Norfolk State will have quite the introduction. The No. 15 seed Spartans make their first NCAA tournament appearance against No. 2 seed Missouri, the Big 12 tournament champions led by surprising first-year coach Frank Haith.
The Tigers will try to continue momentum from their success in Kansas City as they face a squad that has won seven consecutive games. Many around the program consider this to be Missouri's best chance to reach a Final Four for the first time, and a versatile backcourt led by guards Marcus Denmon (17.6 point per game) and Kim English (14.9) figures to carry the Tigers far.
"I would say this is a senior-laden team, and they have been focused all year," Haith said. "They stayed in the process, and with that said, I feel good about us being focused. We have had opportunities to lose that focus throughout the year, but this team has been determined and resilient throughout the year."
Any chance Norfolk State has of ending Missouri's season will come from the play of star center Kyle O'Quinn, who averages 15.9 points per game. In addition to his scoring ability, he is the only Spartans player who averages double-figure rebounding with 10.4 per game.
"Everyone is excited about being here," Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans said. "The team has worked hard for five years. The staff has put in a lot of work."
Key Player for Norfolk State: Kyle O'Quinn
O'Quinn, the MEAC's player of the year and defensive player of the year, has been a model of consistency throughout his college career. He has averaged double-figure scoring in three of his four seasons.
Key Player for Missouri: Marcus Denmon
Denmon's career-best scoring average has paced the Tigers during their memorable run. He is not afraid to take and make pressure shots late.
Key Matchup: Ricardo Ratliffe (Missouri) vs. Kyle O'Quinn (Norfolk State)
Ricardo Ratliffe is Missouri's strongest threat in the paint area, averaging 13.9 points and a team-high 7.5 rebounds per game. Norfolk State's hopes of pulling the upset rest in O'Quinn using his 6-foot-10 frame to create space against Ratliffe. O'Quinn has scored at least 12 points in each of his last six games.
Prediction: Missouri 80, Norfolk State 62
Missouri might experience a slow start as Haith's team works through early NCAA tournament nerves. But in the end, the Tigers are too good to suffer what would be one of the most surprising postseason upsets in recent memory. Expect both Denmon and Ratliffe to have productive games.