With two top-25 wins and a 12-1 overall record, Dennis Gates and his Tiger team are sitting pretty along the No. 9 line in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology, which was updated pre-Kentucky. All things considered, any Mizzou fan would take that early January record in a heartbeat.
Still, the bulk of the season remains. The SEC has become a strong basketball conference in recent years, meaning that conference play is a gauntlet full of ranked teams and trap games. To achieve their goals and be playing in late-March, Mizzou has to rattle off a couple more big wins.
So, here’s the five games that I believe are most pivotal to Missouri’s NCAA Tournament hopes in 2023.
Jan. 14 | 2:30 p.m. CST
KenPom Prediction: Florida 81 | Missouri 79
Why: While this is certainly not the most notable team left on Missouri’s schedule, it may be the most important swing game. The Gators have stumbled out to a 7-6 record under first year head coach Todd Golden. Still, they have a strong-enough résumé to turn things around and make the big dance.
In order to do so, they likely need this win over Missouri. Similarly, a swing game like this is extremely important for the Tigers this season. This would likely count as a Quad 1 win/loss for Florida, while it could be a Quad 2 or 3 result for Mizzou depending on how the Gators finish out the season. If it’s Quad 3, then a loss could prove to be a backbreaker on Selection Sunday. If it’s Quad 2, then it would be a solid win to build off of going forward.
And, besides all of the “Quad” drama, this would also be a tough road win that could provide great momentum for the Tigers before taking on Arkansas and Alabama at home.
Jan. 21 | 5:00 p.m. CST
KenPom Prediction: Alabama 85 | Missouri 83
Why: Speaking of the date with Alabama, it could be a season-defining win for the Tigers.
As of now, the Crimson Tide look like one of the strongest teams in the SEC, with freshman phenom Brandon Miller leading the way for a high-powered offensive attack. The (current) No. 8 team in the land has already taken down the likes of Michigan State, North Carolina, Houston, Memphis and Mississippi State.
Obviously, this would count as a Quad 1 win for the Tigers. That is huge in its own right.
However, this would likely be a top 15 win for Mizzou, and regardless of what happens between then and now, it would place them in the national spotlight and force people to take them seriously in the conference.
A win like this could offset a bad loss or two and be one of the cornerstones of Mizzou’s résumé come March.
Jan. 28 | 1:00 p.m. CST
KenPom Prediction: Missouri 75 | Iowa State 72
Why: Iowa State makes the return trip to Columbia after they thumped the Tigers by 17 in Ames last season. The Cyclones yet again appear to be NCAA Tournament-bound if they can stay afloat in the Big 12. A non-conference matchup with Mizzou amidst conference play can be huge for momentum as both sides enter the grind that is February.
Revenge is obviously one factor in this game. Mizzou was largely uncompetitive in last season’s matchup, and the Big 12/SEC Challenge has been of increasing importance in recent years. In the final iteration of the Challenge — the SEC has chosen to begin an ACC/SEC Challenge next season in lieu of continuing this event — it’s important for the Tigers and SEC in general to ascertain their dominance. So, the Tigers would like to put a better foot forward in 2023 for the sake of their reputation in the SEC.
Of course, this would also likely end up being a highly-sought after Quad 1 victory for either side. With LSU and Mississippi State looming after this one, this game against Iowa State becomes all the more important for momentum and building the résumé.
Vs. Mississippi State
Feb. 21 | 5:00 p.m. CST
KenPom Prediction: Missouri 73 | Mississippi State 69
Why: Fast-forwarding later into the season, there’s plenty of opportunities for some last-second wins to turn the selection committee to Mizzou’s favor. One of those opportunities comes when Mississippi State comes to town.
The Bulldogs have been a surprise thus far with an 11-2 record up this point. They may be knocked down a peg or two come January and February, but they still figure to be at least an NCAA Tournament bubble team.
Of course, that means this matchup would be VERY bubbly in late February. Both of these teams will likely be in search of quality wins to bolster their pitch to the committee, and this is a prime opportunity. MSU could pick up a Quad 1 win, while Mizzou would likely be looking for a Quad 2 victory in this one.
March 1 | 8:00 p.m. CST
KenPom Prediction: Missouri 78 | LSU 77
Why: LSU has emerged as one of the SEC’s main contenders in 2022-23, and they should remain a top 25 team throughout this season.
This is the second-to-last game on Mizzou’s schedule, and a win in Baton Rouge would be as big of a statement as they could make late in the season. It will certainly be a tall order (KenPom’s analytics seem to like this Missouri team, though), but the good Tigers can certainly make this is a close game on the road.
Much like the previously mentioned Alabama game, this is a victory that could possibly eliminate a bad loss and allow Missouri to hang their hats on come Selection Sunday. And, it may very well be their last shot (outside of possibly the SEC Tournament) to really prove that they belong in the NCAA Tournament.