When you’re a fan of a program like Mizzou — perennially on or near the NCAA Tournament bubble — the word, “resume,” takes up a lot of space in your vocabulary between the months of November and February.
The whole concept of the NCAA Tournament resume colors the way we look at almost every game on the schedule. Have a weekday night game against a fledgling mid-major? Can’t lose that game — it’ll look bad on the resume. How about a Saturday home marquee against a Top 25 school? Prime opportunity to pick up a cherry to put on top of your resume.
However, you can’t have a cherry on top if you don’t already have a sundae on which to place it. Take a look back at the 2014 Missouri Tigers as an example. By KenPom’s Tiers of Joy, Mizzou went 4-4 in Tier A match ups. That’s a fair amount of high-quality wins and a forgivable record against top-rated opponents.
Where the Tigers faltered, however, was in their Tier B match ups. The Tigers went 3-5 in those second-tier games, with only one of those three wins coming on the road — a 70-68 nail-biter against an Auburn team that finished under .500. While Missouri arguably had enough proof that they could win against the best of the best, they didn’t show that they were consistent enough against the rest.
Matt Harris did a deeper dive on the 2020-2021 Mizzou schedule a few weeks ago, and it’s very helpful when examining the overarching narratives. However, there are a number of games I’d like to call “measuring stick games” on Missouri’s schedule that deserve some closer inspection. These, in my estimation, are games against top-tier opponents where you have home court advantage or road match ups against opponents that you should beat on most nights. It should be noted that not all of these are Tier B match ups by KenPom’s ToJ. In fact, three of them are Tier A.
Missouri, as we’ve noted on this site, is in a position familiar to fans of many SEC programs. They’re currently stuck in a sort of no-man’s-land in the conference, neither abysmal nor elite. Under Cuonzo Martin, the goal has been obvious — get Missouri out of the dregs of the SEC and establish them as a second-tier program — one that consistently makes the NCAAT and competes for a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. Right now, the Tigers are on their way, but haven’t taken the final few steps. To do so, the Tigers have to win these sorts of measuring stick games. While there are more than five on this season’s schedule, these are the ones that stick out to this writer.
Dec. 6, at Wichita State (78th in KenPom)
Missouri won’t get much of a break coming off of its two-game trip to Connecticut to face Oregon and Boston College. Instead, they’ll head to Wichita State to face off against the Shockers, sans Gregg Marshall, who recently resigned after a long investigation into alleged abuse.
This isn’t as much of a gotta-have-it win. It is, however, pretty indicative of the “measuring stick” criteria. Missouri failed to win any non-conference games against Top 100 KenPom opponents last year, and the failure didn’t bode well for the Tigers headed into SEC play. The Shockers may not be the mid-major world beaters they were a few years ago, but a win on the road would lend some credence to the Tigers’ growth. It would also be a borderline Tier A win early in the season, and — assuming the Tigers at least get a split out of the Connecticut trip — would get the Tigers to 3-1 ahead of maybe the biggest game of the year...
Dec. 12th vs. Illinois (18th in KenPom)
Even if you didn’t watch the drawn-out coin toss from last week, you probably heard the news: Braggin’ Rights is on in 2020, and it’s coming to Columbia.
It’s unfortunate that the Tigers are getting to play host in a year where fan attendance won’t be what it should. But it still gives the Tigers a leg up in their pursuit of a third straight Braggin’ Rights win. And of all the years to notch a victory, this would be a big one. The Illini were undoubtedly headed toward an NCAA Tournament bid last season before COVID-19 called the whole thing off, and they’re returning most of their major contributors.
Despite the Illini’s relative strength, however, we know that this game tends to be close no matter what. Missouri has had success against the Illini with this current group — what will Javon Pickett do this year, I wonder? — and will be in prime position to match the Illini’s experience with their own. A third straight win over Brad Underwood’s crew would likely vault the Tigers onto the national radar ahead of conference play and give the Tigers a prime win to put on their resume.
Jan. 16 at Texas A&M (68th in KemPom)
This isn’t the sexiest game on Missouri’s schedule by any means, but it’s important when you consider that Missouri is tied up in the middle of the pack in the SEC. In any given year, there are probably six teams all vying for a Top 6 spot in the conference, and the two former Big 12 schools are usually two of them.
Texas A&M isn’t amongst the SEC’s elite, but with Buzz Williams at the helm and a slew of returning producers, they’re poised to be a tough out at the very least. Savion Flagg leads a roster that’s almost as experienced as Missouri, and Williams was able to reel in a 2020 freshman class that features two Top 100 level players.
If Missouri wants to separate itself from the middle of the pack early, Texas A&M will be the place where they do it. The two teams are on nearly equal ground by KenPom’s projections, both with Top 50 defenses and flawed offenses. The January date in College Station also comes directly after a tough five-game stretch for the Aggies, and they’ll likely be looking at Missouri as a brief reprieve at home. Still, this is one of the more winnable road games for Mizzou in SEC play. A win here could mean a season sweep of A&M and the inside track at a finish inside the SEC’s top half.
Feb. 2 vs. Kentucky (11th in KenPom)
Side note before we start here: Do you know how hard it is to get a picture of carry-over Kentucky players? Ridiculous.
In SEC play, Missouri only has four games scheduled against KenPom top 25 teams (at the moment) — two against Tenessee, a season closer at Florida and this home date with Kentucky. It’s a favorable draw to pull the SEC’s top-flight program at home, and the Tigers will need to take advantage. While the schedule offers Missouri plenty of wiggle room, nothing creates a favorable perspective on your program than a win against a perennial contender.
Plus, there are reasons to think it could happen. While we don’t know what sort of attendance policies will be in place, the Tigers are 1-2 in their last five matchups against the Wildcats at Mizzou Arena, and those two losses were both 10 points or under (yes, even in the final Kim Anderson year). The match up will also pit one of the conference’s most experienced teams in Missouri against one of its youngest in Kentucky. The Wildcats lost eight of their nine contributors from last season, which suggests they’ll hit one of those young Kentucky midseason slumps. Early February could be the best time to catch the young Cats, and a win would do wonders for Missouri’s tournament resume, assuming it’s still in place at this point.
Feb. 23 vs. Mississippi (42nd in KenPom)
This occupies roughly the same territory as the Texas A&M match up mentioned previously — a dog fight against a program also stuck in the middle of the conference.
You could probably put any number of games on this list, as many in the home stretch of the season fall into this category: Feb. 6 against Alabama; Feb. 13 vs. Arkansas; even Feb. 20 at South Carolina would qualify. Mississippi, however, may represent Mizzou’s last realistic chance to pick up a quality win. It’s followed by only two games — a home date with Texas A&M and a trip to Gainesville — and neither offer particularly sterling opportunities. If you beat the Aggies in College Station, a home win doesn’t do much to boost your resume; a loss in College Station would make the home date more of a must-have than a quality W. And who knows how the season will play out, but KenPom already has that season closer at a 30 percent win probability for the Tigers.
Mississippi is trending upwards under Kermit Davis Jr., and the Rebels have the talent to breach that top half of the conference this season. And while a Top 50 match up at home doesn’t fall under the Tier A category, a win for the Tigers would still look and feel decisive to the selection committee.
Again, this isn’t the sexiest game on Mizzou’s schedule, but the most important thing the Tigers can do at this point is set themselves apart from the middle of the league. You don’t necessarily need to be running with the Tennessees, Floridas and Kentuckys... but you have to be ahead of the Texas A&Ms, Alabamas and Ole Misses.