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Tigers rolling as NCAA Tournament gets under way

Missouri guard Kim English catches a pass during practice at the Century Link Arena in Omaha, Neb., on Thursday. The Tigers will play Norfolk State today in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Missouri guard Kim English catches a pass during practice at the Century Link Arena in Omaha, Neb., on Thursday. The Tigers will play Norfolk State today in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Photo by The Associated Press.

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Marcus Denmon was asked to pick the high point of the season, and the Missouri guard had plenty of options: Big wins over Illinois and California, that dramatic win over rival Kansas and an in-season tournament title in the Tigers’ own backyard.

None of them compared to their impressive run to a Big 12 Tournament title last weekend.

“Winning the Big 12 championship in the tournament was one of my most favorites,” Denmon said Thursday, “because all season long we strived to win championships, and that was one of the most important ones we won this season.”

Not the most important one, though.

That tournament is only beginning.

The second-seeded Tigers (30-4) open the pursuit of their first national championship this afternoon (3:40 p.m., TNT-TV) against No. 15 seed Norfolk State, the MEAC champions and winners of seven straight games. The winner will play Florida or Virginia on Sunday.

“We’re just blessed that we are here and have the opportunity to play and all we can do is prepare for our opponent, Norfolk State,” Denmon said, “and that’s where we have our focus.”

The NCAA Tournament experience isn’t new to Denmon and the rest of the Tigers.

They’re in the 68-team field for the fourth straight season, which means seniors like Denmon, fellow guards Kim English and Matt Pressey, and forwards Steve Moore and Ricardo Ratliffe have stepped onto the hardwood under the brightest of lights plenty of times.

It’s only the sixth senior class in school history to qualify for the tournament each season, and having already broken the school record for most regular-season wins, the Tigers can break the record for single-season wins by getting through two games in the NCAA Tournament.

Missouri won 31 games three years ago, when the seniors were freshmen. That team also won three games to win the Big 12 title before advancing to the round of eight in the NCAA Tournament.

“Experience is helpful but it’s not more important than what takes place in preparing, and more importantly, what happens during a game,” said English, whose virtuoso performance against Baylor in the Big 12 title game sewed up tourney MVP honors.

“Carmelo Anthony had no NCAA experience and won the whole thing,” English said, “so it’s not that important, but we’re comfortable with the setting, the long time outs, the media, and the intensity, and the level in which these games are played for forty minutes.”

It’s a level of comfort that Norfolk State is sorely lacking.

The Spartans (25-9) qualified for their first NCAA tournament after 15 years at the Division I level, knocking off Bethune-Cookman in their conference title game for the automatic berth. It was only Norfolk State’s second MEAC Tournament final.

“We worked hard to get to that point,” Spartans coach Anthony Evans said, “and as a coach you know there are certainly opportunities to get to the championship, we knew we were going to have a good basketball team, and it turned out to be our season.”

Norfolk State may not have the same kind of NCAA tournament pedigree that Missouri carries into the field, but it also has plenty of guys who have been through the grinder. Senior forward Kyle O’Quinn averages 15.9 points and 10.4 rebounds, and at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, gives Missouri coach Frank Haith flashbacks of defending Kansas big man Thomas Robinson.

Chris McEachin, the Spartans’ second-leading scorer, is also a senior.

“With it being such a new experience and the first time the school is going to it — being part of that — you take that as an initiative of going in there and trying the to win the thing,” O’Quinn said. “You’re in it to win it, but it also being a first experience you’re taking everything in, being at press conferences and interviews, you have jitter bugs.”

He expects those to go away as the tipoff nears. After all, Norfolk State hung tough in a two-point loss to Marquette earlier this season, and beat another NCAA Tournament team in LIU-Brooklyn. The Spartans even went on the road in the ACC and played Virginia Tech hard into the second half, falling 73-60.

“We’re trying to stay focused, trying to keep a normal routine, as normal as possible,” Evans said. “All the media attention and everything is great, but we have a job to do.”

It’s a big job, too, against one of the nation’s hottest teams.

“This is a senior-laden team and they have been focused all year, stayed in the process, and with that said, I feel good about us being focused,” Haith said. “We’ve had opportunities to lose that throughout the year, but this team has been determined and resilient. I anticipate us having great focus (this) afternoon.”

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