Missouri presents physical challenge SIZING UP THE OPPOSITION

March 15, 1994|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Writer

What Fang Mitchell remembers most about Missouri is its desire.

"That was a team that absolutely didn't want to lose," the Coppin State coach said of Navy's first-round opponent in Thursday's NCAA West Regional. "They out-willed us, and this Coppin team had a pretty strong will."

The Eagles visited Missouri Dec. 19 during their preseason tour of nonconference powers and almost pulled off a major upset before a 12-foot jumper by Lamont Frazier beat them at the buzzer, 64-63.

For Navy to equal that effort against the West's top seed, Mitchell says the Midshipmen will have to be resilient inside and hope the Tigers do not enjoy a hot night of jump shooting.

"I don't know if I would consider Missouri a No. 1 seed, but they're a very tough team," continued Mitchell. "You have to keep playing strong the whole game around the boards because they're big and physical and they like to mix it up."

Missouri's top-of-the-line players are 6-foot-9 senior center Jevon Crudup, 6-2 senior guard Melvin Booker, the team's scoring leader at 17.7 points, and freshman sensation Kelly Thames, a 6-7 forward Mitchell called "a slashing penetrator."

They are gifted players who will represent a major challenge for Navy, which does not face such quality athletes in the Patriot League.

The Tigers did not start this season as if they were headed for a 25-3 record and a Big Eight Conference regular-season title. In their second game at Arkansas, they were manhandled, 120-68, one of the worst losses in school history.

After that defeat, Missouri won nine straight, then after its secondloss -- 77-73 at Notre Dame -- it reeled off 15 consecutive victories to soar into the nation's top five.

The third loss was to Nebraska in the semifinals of the Big Eight tourney, prompting Missouri coach Norm Stewart to comment: "Maybe the third time [after a defeat] we can do it again. You only need six this time, don't you?"

Said Booker: "I don't want my season ending in the first round or the second round."

Stewart, normally cooperative with the St. Louis-area media, applied a news embargo on the team until it reaches Ogden, Utah, for tomorrow's pre-tournament news conferences. Stewart did not return telephone calls to The Sun.

Missouri was the third team since 1958 (when the current league was constituted) to go unbeaten in the Big Eight regular season, and its 19 consecutive Big Eight wins overall is the longest streak in the league in 65 years.

"It's a different team than the one that has had trouble in the tournament," said Mitchell. "Any time you can beat all those Big Eight teams on their floors, you've got a pretty good thing going for you."

Booker, Mark Atkins and Paul O'Liney, the two leading reserves, are solid three-point shooters who complement the muscle supplied by Thames, Crudup and Frazier.

And Stewart has eight seniors on his roster, the highest total ever, so there is a now-or-never feeling surrounding the team.

The Tigers also are serious about their defense. They have held foes to less than 50 percent shooting for 22 consecutive games.

Stewart has been accused of looking at the Big Eight as the ultimate achievement and considering the NCAA tournament icing.

But this season, he didn't allow his team to cut down the nets after they clinched the conference crown at 12-0, perhaps a symbolic change of priorities.

MISSOURI vs. NAVY

* Day: Thursday

* Time: 8:13 p.m.

* Site: Ogden, Utah

* Region: West

* Seedings: Missouri No. 1, Navy No. 16

* Records: Missouri 25-3, Navy 17-12

* TV: Channel 11

* Radio: WNAV (1430 AM)

THE MISSOURI FILE

Record: 25-3

Coach: Norm Stewart, 27th year, 540-266

Conference: Big Eight

Top scorer: G Melvin Booker, 17.5

Top rebounder: F Jevon Crudup, 8.0

Tournament history: In 14 appearances, Tigers are 9-14 in NCAA tournament, 8-13 under Stewart. They lost in their first game in 1983, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1992 and 1993. Their best recent finish was in 1989, when they reached the round of 16 before losing to Syracuse, 83-80.

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