-- Sunday's NCAA tournament bracket revealed what Missouri Coach Quin Snyder already knew: The Big 12 is the nation's most difficult conference.

"It's not an embarrassment to finish fourth or fifth in this league," said Snyder, whose team dropped a frantic 49-47 decision to Oklahoma during Sunday's Big 12 conference tournament championship. "We've got three teams [Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas] in the nation's top five, so we're definitely battle-tested."

Last season, the upstart Tigers made an improbable NCAA run that ended with a 81-75 loss to Oklahoma in the regional final, making Missouri the lowest-seeded team (No. 12) ever to advance that far in the tournament.

Yet, this season's Missouri team, which posted impressive home victories over Oklahoma and Memphis, is distinctly different from last year's Tigers club.

Gone are six letter-winners, including junior Kareem Rush (NBA) and senior Clarence Gilbert (playing professionally in Italy), whose combined 36.8 points per game last season constituted 46 percent of Missouri's offense.

Now, the Tigers (21-10) rely on the husky shoulders of junior center Arthur Johnson, a 6-foot-9, 265-pounder, and the dynamic duo of Ricky Clemons, a point guard by way of College of Southern Idaho, and Rickey Paulding, a versatile inside-outside wing, both juniors.

Add Travon Bryant, an emerging 6-9 junior forward with a knack for clutch plays (he dropped Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals with a last-second shot) and freshman sensation Jimmy McKinney, who missed nearly a month in November with facial injuries that required five plates and 26 screws, Missouri again appears primed to make a strong push deep in the NCAA tournament.

After all, the Tigers finished a respectable fifth with a 9-7 conference record during the rugged Big 12 regular season, Snyder's best finish in his four years at Columbia.

"We've got a lot of confidence right now," said Johnson, who averages 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds. "As long as we [keep that up], it really doesn't matter who we play."

Snyder's Tigers are 12-6 since he settled on the lineup of Clemons, McKinney, Paulding, Bryant and Johnson .

"We've made some significant adjustments with our personnel late in the season both last year and this year," Snyder said. "That's made a difference. We have some different people in supporting roles and starring roles, and we're definitely better."

In the opening round of the top-heavy Midwest bracket, the Tigers will face No. 11 seed Southern Illinois (24-6), which stormed to the round of 16 last year after posting upset victories over Texas Tech and Georgia.

If Missouri gets past the Salukis, it will face the winner of No. 3 seed Marquette (23-5) and No. 14 seed Holy Cross (26-4), which played Kentucky and Kansas to the wire before falling in its past two NCAA tournament appearances.

"The key for our guys is staying focused," said Snyder, who is 4-3 in the NCAA tournament. "We've been immature and lacked experience at times this season, but we're growing up and hopefully we'll be able to ride that confidence in the [NCAA] tournament."

Outside of its live-or-die emphasis on the three-pointer (35 percent of Missouri's attempted shots this season were from beyond the arc), the Tigers' greatest weakness appears to be its bench, where only junior Josh Kroenke, freshman Kevin Young and sophomore Jeffrey Ferguson log regular minutes.

"Sure, I'm aware of it [our depth], probably more so than the players," Snyder said. "It's a tight rotation, but we get maximum effort out of guys that play. I'm more concerned about controlling the things we can. I have concerns about our emotion, because it's been a key ingredient to our success this season."

Yet Oklahoma State Coach Eddie Sutton, whose team lost to Missouri on Saturday but beat the Tigers 76-56 in Stillwater on Jan. 18, said he likes the Tigers' chances in the NCAA tournament.

"They're an explosive team both offensively and defensively," Sutton said. "They've certainly got the talent to win it all."

Missouri has had a lot to celebrate this season, including impressive home victories against Oklahoma, Memphis.Rickey Paulding, Tigers are hardened by playing in Big 12,

nation's toughest

conference.