OMAHA, NEB. • At the Sprint Center last Friday against Texas, Mizzou senior guard Marcus Denmon plucked a rebound and came down with a wince that sent a shudder through Mizzou Nation.

Not that it had anything to worry about.

"I saw that I was walking on it," he said Thursday, 'so if I'm walking on it I'm going to play."

Denmon was laboring after the ankle injury, missing all 10 shots he took but managing six rebounds and three steals among other contributions. Then down went teammate Kim English with a knee to the thigh.

On his way to gaining recognition as the most outstanding player of the Big 12 tournament, English also returned — testimony to the will of this team and the two seniors who combine for 32.5 of MU's 80.3 points a game.

But the moments also were reminders of how fortunate Mizzou (30-4) has been — at least since it lost Laurence Bowers to a knee injury just before the season — as it enters NCAA Tournament play at 3:30 p.m. today as the No. 2 seed in the West region against 15th-seeded Norfolk State (25-9).

With only seven healthy scholarship players, MU has been able to employ the same lineup for 34 straight games and seldom has been in critical foul trouble.

A team that's greater than the sum of its parts will need each component to go deep in the tournament and challenge for the first Final Four in school history starting today against the Spartans.

Never mind that No. 15 seeds are 4-100 against No. 2 seeds in NCAA tourneys and one hasn't triumphed since 2001.

Or that teams from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference are 0-41 this season against teams from the six major conferences.

Or that this is Norfolk State's first appearance in the Division I version of the tournament since moving up from Division II in 1997-98.

What makes March Madness is the sense of possibility.

"It's the chance, the chance that kids on 68 teams dream about," English said. "You love that all your preparation comes down to 40 minutes. If you do well in those 40 minutes. ... If you don't, you're done. It's spring break."

Sure, MU set a school record for regular-season wins with 27, then won the Big 12 tournament. But "this tournament," English said, "defines your season."

English and Denmon say they're feeling fine, albeit nagged a bit.

"My quad is healing. The swelling is going down," English said. "There is still a big bruise. But running is fine. It's when I get physical contact, it still bothers me."

To minimize that, English joked that MU coach Frank Haith "decided to take out all of the lob plays" designed for him. Which likely was zero.

Denmon said in hindsight that he didn't really know how he continued to play Friday.

"It hurt and it was affecting me, I couldn't do some things, (but) I just thought I could play through it and I'll be fine," he said. "But after the game it really stiffened up and tightened up, and it was hurting bad. I really couldn't walk on it.

"I just didn't understand. But I guess just my adrenalin and wanting to win, I kept playing."

No wonder, though; he looked exasperated when teammate Ricardo Ratliffe elbowed him in the head during the win over Baylor on Saturday.

"It was after the play. I was already done. I didn't understand why he was jumping," Denmon said. "And he came down on top of my head, and I had a flashback to ... the Oklahoma game."

He was referring to last year, when an elbow from Bowers caused a cut below his right eye that's marked by a scar now.

After about five days of "babying" the ankle, Denmon said he is ready for Norfolk State, which aims to convert its NCAA tourney inexperience into a nothing-to-lose mentality against a Tiger team making its fourth straight appearance.

"You have jitterbugs," said Kyle O'Quinn, Norfolk State's 6-foot-10 center, "but at the same time you have to enjoy the experience."

O'Quinn, the MEAC player of the year, is vital to the Spartans' hopes of enjoying the experience. He is 12th in the nation in rebounding (10.4 a game), 14th in blocked shots (2.8 a game) and fifth in the country with 19 double-doubles.

He also symbolizes a difference in stature between the teams: Ratliffe is Mizzou's only starter taller than 6-5 (English is listed as 6-6 but considers himself 6-5); Norfolk State starts no player shorter than 6-5.

"We are hoping that our length will pose problems for them," Spartans coach Anthony Evans said.