Meet the New SEC Hoops Rivalry: Missouri vs. ArkansasPosted by dnspewak on February 19th, 2013
Danny Spewak is an RTC contributor. You can follow him on Twitter @dspewak. He filed this report after a weekend trip to Fayetteville for an SEC clash between Arkansas and Missouri.
The University of Arkansas campus sits in the northern tip of the state, just a short freeway cruise from the southern border of Missouri. It’s an easy, five-hour drive from Columbia to Fayetteville, and yet it took conference realignment for Missouri and Arkansas to finally play each other in basketball. The first meeting between the two teams since 2007 made up for lost time on Saturday afternoon. The atmosphere and game were terrific— a 73-71 Razorback victory complete with a late-game comeback, officiating controversies, and the birth of a star named B.J. Young. It didn’t feel like just another February conference game between two unranked SEC teams.
It felt like a rivalry. Right, Earnest Ross? “Not really,” the Tiger guard said. “It was just a game on our schedule.” That’s the sting of defeat talking. The 19,000 rabid fans at Bud Walton Arena offered a completely different picture. You could feel the buzz in pregame warm-ups, when a few Arkansas students taunted MU’s Jabari Brown and dared him to laugh at their Norfolk State jokes. The intensity of the game heightened with every passing minute, starting with Missouri’s hot start and eventually culminating into a down-to-the-wire thriller. It was physical. Loud. And it really meant something, especially considering MU’s Phil Pressey and Laurence Bowers were playing against Mike Anderson, their former head coach and a man who left the Tigers in the dust in 2011.
As the years pass, Anderson’s connection to Missouri will fade, and nobody will care about that storyline anymore. But this Arkansas/Missouri Border War rivalry is for real, and they’ll point to Saturday as the day it all began. In the winner’s press conference, the Razorbacks certainly understood the impact of their victory. “They just joined the family this year. The SEC is called a family. I think this will be one of the bigger games people look forward to,” Young said. “Missouri, Arkansas… right down the road from each other.“ Missouri doesn’t play Kansas anymore, and that particular Border War may not happen again for a long time — if ever.
So Missouri needs a new Border War. Saturday was an epic start. “That was one of the craziest, if not the craziest game I’ve ever played in,” Young said. For the sophomore from St. Louis, it was perhaps the most anticipated game on his schedule this year. When Young committed to Arkansas out of high school, he was one of a handful of St. Louis kids that Anderson didn’t recruit to Missouri. In a bizarre twist, he became the hero for Anderson and his new team at Arkansas. Young scored seven points in the final minute, including two three-point plays to help the Razorbacks overcame a late four-point deficit. Missouri’s bench didn’t like some of the whistles. There was a controversial jump ball call when the refs appeared to lose track of who touched the ball last, and there was a clock issue that forced the Tigers to readjust its strategy on the final shot, forcing a missed three-pointer by Brown at the buzzer.
It still didn’t change the result. Missouri’s Frank Haith was not amused. In the bowels of the arena, he could be heard audibly screaming at the top of his lungs just moments after the game. He cooled off a bit in the postgame press conference, but his demeanor was unprecedented. Normally even-keeled and friendly, he opened the press conference with a pointed statement: “Don’t anybody ask me about the officials. I’m not getting in trouble today.” He technically answered every question in the press conference, but they were not helpful answers. They were usually a few words or maybe a sentence, just enough to get reporters off his back.
The officiating wasn’t the only reason the Tigers lost. Arkansas’ undersized frontcourt dominated the paint on the offensive end. Marshawn Powell led the way with 24 points and outplayed Missouri seniors Alex Oriakhi and Bowers. Both got into foul trouble late, and Bowers shot just 1-of-10 from the field. SEC preseason Player of the Year Phil Pressey wasn’t good, either. The polarizing point guard turned the ball over late in the game and dished out just two assists against four turnovers. Perhaps the Anderson storyline placed Pressey and Bowers under too much stress. After giving a shout-out to his former head coach in pregame introductions, he seemed to force things early and missed a few contested jumpers. “I just thought I could see with Phil and Laurence, I thought you could see the emotion maybe hit them a little bit,” Anderson said.
You can’t blame them. When Anderson left Missouri high and dry without even a press conference, he scorned the fan base and left the players bewildered. This game meant so much more to Pressey and Bowers, even if neither would admit it. It had to have meant more to Anderson, too, but he wouldn’t take that stance either. “Playing a former team, I mean I said earlier in the year it would be interesting. And it was more than interesting,” Anderson said. “[But] in our pregame, I told our guys I thought it was going to be Arkansas and Missouri,” Anderson said. That was true, of course. It was Arkansas and Missouri, and it lived up to the hype, with or without the Anderson storyline. The SEC better get used to it.