The Arizona Wildcats will welcome the Missouri Tigers into McKale Center on Sunday night. We finally have the matchup to prove once and for all that the Pac-12 is stronger than the SEC.
Ok, maybe that's a bridge too far.
What we do have is a repeat of last year's Maui Invitational quarterfinal, when Arizona defeated the Tigers 72-53. We wanted to get an inside look at this year's Missouri team, so we went straight to the source. Sam Snelling of SB Nation's own Rock M Nation was kind enough to dish out the goods on the Tigers. Thanks Sam! Here's what Arizona fans need to know before Sunday's game.
AZDS: These two teams met last year in the Maui Invitational, and the outcome wasn't exactly what the Tigers were hoping for. I'm willing to bet most Missouri fans would be more than happy to scratch not only that game, but most of the 2014 - 2015 season from the annals. What are the expectations surrounding the Tigers' basketball program in 2015 - 2016? Is it a bounce-back kind of year?
Sam: Last year was a rock bottom kind of situation for Missouri. Even in the program's worst years they were still a .500 type of program. And that was in the depth of the end of the Quin Snyder era, and the Mike Anderson rebuild. But prior to last season, Mizzou had been to the NCAA tournament in 5 of 6 seasons and the NIT in the 6th. So last year was bad by a LOT. They only won 9 games overall and just 3 in conference. I don't think many fans were quite aware of the depth of problems that existed on the roster as Frank Haith just continued to patch things enough to be competitive. That luck ran out under Kim Anderson as he switched to a long term view of the program that emphasized player development and attempted to stabilize the roster fluctuation. I don't know that I would call this year a bounce-back year, but it's certain a "let's see progress" kind of situation, and I think most fans would have to admit there has been progress. Despite playing an even younger roster than last year, the team seems to play better and harder, and I think they have a solid foundation to grow upon in the next few years. I'd expect them to try to get to 15 wins this year, then around 20 next year, before starting to contend for NCAA tournaments again.
AZDS: Arizona has made a living underneath the basket and slashing in the paint thus far in the season. How will the Tigers go about countering this type of offensive attack?
Sam: What makes this a bad matchup is that Missouri is not a very good rebounding team, nor have they been particularly good at stopping penetration without fouling. The new rules in place this year have made it even more difficult for a young and inexperienced group at guard to defend on the perimeter. They've attempted a few different defenses this year to combat these problems and have found success in different ways. Their half court trap has been pretty good, but what I think they're going to do more against Arizona would be to try to clog those lanes with a more pack-line defense.
AZDS: I know we're a sports blog, but I'd be remiss not to ask about the state of the Missouri campus after the resignation of President Wolfe and Chancellor Loftin following the student protests. How has the environment on campus adjusted in the wake of those issues? Is there a sense of resolution, or is there still a feeling that more needs to be accomplished?
Sam: Depending on who you ask, ha. There are these sorts of problems across college campuses all over the country, Mizzou just seems to do a good job of being the first to really experience them in the public eye a lot of times. They were the first major school to have a gay athlete come out as well. Mizzou was featured in a campus rape scandal with a former swimmer who ended up committing suicide. It's always fun when it comes to Mizzou and the news cycle.
With that said, the situation has improved since the resignation of President Wolfe. The interim president has done a good job of navigating the rough waters of the racial tensions, and I'm sure it helped in the eyes of the protesters that he is an African-American, and a long time University Dean at the Law School. And it's not so much that Wolfe was the problem, even the protesters have acknowledged that they understand he wasn't the reason it was this way, but he failed a lot in the early goings of the protests, and really handled a lot of things poorly before they started demanding he resign. It's an interesting thing to follow because the news has obviously quieted down with the football team resuming playing, but I think it likely marked a first step in student athletes, particularly in football and basketball, realizing how much power they really wield in this whole NCAA setup. So I think we're a long way away from "fixing" the problems, but steps towards progress are always positives, and that's where things are headed at present.
AZDS: Is Blaine Gabbert elite?
Sam: ** puts on interenet commenter hat **
HELL YAH GABBERT IS ELITE HE IS FROM MIZZOU #MIZZOUMADE
** removes internet commenter hat**
I largely think the NFL sucks. Disclosure, I've been subject to Rams football for nigh on 20 years now. I hope that explains it.
(Editor's note: AZ Desert Swarm sends its sincerest condolences to Sam regarding his Ram fandom.)
AZDS: Give us your predictions for how this one turns out. Is Arizona on upset alert?
Sam: Arizona isn't on upset alert. Missouri is a better team than last year, and I still think by year's end they'll be 30-40 spots higher on KenPom's rankings (they're currently 171), but they'd have to be around 100 spots higher if I thought Arizona should be on upset alert. Right now Arizona has some youth, but they're extremely talented. They have experience, and they're a legitimate top 20 team. The odds say there's about a 6% chance of an upset, and that's probably accurate at this point. You could maybe push it to 10%, but far too many things would have to go right for Mizzou to play with the Wildcats for 40 minutes. I think they hang tough for around 20-25 minutes, keeping the lead under 10, but the size and experience of the Wildcats is too tough, and I'd pick Mizzou to lose by around 20. If ‘Zona is shooting the ball remotely well from deep, it could get ugly in a hurry. KenPom has a 77-61 projection, and frankly I'd be pretty happy with that. I think it ends up more 76-56.
Thanks again to Sam for his time and insight. Be sure to visit Rock M Nation for full coverage of all things Missouri Tigers, and follow Sam on Twitter.