Northwest Missouri State established itself as one of the regional powers in Division II basketball last year, sharing the MIAA title and reaching the NCAA Tournament.
To open their 2012-2013 slate, the Bearcats will get to measure themselves against high level Division I competition when they visit the University of Missouri for an exhibition game tonight at 7 p.m. in Columbia.
The game will be televised on ESPN 3 as well as the Mizzou Sports Network, which can be seen on Fox Sports Midwest affiliates across the state.
Missouri is coming off a 30-4 season that was short-circuited with a shocking first round NCAA Tournament loss to No. 15 seed Norfolk State. Formerly a member of the Big 12, Missouri was picked to finish third in the SEC and is ranked No. 15 in the first Associated Press Poll.
"Our goal is just go in and play hard, play defense, do what we do and the results will take care of themselves," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ben McCollum. "They're so athletic and so long and they can shoot and drive. They got everything. It's going to be a tough test, but it will be a fun test especially early in the season."
Northwest is making its first visit to Columbia since the 2009-10 season, McCollum's first as head coach.
An eventual ninth place finisher in the MIAA, the Bearcats lost 83-60 to a Missouri team that went on to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Senior point guard DeShaun Cooper, a first-team All-MIAA selection, is the lone remaining member of Northwest's team that saw action that night.
"When we played them my first year, it was pretty close at the half," said McCollum. "We kept it pretty close, but they pressured us and we broke the press pretty easily and got easy buckets in transition. This year, they are more a half-court man team. They got shot blockers. They got great guards. They really heat up the basketball. They can score at a high rate and they're just really good."
This matchup features two head coaches, McCollum and Missouri's Frank Haith, that were national coach of the year recipients last year. McCollum won the award on the Division II level, and Haith did the same in Division I. Haith is now in his second year on the job after taking over for Mike Anderson.
Missouri lost starters Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe, but returns SEC Preseason Player of the Year Phil Pressey, forward Laurence Bowers and sixth-man Michael Dixon who was suspended for tonight's game because of a violation of team rules.
The Tigers are also debuting five Division I transfers, including 6-9 center Alex Oriakhi— a starter on Connecticut's 2010-2011 team that won the national championship.
Page 2 of 2 - Picked to finish third in the MIAA and ranked No. 19 in Division II, Northwest brings back also of its major contributors from last year except starting center Jake Reinders, small forward Justin Clark and shooting guard Kyle Haake.
Cooper and junior forward Dillon Starzl are the team's two returning starters. MIAA honorable mention selection DeAngelo Hailey and senior guards Alex Sullivan and Bryston Williams logged heavy minutes in the backcourt last year. Sophomore Grant Cozad and junior Kyle Schlake will team with Starzl in the frontcourt.
"It will be fun, and this year we get 50 bench seats instead of 25," joked McCollum.
This is Northwest's second straight year opening up with a Division I opponent from a BCS Conference.
Last year, the Bearcats played an exhibition game at Iowa and lost 79-59, but their deficit was under double-digits most of the first 30 minutes.
Northwest also opened the regular season against UMKC, a member of the Summit League, and won 66-62. It was their first win over a Division I team in school history.
"I think with these kind of games if you go in and try to play them head to head and just 'hey, we're going to beat them. We're going to come down and make a couple passes and we're going to shoot a shot,' I think you end up getting run over pretty quickly," said McCollum. "If you go in and you move the basketball and you try to get quality shots and you get back in transition, you give yourself a chance to at least keep it close."