Participating in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever, the Norfolk State Spartans have their hands full right away as they tangle with the Missouri Tigers in the second round of the 74th annual event this afternoon at CenturyLink Center Omaha.
The Spartans, the 15th seed in the West Region, are riding a seven-game win streak at the moment and have logged a 25-9 record overall, the first time the program has reached 25 victories in a single season at the Division I level. Norfolk State took care of business in the MEAC Tournament last week with victories over Howard and Florida A&M, which led the team to a showdown in the title game against Bethune-Cookman. Needless to say, the Spartans won that battle by a score of 73-70, gaining entrance into this tournament as a result.
Meanwhile, second-seeded Missouri has been a top-flight team all season long and are ranked third in the latest AP Poll heading into action this afternoon. The Tigers, making their 25th appearance in the tourney and showing a record of 22-24 in the event over the years, delivered a 30-4 record overall this season and were a perfect in games played outside of the Big 12 Conference.
The team Tigers did drop four games to league foes, but when it came to conference tournament time the squad ramped up with winning margins of at least 14 points against Oklahoma State, Texas and Baylor, the latter being a 90-75 final in the title game last weekend.
The winner of this first-ever meeting advances to the third round of the tourney on Sunday to clash with the survivor of the Virginia/Florida contest. Going against the Spartans is the fact that teams seeded 15th in the tourney have a record of just 4-104 over the years, and the last underdog to score a miraculous win was Hampton over Iowa State (58-57) in 2011.
The Spartans have had an incredible season thus far and the bulk of the credit has to go to Kyle O'Quinn who became the first player in conference history to win both the MEAC Player of the Year and the Defensive Player of the Year in the same campaign. O'Quinn was responsible for a team-best 15.9 ppg and lead the league on the glass with 10.4 rpg, not to mention posting 2.8 blocked shots per game as well. O'Quinn is the second player in Norfolk State history to be named to the All-MEAC first or second teams three times in his career. While O'Quinn patrols the paint and takes care of the action coming off the glass, Chris McEachin (12.8 ppg) tries his best to give the Spartans a presence behind the three-point line where he has made good on 71 attempts, although his accuracy is just at 34.1 percent. Pendarvis Williams (11.8 ppg, 82 assists) is another one who likes to try his hand from long distance, converting 37.1 percent of his attempts.
Head coach Frank Haith has made a head impression in his first year at Mizzou and hopefully he can guide the Tigers beyond last year's efforts in the tournament when they fell in their first and only game to Cincinnati, 78-63. The team needs just one more victory to match the school's single-season record which was set just three years ago and most remarkable about that is the fact that Missouri has started the same five players in all 34 games thus far. Despite scoring a mere two points against Texas recently, missing all 10 of his field goal chances, Marcus Denmon is still the top scorer overall for the Tigers with his 17.6 ppg, increasing his scoring output each season. A career 40.2 percent three-point shooter, Denmon has a career-best 95 triples this season, followed by Kim English (14.9 ppg) who has connected on 78-of-165 (.473) on the outside. Ricardo Ratliffe (13.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg) handles the action in the paint while Michael Dixon (13.3 ppg) and Phil Pressey (10.0 ppg) are the ones who set up Denmon and English with their combined 326 assists.