NCAA Tournament matchups are typically lined with unintentional narratives. But two old conference rivals facing off, especially in the first weekend, is rare.
But Missouri has that kind of fortune.
The Tigers will square off with Oklahoma for the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at 6:25 p.m. Saturday inside Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium. The two have seen each other a couple of times since MU made its long-forgotten exit from the Big 12. But their history stretches far beyond that.
Woodrow Wilson was the U.S.' President and cars had barely surpassed horse buggies when Oklahoma entered the Missouri Valley Conference in 1919. Now populated by teams like Loyola Chicago and Missouri State, the conference was made up of seven other teams then: Missouri, Washington (Missouri), Kansas, Kansas State, Drake, Iowa State and Grinnell.
It wasn’t until 1928 that both the Tigers and the Sooners dispersed into the Big 6. The Big 6 ultimately became the Big 7, which eventually became the Big 8. The two clashed in classic outings like the 1990 meeting, in which the No. 2 Tigers barely grazed by the No. 11 Sooners in a 92-90 MU win by way of several missed tip-ins at the buzzer.
The conference saw 39 years as the Big 8 — including the two seasons when Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger won conference Player of the Year with Kansas State — before it converted into the Big 12.
Missouri had some dominant seasons in the conference, but the Tigers were hardly dominant during the season leading up to the first and only other time they met the Sooners in the NCAA Tournament.
In 2002, Missouri placed sixth in the league with a 9-7 record, entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 12 seed. It spent two weeks busting brackets.
MU knocked off No. 5 Miami, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 8 UCLA before it squared off against a dominant, second-seeded Oklahoma team. The Tigers had shocked the world, and the Sooners were exactly where they should’ve been.
As the two stood off in an unlikely conference matchup at the Compaq Center in San Jose, California, it was just meant for the Big 12 Tournament champion Sooners to run away with an 81-75 win and Final Four berth.
The game meant more than a chance to be among the four best teams in the tournament. It dug deeper for fans. It meant another installment of a contested rivalry in a game that meant all or nothing for both sides.
Nearly two decades later, Missouri is nine years removed from the Big 12. Oklahoma has enjoyed much more tournament success than MU has since.
Including this year, OU has been among the 68-team pool in seven different tournaments since 2012-13. This year marks the Tigers’ third tournament appearance as a member of the Southeastern Conference. MU failed to advance past the first round in each of its previous bids.
The teams even share the small notable details that never-ending rivalries share, like former EYBL teammates and now NBA players Trae Young and Michael Porter Jr. staying loyal to their respective ties — Young staying home in Norman, and Porter Jr. staying home in Columbia — choosing to part ways for college and give each school their first five-star prospect in the last decade.
For those that still swear up and down about the two teams' 20th-century matchups, or for those that are still upset that Young took his talents to Norman: this game means something.
It isn’t just the second time the two have ever met in the NCAA Tournament. It’s as careful of a narrative as ever. Two teams that were written off as middle of the pack team or worse. Groups that defied the odds, knocking off multiple ranked teams and catapulting themselves into top-10 range. Groups that have since endured tough stretches, once again finding themselves with chips on their shoulders.
The game means everything for both teams. The chance to cut each team’s once momentous season short as soon as the first weekend brings a bitter sting. The chance for super fans to relive a near century-old rivalry that was once normal to them is bittersweet depending on which side of the spectrum you stand on by the final buzzer.
Whether fans choose to wear deep maroon or rock black and gold come Saturday, this game is history. When looking for the yearly storylines that the NCAA Tournament provides, look no further than the first round.