kobe Brown and just five pounds heavier fellow senior forward Noah Carter. No one else on the Aggies’ roster comes within 10 pounds of either Brown or Carter, both of whom shoot 60% on 2-pointers. While the Tigers won’t necessarily have a height advantage, they should have a size advantage to leverage in the post.
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