The two teams will finally face off at full strength to determine a season series winner.
Winning ugly is no fun; anyone can admit that. But it never matters less than in the postseason.
Missouri wasn’t exactly convincing in its second round SEC Tournament victory over Georgia, especially as it let the Bulldogs erase yet another double-digit deficit in the closing minutes. Missouri fans have become all too familiar with the inability to relax until the final horn sounds.
But the time for hand-wringing over the final margin has come and gone. After 40 minutes, Missouri had more points, so it gets to move on. The Tigers will get the chance to do it all again on Friday, with a shot at re-establishing their place in the SEC hierarchy.
Over the past several weeks, Arkansas has raced into the position Missouri once found itself in — the second seed in the SEC behind Alabama. Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks are maybe the hottest team in the country, having not lost an SEC game since Jan. 16. They’ve rocketed into position for a high NCAA seed and no doubt have their sights set on an SEC Tournament title.
Knocking off Arkansas — and winning the season series 2-1 — would do more than just advance the Tigers to their first SEC Tournament semifinals appearance. It would signal that Missouri, despite its evident flaws, are a team that can compete with the best of the best when it matters most. One of everyone’s new favorite stats about Cuonzo Martin’s team is its record against likely tournament teams (8-3), and that stat would gain further credence with a neutral court win over a scalding Arkansas. Not only that, it would pretty much seal Missouri away from the dreaded 8/9 game where some bracketologists still have them pegged.
And in the end, does it really matter how Missouri gets the win? We’ve spent much of the past two months twiddling our Twitter fingers and stating our concerns over Missouri’s trajectory. But in March, trajectory no longer matters outside of each 40 minute stretch.
Survive and advance is the name of the game now. Missouri has done it once. If it can do it again, who really cares how it looks?
Note: These starting lineups are projected.
A full scout of Arkansas can be found in our preview from the first match up back in early January.
When Missouri has the ball…
What to Watch | Justin Smith vs. Jeremiah Tilmon
To be fair, this match up probably isn’t as 1v1 as the headline makes it appear — how often Smith and Tilmon are matched up on each other has yet to be seen. But in each of the two previous meetings, the two bigs have won KenPom’s nightly MVPs in their teams’ respective wins. When Smith was hobbled, Tilmon blasted Arkansas to the tune of 25 points and 11 rebounds, including 10 free throw attempts. When Tilmon was on leave, Smith turned around and dropped 19 on Missouri on 6-10 shooting from the field with 7 free throw attempts. So while the match up isn’t as simple as, “which player is better,” Friday night should determine which player has the bigger impact on their teams’ success.
When Arkansas has the ball…
What to Watch | Can Missouri force Arkansas to settle?
Obviously, the aforementioned absences of Smith and Tilmon had an impact on the Razorbacks’ offensive strategy in both of the previous games. But if there was one standout difference, it was from beyond the arc. In the January match up, Arky shot 7-28 from deep, but shifted to 8-21 in the February game. In the latter, the Razorbacks spread the wealth a little bit more, with six players making at least one deep jumper. The Razorbacks don’t shoot a ton of threes, and it’s not one of their offensive strengths. If the interior defense can remain strong, the Tigers could force Arkansas out wide, where they’re more likely to falter than in the paint.
Arkansas 77, Missouri 72 | Look, we’ve made a point to note how weird KenPom predictions can be this season. A streaking Razorback club should clearly have the advantage over a Missouri team that hasn’t looked its most confident in almost two months. But who’s to say how this match up really shakes out at the end of the day? Missouri walked into Fayetteville and won, and the Razorbacks stole a close one in Columbia — and in both cases, the losing side was missing arguably their most important player. The metrics favor Musselman’s team, which hasn’t lost since January — but Missouri has proven it can hang with the better teams on its schedule. It should be quite the rubber match.