Thursday, March 29, 2007

1993-94 Redux: Missouri 76, Navy 53

March 17, 1994

OGDEN, Utah -- Office pool junkies across the country have been torturing themselves all week, hesitating to scribble in that final segment of their NCAA Tournament brackets.

You guessed it: the West Regional, the Missouri Tigers, the legacy of NCAA flops, the undefeated Big Eight season and No. 1 seed. What to do?

Most pool players, oddsmakers, casual observers and every Tiger fan will come down on the side of support for the Tigers to advance through the first two rounds. After all, they're the West's top seed, right?

Quite simply, Missouri and coach Norm Stewart must deliver. But not to impress outsiders. This program must reach at least the Sweet 16 -- c'mon, let's be honest, really the Elite Eight -- to avoid being indelibly stained as the consummate postseason choke specialist.

Never before has an NCAA Tournament loomed so big for Stewart and the Tigers. For two reasons: They've expended all of their get out of jail free cards in the game of Perception Monopoly, and they've spent the season swaying skeptics that they are for real.

Somewhere between Baltic Ave.(today's first-round game against Navy) and Boardwalk (the Final Four) lies MU's perception for years to come.

Despite an enduring and successful career with eight regular-season Big Eight championships, Stewart has a skimpy NCAA Tournament resume. And he is regarded that way nationally. He's 8-13 in the dance and has advanced past the first two rounds in just three of 12 tournaments (Rich Daly led the team to the 1989 Midwest Regional when Stewart was battling cancer). No Final Fours.

Now Stewart has a No. 1 seed. He said last week his team deserved a top spot.

Part of talking the game is walking it, lest your words be considered negligible in the future.

Nobody will remember this team as great just because it had a No. 1 seed. The difference between being a No. 1 that meets expectations and a No. 1 that underachieves is akin to serving beverages in Waterford crystal or Dixie cups at a formal dinner. The real thing or a cheap alternative. Prime-timers or pretenders.

After toiling in relative anonymity much of the season, the Tigers finally convinced voters in the national polls that MU was worthy of top 10 status. They topped out at third and enter the tournament ranked fifth. They did so by going undefeated in the Big Eight regular season, swaying many with a second-half comeback victory at Kansas.

Still, a faction of non-believers exists, and the line starts with ESPN's Dick Vitale. Part of the reason might be that MU has no glamour boys, no Glenn Robinson or Grant Hill, and appears bland. Missouri also finished weakly, escaping Nebraska and Colorado on disputed officiating, then falling to the Cornhuskers in the Big Eight Tournament.

Of course, every team experiences emotional lulls during a season. It's just a question of when. That's why teams on rolls are good bets in those office pools. Because the Tigers finished softly doesn't mean they can't surge again in the tournament.

Probably the biggest reason that the Dickie V's of the world doubt the Tigers is that MU came out of nowhere, which means most of the East Coast media would appear stupid for not predicting it (MU appeared in nobody's preseason Top 25). So some, like Vitale, cling to their narrow, aristocratic view of college basketball and delude themselves into thinking the Tigers are negligible, even though they were the only team in a major conference to go unscathed.

I'm told Vitale predicted on Sunday night that Missouri would lose in the second round.

I'm not willing to go that far, but they couldn't have drawn many worse potential second-round opponents than eighth-seeded Cincinnati. Bob Huggins, who's coached in the Final Four, has his young team chewing up opponents.

The Tigers will thump Navy tonight, and they should beat Cincinnati or Wisconsin. But I think I'll fill out two brackets just in case.
March 18, 1994

OGDEN, Utah -- Perhaps the Army surplus-sized roll of toilet paper sitting on the floor behind Missouri's bench was a bad omen.

And was that the Missouri Waltz or a dirge playing for the Tigers when they were still tied with Navy almost eight minutes into the second half? Audio replays confirmed it was the waltz, and actually the Tigers weren't even close to dead. Maybe suffering from a 24-hour coma, but not dead, not another first-round flameout. Even with the week's distractions and sloppy play, MU could not steal defeat from the jaws of victory last night.

As much as the Navy band would liked to have struck up a round of Anchors Away for MU, this theater of the bizarre that passed for a first-round NCAA Tournament game never emitted the feel of a pending epic stunner.

Welcome to the benefits of being a No. 1 seed.

Missouri cashed in on its season-long investment -- going 25-3 overall and 14-0 in the Big Eight to fetch the West Region's top seed -- by winning 76-53 in an underwhelming NCAA debut.

“I thought Navy did an excellent job in the first part of the ballgame,” Missouri coach Norm Stewart said. “There's some benefit obviously to having the high seed, but when you come into the tournament everybody in here has got capabilities.”


Nobody's deriding Navy. But it's clear that Missouri's capabilities are imminently greater than the Midshipmen's. So forgive us if we appeared somewhat bemused when the nation's fifth-ranked team was playing just plain rank against a team that competes in a non-scholarship conference.

As the No. 16 seed, Navy offered what one might expect -- a feisty, but overmatched team that could not stand up to the top seed's experience and superior athletes.

This was not the brand of Navy basketball that turned out David Robinson.

“I thought our players fought as hard as they could as long as they could,” Navy coach Don DeVoe said. “It's a difficult set of circumstances being the No. 16 seed playing the No. 1 seed.”

Missouri created its own set of problems but not more than it could overcome. And, oh, was there plenty to overcome.

The offense moved with the speed and agility of a dirigible as MU shot 36 percent in the first half. Melvin Booker misplaced the magic touch that made him the Big Eight Player of the Year before finishing in a flourish.

The scorekeeper and clock operator set some kind of unofficial record for single-game bungles, disrupting the game's flow even more than Missouri already had. The human errors and mechanical malfunctions also gave the game a similar feel to MU's first-round victory over West Virginia two years ago when the lights went out three times at Greensboro Coliseum.

And the Tuesday arrest of junior guard Paul O'Liney, who was subsequently suspended, not only created an unwanted distraction, it limited MU's bench. After it was apparent Booker and Mark Atkins were cold, Stewart did not have the luxury of calling on O'Liney, the third member of his three-point trio.

Still, despite all that, despite trailing much of the first half and leading by just three at halftime, the Tigers remained loose. Reggie Smith grinned after missing a three-point attempt, and starter Jevon Crudup tried to help Smith stay calm, shouting, “Reggie, breathe!”

He did. Smith and that three-point surgeon Marlo Finner joined three other reserves in breathing new life into the Tigers. They played so well at the end of the first half that one wondered whether Stewart had considered starting them in the second half.

Stewart drew a smile when asked.

“No, not really,” he said. “You're going to give” the starters “another chance to make a run and see if they can't pull it together.”

Not too many other teams in this tournament would have allowed Missouri another chance, not the way the Tigers were playing. But this wasn't any other team, it was the 16th seed. And it was good to be the No. 1 seed.
March 18, 1994

OGDEN, Utah -- Norm Stewart called out the reserves. They turned the tide against Navy.

The Tigers were once again foundering on their high seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Missouri trailed Navy 20-19 with 5:50 left when Stewart put in a whole new crew. Out came Jevon Crudup, Kelly Thames, Lamont Frazier, Julian Winfield and Jason Sutherland. Melvin Booker was already on the bench.

In went Jed Frost, Reggie Smith, Chris Heller, Chip Walther and Marlo Finner.

The quintet, which was averaging an aggregate 31.2 minutes per game, salvaged the first half for Missouri, which went on to win 76-53. The Tigers (26-3) advance to meet ninth-seeded Wisconsin, which beat eighth seed Cincinnati 80-72 in last night's late game at Dee Events Center.

“I was hoping we could blow them out and get in there at the end, which ended up happening, but I didn't realize that we'd get a chance to get in there a little earlier and play a few minutes, which was a lot of fun,” Walther said.

It was not a lot of fun for Missouri when Stewart made the move.

“He had said a couple of days ago that the guys who came into the game deserved to play and that it wasn't anything against us,” Frazier said. “So they went in the game. It was kind of like role reversal. We were going to give them support just like they give us.”

Missouri, the West Region's No. 1 seed, tied the game at 22 on two free throws by Smith, then took a 25-22 lead on a three-pointer by Finner, back in action after being left in Columbia for the Big Eight Tournament because of missing class. Missouri never trailed again.

Finner's three-point basket was his first since the halftime closer against Illinois. “Today it happened,” Finner said. “Thank God the shots were falling.”

Stewart was willing to go a long way with the subs, although he might not have had Finner's 20-footers in mind. Finner took three, making the first two.

“All I wanted them to do is play,” Stewart said. “Those things have a peculiar way of taking care of themselves. I did get a little touchy when he shot the third one.

“I thought that group that came in in the first half was really the difference in the ballgame.”

The starters regrouped sufficiently that the box score gives no indication that the game wasn't the blowout Walther hoped for.

Crudup led all scorers with 19 points, 11 at the free throw line. Thames and Booker had 17 each. Thames had a game-high 13 rebounds, one more than Crudup.

Sutherland initiated the transfusion from the bench in the first half.

“Jason continued to play, and I thought really was the most determined player on the floor tonight,” Stewart said.

The backups have been getting the best of the starters in the last few days of practice.

“The five that he put in have been playing real well together,” Heller said. “He knew we could do something. He knew we wouldn't just go out there and fold.”

The move was made suddenly. “He just came down there and said, `You five want to go?' And we all got up and checked in,” Heller said.

Thames, Booker and Crudup checked back in during the final minute of the first half with the halftime score of 29-26 already on the board.

Missouri opened the second half in much more stirring fashion and the original lineup back on the floor.

Thames opened the scoring by slamming a lob pass from Frazier. Navy (17-13) tied the game at 33 on Jim Hamilton's three-pointer. The Midshipmen made seven of 33 long-range shots. Another from Hamilton brought Navy within 37-36 almost 10 minutes into the second half. From that point, Missouri pulled away, and took its largest lead at 66-49.

“Our kids played real hard for real long,” Navy coach Don DeVoe said. “I thought we hung in there really well for 30 minutes of the ballgame.”

Having taken out Navy with the subs' help, Missouri plays Wisconsin tomorrow, sometime around 6 p.m. Missouri time. If they can get by the Badgers, the Tigers would set their course for the port of Los Angeles, site of the West Region semifinals and finals. Missouri has not advanced to the round of 16 since 1989.