Led by the outstanding first-year coach Dennis Gates, Missouri rolls into the NCAA Tournament with an opportunity to continue a season of revival.

If momentum is really a thing, Missouri vaults into the tournament with a fine list of accomplishments for a program that’s been mired in failure or irrelevancy for way too long.

This season the Tigers have 24 wins, the most since racking 30 victories in 2011-2012. Their 11 SEC wins were the most since 2012-2013. They were a No. 4 seed in this year’s SEC Tournament and reached the semifinals for the first time ever.

The push ended there, with Mizzou getting eliminated by a superior Alabama team that was installed as the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Missouri’s defeat did nothing to discredit the gains made by a MU program that went 45-105 (.420) in its eight previous seasons.

Playing in the South Region of the bracket, the No. 7 seed Tigers enter the dance hall with an immediate challenge: get a win over No. 10 seed Utah State to advance to the second round. There’s more to it than that, because Missouri hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2010. The program comes into the competition with six consecutive NCAA Tournament losses, including opening-round knockouts in their last five appearances.

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 7 seeds have won 60.5 percent of the time when matched against a 10-seed. But Utah State is a tricky opponent, and many analysts and pundits are taking the Aggies over the Tigers. As of Wednesday morning, most betting markets listed Utah State as a 1-point favorite.

Utah State looks like a classic example of an underseed. If you go to college basketball sites that are well versed in the metrics, Missouri is considered the lesser team. And it really isn’t close. Don’t holler at me; I’m just relaying the information.

Here are several notable national rankings:

Ken Pomeroy, aka KenPom: Utah State 18th, Mizzou 51st.

BartTorvik.com: Utah State No. 25, Mizzou 56th.

Net Ratings: Utah State No. 18, Mizzou 42nd.

BPI from the ESPN Power Index: Utah State No, 41, MU 62nd.

KenPom’s model gives Utah State a 62 percent win probability in Thursday’s matchup against Missouri. The projected final score: Aggies 83, Tigers 79.

I was surprised to see the strength of schedule ratings for each team. Utah State 16th overall, including 30th in the non-conference sked. Missouri 47th overall, including the No. 206 ranking (whoa) in its non-conference sked.

In games against Quad 1 and Quad 2 opponents, Utah State is 11-6 and Mizzou is 10-9.

One more nugget: Since the 2004 NCAA Tournament, teams that fit a specific profile have lost 19 of 24 games. And what is that profile? Here ya go: the team is in the top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency but outside the top 100 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. I bring this up for a reason: Missouri is 10th offensively and No. 105 defensively.

So if you want to go with the metrics — and I’m not suggesting you should – Missouri faces a tough assignment against Utah State. Can the Tigers win? Of course.

The Tigers and Aggies have similar profiles offensively: sharp shooting, with a particularly devastating ability to hit 3-pointers.

* Missouri is 10th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency; Utah State is 13tth.

* Utah State is 11th in effective field goal percentage (55.6%); Mizzou is 17th at 55.1 percent.

* Utah State is 11th with a three-point shooting accuracy of 38.5 percent; Missouri is 76th (but still highly effective) with longball accuracy of 36.1%.

There’s an obvious reason for the Statheads’ fondness for Utah State in this clash with Mizzou: defense, and Missouri fans will understand. The Aggies are rated 64th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency; the Tigers are way down the list at No. 179 in this category.

If we we go deeper, we’ll spot other alarming indicators. Missouri is No. 279 nationally in defending opponents’ effective field goal percentage (52.3). Missouri is also No. 266 nationally in defending three-pointers, allowing opponents to make 34 percent. It’s not much better for Mizzou in defending two-point shots; opponents have made 52%, and that puts Mizzou at No. 255 in the rankings.

That’s why defense is so vital in this matchup. Both offenses teams can pump in a high total of points. But this season, because of its defensive lapses, Missouri has outscored opponents by 162 points. Utah State has outscored its opponents by 301 points this season.

The Tigers have several advantages.

1. Mizzou likes to push the pace, and that looms as a factor in what should be a high-scoring affair. That’s because Utah State relies heavily on its starters, and uses the bench for a low amount of minutes. The Aggies rank No. 335 with an average of 23.3 minutes per game from their bench. Mizzou ranks No. 123 with an average of 33 minutes per game from the bench. We can envision this scenario: the Tigers exhausting the Aggies when the action reaches the final 10 or 12 minutes left to play.

2. Utah State takes good care of the basketball, but I don’t think the Aggies have faced the buzzing swarm of a Mizzou defense that has the nation’s fifth-best turnover percentage and second-best steals percentage. As usual, the Tigers have to cover for their flawed overall defense by limiting Utah State’s possessions.

3. As mentioned, Utah State has a better defensive rating than Missouri. But that doesn’t mean the Aggies play great defense. Among other things Utah State is No. 314 in the nation with its rate of forcing turnovers. And, the Aggies are No. 332 nationally in steals percentage. They’re also 212th nationally in defending three-pointers, allowing a make rate of 34.3 percent. Missouri’s offense is 43rd nationally – very, very good – at avoiding turnovers. If Mizzou is secure with the ball, and not making stupid mistakes, Utah State won’t be disruptive on offense. Not much, anyway. Missouri should be able to do its thing on offense.

4. Missouri is a poor rebounding team on the defensive end. Utah State is above average – but not dominant – in extending possessions with offensive rebounds.

5. Generally speaking, Utah State relies on their two starting guards (Steven Ashworth and Max Shulga) and the 6-9 Taylor Funk to score points. Missouri harvests points from a larger number of players. That’s valuable.

So who wins? I’ll keep it simple … and obvious.

First of all, Mizzou’s defense must create havoc and unsettle Utah State to force a lot of turnovers. That’s a tipping-point factor in this matchup. The Tigers have to reduce the number of Aggie possessions. And it’s imperative for Mizzou to do a more effective job at limiting open three-pointers. The Tigers must contest the three-pointers, and that’s been a significant problem all season. A hot-shooting team can destroy MU.

Both of these teams can shoot it and score it and make it rain with threes. If one of the teams has an off-target day, it’s big trouble. If enough shots fall for Missouri, the Tigers should be in good shape. When their effective field goal percentage in a game is 50 percent or higher, the Tigers are 22-2. I think this will be a tight one, and Missouri is 7-0 this season in games decided by five points or fewer. I believe Missouri will win by wearing Utah State down, and take over during the final few minutes to close out a narrow victory.

Thanks for reading …


Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.

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