Two to Tango: Mizzou and SLU are set to arrive at the Big Dance in style for the first time since the mid-'90s

Mar 8, 2012 at 4:00 am
Above: Billikens Brian Conklin and Cody Ellis celebrate during SLU’s game against Xavier at Chaifetz Arena.
Above: Billikens Brian Conklin and Cody Ellis celebrate during SLU’s game against Xavier at Chaifetz Arena. Danny Reise/Cal Sport Media/Newscom

Hi there, sports fans! It's conference tournament season in college hoops, and we all know what that means: Starting on Sunday evening, millions of people who don't know the least bit about college basketball will be filling out NCAA tournament brackets and (only slightly fewer) millions more who do know the least bit about college basketball will be filling out those same brackets and preparing to waste entire workdays checking scores and/or sneaking out of the office to the nearest bar with a TV.

For most teams the conference tournaments that precede March Madness and its palate-cleansing precursor, Selection Sunday, are mere formalities, as top-ranked programs have already guaranteed themselves a spot in the top 64 65 68 and doormat programs never had a prayer of copping a postseason lottery ticket. But for a team whose season performance puts it in the vast limbo territory between those extremes, a strong showing in its conference's championship tourney can make all the difference in the world.

The Missouri Valley Conference completed its tournament this past weekend, with 24th-ranked Creighton lifting the trophy on Sunday at the Scottrade Center right here in St. Louis. The victory meant little to the Bluejays, who were already comfortably on their way to the NCAA tournament, but it did ensure there'd be no party crasher from the MVC; Creighton's opponent in the final was Illinois State, which had shocked the Wichita State Shockers, who'd finished the regular season at the top of the conference and ranked 14th nationwide. Wichita State will undoubtedly receive an invite to the big dance, but for Illinois State it was a sad bus ride back to campus in Normal.

Meantime, St. Louisans can look forward to the most Madness this town has seen since 2005, when the final two rounds of the NCAA championship were contested here. This year the Edward Jones Dome will host the finals in the Midwest regional bracket (March 23-25). Even better, a certain pair of Missouri schools are playing very good basketball these days — and it's about damned time.

The Road to Relevance

Right here in River City, the Billikens of Saint Louis University have finally shown signs of playing like a Rick Majerus-coached team, rolling up a 24-6 regular-season record (a historic high for wins). A late-season loss to lowly Rhode Island scuffed SLU's tournament-time shine a bit but won't keep the ball club out of the championship hunt; the team heads into the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament as the No. 2 seed. Sure beats making headlines for date-rape allegations.

The Billikens are a young team, but they're led by talented senior forward Brian Conklin, who's averaging a team-high 13.9 points per game and was named to the A-10's First Team All-Conference squad this year. Kwamain Mitchell, a redshirt junior guard who has had an up-and-down college career, has been up far more than down this season, averaging 12.1 points per game with a team-leading 41 steals.

SLU's best assets, though, are its underclassmen. Sophomore forward Dwayne Evans has seven double-doubles on the season, and fellow forward and second-year man Rob Loe, an import from New Zealand, has emerged as one of the more intriguing talents in the nation. Jordair Jett, a sophomore guard, may well be the heart and soul of the team, coming off the bench with enough energy and tenacity to have been named to the A-10's all-defensive team. This may not be the most talented bunch Rick Majerus has ever put on the floor, but it's the most talented and consistent SLU team in at least a decade, and one with the potential to make some noise at the big dance.

The Road to Redemption

About 100 miles west of St. Louis, the Tigers of the University of Missouri have managed to put together what might be a season for the ages. (No offense, SLU, but beneath Mizzou, the marquee barely has room for you.)

The Tigers' 2011 started inauspiciously, when Mike Anderson, architect of the team's resurgence following the '06 ouster of Quin Snyder, left in March for the greener pastures of his alma mater, the University of Arkansas. There ensued a futile stalking of Purdue head coach Matt Painter — and stalking is the only word for it; picture full desperate-housewife mode, from the fake tan to the über-eyeshadow to the skimpiest polyester Frederick's of Hollywood has to offer. When Painter re-upped with the Boilermakers, Mizzou was left with no choice but to try to seduce the pool boy. Metaphorically, anyway: In this case the pool boy was Frank Haith, coach of the University of Miami Hurricanes. The move was not well received.

Virtually everyone hated the hire. Haith was known as a talented recruiter, but his track record at the U was less than inspiring, and his abilities as a strategist had been questioned for years. Things only got worse when Haith's name surfaced in connection with a Miami recruiting scandal that featured allegations that a Hurricanes booster had sweetened the school's recruiting pot with prostitutes and payoffs.

Just when it seemed things couldn't possibly get any worse, things got worse.

Power forward Laurence Bowers, the Tigers' best player in '10, tore up his knee and was lost for the year before the season even began.

And then the Tigers went out and, like the Billikens, set a new high for regular-season wins, finishing at 27-4. As Selection Sunday looms, Mizzou appears to be a lock for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

As brilliantly as the Tigers have played, they do have their share of weak spots, starting with the state of Kansas. They're 1-3 overall against teams from the Sunflower State; 27-1 against everyone else. More pointedly, though, as a team Mizzou is small in stature, which places them at a disadvantage when facing less-height-challenged squads that can dominate the low post, or physical teams capable of forcing them into taking low-percentage shots. With a two-low tandem of Bowers and Ricardo Ratliffe, the Tigers might have been virtually unstoppable; the four-guard approach they've adopted this season has yielded brilliant results, but there are certain things four smalls simply can't accomplish.

The Road to Selection Sunday

This weekend's A-10 tournament will provide the Billikens with a solid warm-up for the big dance — and a chance to draw some national eyeballs to a program that in recent years has had precious little with which to attract said eyeballs. They'll savor their first-round bye, then play their best and hope for a showdown with top-seeded Temple. Regardless of what transpires, though, SLU's pretty much guaranteed a low seed come Sunday.

On the other hand, the Tigers still have a lot on the line. The outcome of the Big 12 tourney will undoubtedly influence their fate, as will the results of several other conference tourneys around the country.

Three of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament — Kentucky, Syracuse and North Carolina — are all but decided. The final spot remains a source of intrigue and may well not be firmed up until late on Sunday. Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan are tied at the top of the Big 10. Farther to the east in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Duke ceded the title to UNC in their final regular-season game, but the conference tournament represents a second chance — a slim one to be sure, but gamblers have lost fortunes betting against a team coached by Mike Krzyzewski.

Missouri, seeded second in the Big 12 tournament, might sneak in if the Tigers can outlast their long-time nemeses, the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks. The Big 12 is widely viewed as the nation's strongest basketball conference this season, and a conference tourney championship on their résumé would be hard to ignore.