SEC Missouri Arkansas Basketball

Missouri's Jeremiah Tilmon (23) is defended by Arkansas forward Ethan Henderson, center, and Moses Moody, right, in the first half of a game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Friday in Nashville, Tenn.

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After three seasons, Missouri men’s basketball returns to the big dance.

The Tigers will be the No. 9 seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, and they will face No. 8 seed Oklahoma, a former Big 12 foe, at 6:25 p.m. Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

This is Missouri’s 28th NCAA Tournament appearance and second under coach Cuonzo Martin. In the 2017-18 season, the Tigers lost to Florida State in the first round. Center Jeremiah Tilmon was a part of that team.

“Being there for the first time, as a freshman, was a good experience,” Tilmon said.

Missouri started out the season 13-3 but struggled to close out the regular season. The Tigers lost five of their last seven regular-season games en route to a record of 16-9 overall and 8-8 in the Southeastern Conference. 

“I just think tournament time's a fresh start for your team,” Martin said. “I think, for us, the more we’re able to practice the better we are as a team.”

Similarly, the Sooners (15-10, 9-8 Big 12) struggled in their final regular-season games, losing their last four. This is Oklahoma’s first tournament appearance since the 2018-19 season, when it lost to No. 1 seed and eventual national champion Virginia.

The Sooners hold a 114-97 edge in the all-time series with Missouri. The last time the two teams faced off was last season, when Oklahoma defeated Missouri 77-66 on Nov. 26, 2019, in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City. Mark Smith led Missouri with 18 points.

Martin says he will watch that game, among others, in preparation for Saturday’s matchup.

“There’s certain tendencies coaches and teams have,” Martin said. “We’d always look at that. I mean, why not? (We’ve) got plenty of time to do that.”

Among the Sooners’ returning players from that game, guard Austin Reaves had a game-high 19 points and 10 rebounds. Reaves is averaging 17.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists this season.

“They was a good, scrappy team,” Tilmon said. “I remember they had some good shooters on they team. They got a nice point guard (Reaves)."

The two schools had three of the same opponents this season (Oral Roberts, TCU and Alabama), with each defeating the trio.

The winner of the matchup will face either No. 1 seed Gonzaga or the winner between No. 16 seeds Norfolk State and Appalachian State. Gonzaga is 26-0 this season and the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. Norfolk State’s only NCAA Tournament win came in 2012 against Missouri.

Among other SEC schools, No. 2 seed Alabama is the highest-ranked SEC team. It will face No. 15 Iona. The rest of the SEC squads:

  • No. 3 Arkansas faces No. 14 Colgate.
  • No. 5 Tennessee plays No. 12 Oregon State.
  • No. 7 Florida faces No. 10 Virginia Tech.
  • No. 8 LSU faces No. 9 St. Bonaventure.

Martin believes the SEC is undervalued and underseeded as a conference, noting the play of LSU, Alabama and Florida.

“It’s such a high-powered league, and football is so big and so successful," Martin said. "Then, I think what happens when Kentucky is not in (the tournament), then you assume the league is down, but it’s a great league.”

Because of COVID-19 concerns, a team’s traveling party is required to have seven consecutive days of negative tests in order to play in the tournament. All teams will be housed on dedicated hotel floors, with physically distanced meeting and dining rooms, as well as secure transportation to and from competition venues.

“I’m not looking forward to that at all, but I got to do what I got to do to stay safe,” Tilmon said. “I don’t think none of us looking forward to that.”

Regardless, Martin’s team is back in the tournament with plenty of new faces, and he hopes to relish it.

“You've got to enjoy the moments,” Martin said. “Oftentimes, you go so hard, you stress out so much you never get a chance to enjoy it.

"I’d be a fool to tell those guys not to enjoy it.”

This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.

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