Mizzou ended a 13-year-long drought on Thursday by winning its first-round NCAA Tournament game over Utah State. Now, the team has the chance to end another decade-plus-long streak for the program.
The No. 7 seed Tigers haven’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2009. They’re currently just one win away from reaching the second weekend of the Big Dance and relocating to Louisville, Ky.
No. 15 seed Princeton is the team that currently stands in their way. The Ivy League Tigers upset No. 2 seed Arizona on Thursday, 59-55, which counted as the most surprising win of the tournament until No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson beat No. 1 seed Purdue on Friday, 63-58.
The win over the Wildcats was Princeton’s first against any high-major school this season. Head coach Mitch Henderson, who was a member of the last Tigers team to earn an NCAA tournament win in 1998, said that there are a few programs they’ve played against this year who are stylistically similar to Missouri, such as Cornell, but none who had the same talent.
“We haven’t seen the size and the athleticism, the way that they guard,” Henderson said. “But, I mean, just like with Arizona, we had never seen two human beings that big on the court together. It will have to be the will to win again.”
Mizzou assistant coach Kyle Smithpeters was tasked with leading the scout on Princeton. He noted that both Tigers squads run similar sets — he told MU’s players they’ve been preparing for this game for four months. His main advice for the team was to avoid the same mistakes that the Wildcats made.
“I think the biggest thing that we need to keep concentrated on is ourselves and make sure that our mentality is we’re not overlooking this opponent,” Smithpeters said. “You have to respect them. I felt there were two or three times in the Arizona game that Arizona had the chance to put it away and they just kind of really took for granted the opportunity. And it allowed Princeton to hang around, hang around, and then crazy things happen in this game of basketball when you allow that to happen.”
Missouri head coach Dennis Gates pointed out after Thursday’s win that many people didn’t pick his Tigers to beat the Aggies. That likely won’t be the case again when they play a lower-seeded Princeton squad.
But many of Mizzou’s players said their mentality won’t change — they’re still a team that’s been doubted all season long with something still to prove.
“Some people out there think we’ll lose tomorrow,” senior point guard Nick Honor said on Friday. “I know we may be favored, but we’re always going to carry that chip on our shoulder because of all the work we put in. At the end of the day, it’s March Madness, so everyone, you know what I’m saying, in the tournament is deserving to be here. We’re just going to play our game and just do what we do.”
Missouri (25-9, 11-7 SEC) vs. Princeton (22-8, 10-4 Ivy League)
WHEN: 3:10 p.m. PT/5:10 p.m. CT
WHERE: Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, California
SERIES: Missouri leads, 2-0
LINE: Missouri -6.5
KENPOM PREDICTION: Missouri 80, Princeton 74
Nick Honor-Sean East II-D’Moi Hodge-Noah Carter-Kobe Brown
Minutes played: 30
Offensive rating: 153.5
Defensive rating: 111.1
Net rating: +42.4
1. Find the right matchup for Tosan Evbuomwan. The senior forward functions as Princeton’s de facto point guard, often bringing the ball up and leading the team with 4.8 assists per game — per KenPom, he assists on 32.0% of the Tigers’ baskets while he’s on the floor, which ranks 43rd in the nation. His ball-handling abilities could make him difficult to guard for Mizzou’s forwards, but at 6-foot-8, he could also be too tall for MU’s guards to hold off. He was the only Princeton player in double digits against Arizona on Thursday, scoring 15 points. Evbuomwan isn’t much of a shooter, connecting on just 26.9% of his 3-pointers on less than one attempt per game, so the primary focus for any defender would be to keep him from getting to the rim and to trust the rest of the team to cut off any passing lanes. The SEC Tigers will likely toggle through a few different players to find the right man to guard him. The sooner they feel comfortable with somebody, the better.
2. Run Princeton off the 3-point line. The Ivy League Tigers shoot slightly below average from outside, sinking 33.3% of their treys. However, it doesn’t dissuade Princeton from taking a high number of 3s each night. According to KenPom, 40.7% of the team’s field goal attempts come from beyond the arc, which ranks 89th in the country. Though just two players shoot above 34.0% from deep, six of them launch at least one triple per game. Mizzou’s proven it can keep a team from finding a rhythm along the perimeter, holding Utah State to 4-24 from 3 and holding Alabama to 8-27 in the game prior. Arizona held Princeton to 4-25 in their first-round matchup, it’ll take a similar effort from Missouri to come out on top.
3. Take the ball away from Princeton. MU did a solid job of winning the turnover margin against Utah State on Thursday, forcing the Aggies to cough the ball up 15 times to its 10. USU wasn’t a team that gave the ball up very often, either, turning it over on just 17.6% of possessions. Princeton is even better at taking care of the ball, giving it up on just 16.9% of possessions, which ranks 85th in the NCAA. The Ivy League Tigers had 11 turnovers to Arizona’s 13 on Friday, which helped the team slow the Wildcats down, resulting in the low-scoring contest. Princeton is also one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the nation, grabbing 22.7% of available misses, meaning Mizzou won’t have many other opportunities to earn extra possessions without generating turnovers. The SEC Tigers can’t afford to fall into the same trap as Arizona.
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