BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP)—The Missouri Tigers can describe their up-tempo, bordering-on-frenetic brand of basketball however they want. West Virginia guard Darryl Bryant is quick to point out the Mountaineers are no strangers to pressure.
Playing in the Big East Conference has a way of preparing teams for just about anything. That includes facing an aggressive defense that Missouri like to call “The Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball,” as the two teams meet in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday.
“I think it’s kind of fun and kind of cool to get after it,” Bryant said. “We’re not trying to knock nobody’s reputation off. We’re trying to go out there and play 40 minutes and win the game.”
Loose and jovial, Bryant was among the Mountaineers’ five starters who sat behind a table at Saturday’s news conference joking and laughing among themselves, showing no signs of concern a day after the East Regional’s No. 2 seed cruised to a 77-50 win over Morgan State.
To be sure, West Virginia (28-6) has plenty of respect for Missouri (23-10) and a Tigers defense that ranks first in the nation in steals (11.1) and forcing turnovers (19.7). Just don’t ask the Big East champs to be intimidated.
“We’re not taking anything away from them. But just by our attitudes, we’re enjoying the moment and having fun,” guard Da’Sean Butler said. “They’ve got a really good team. And we’re going to have our game faces on.”
The Big 12’s Tigers also are riding high after a 86-78 win over Clemson. It was a game in which Missouri forced 20 turnovers, had a 22-2 edge in fast-break points and ultimately wore down Clemson’s offense.
Don’t expect any change against West Virginia.
“Oh, pressure busts pipes. That’s the way we’re going to play,” senior guard Zaire Taylor said. “We’re going to live and die by that. I mean, pressure is what got us here. … We don’t know any other way.”
Both teams are capable of solid defense—the Mountaineers entered the tournament giving up an average 63.8 points and are 24-0 when holding opponents under 70 points. Both schools hail from major conferences, and both just happen to be making their 23rd tournament appearance.
The only thing missing is a real rivalry. They’ve met only once, in the opening round of the 1992 NCAA tournament, which Missouri won 89-78.
That was a long time ago and this isn’t even the same Tigers team that lost to Connecticut in the tournament quarterfinals last year. Missouri lost three 1,000-point scorers—including DeMarre Carroll—and this year have a trio of sophomores leading them in scoring. It’s a group led by 6-foot-6 guard Kim English, who’s averaging 14.1 points a game.
“Last year was a great team. But this year we want to make our mark,” senior guard J.T. Tiller said. “I believed we had this type of team to make a run in the tournament right after we ended the season last year.”
The Tigers stumbled down the stretch, losing three of four, including a 75-60 loss to Nebraska in the first round of the Big 12 tournament.
West Virginia is on a roll, winners of seven in a row and coming off a blowout victory. Before their rout of Morgan State, the Mountaineers’ previous four games were decided by 3 points or less—including a 60-58 win over Georgetown in the Big East championship, which Butler sealed by hitting a running jumper with 4 seconds left.
It was the sixth game-winning shot this season for Butler, who leads the team in scoring. The Mountaineers’ attack is rounded out by three sophomores, including Kevin Jones, who scored 17 points against Morgan State, after the Bears double-teamed Butler.
Against Missouri, the Mountaineers’ intention is to slow the pace of the game to counter the Tigers’ style.
With that in mind, Jones put a different spin on Missouri’s motto.
“I guess we’ve go to make it the slowest 40 minutes of basketball,” Jones said, with a wink.