Monday, January 2, 2012

Missouri begins Big 12 farewell tour

Nonconference play is in the books, with Missouri a perfect 13-0, and now begins the 18-game grind through Big 12 conference play. As every Tiger fans knows, this will be Missouri’s last Big 12 basketball season, with Missouri officially joining the Southeastern Conference after this school year.

The announcement that Missouri had decided to move to the SEC came late in the football season, so there was no real farewell tour there. For much of the season Missouri’s conference fate was just speculation and possibilities.

But now we know, and Tiger fans can’t help but see this basketball season as a farewell tour, which is just fine. I know many Tiger fans were unsure or divided on whether Missouri should stick it out in the Big 12 or take the opportunity to go to the SEC. Regardless of which side one was on, it’s natural to feel a bit sentimental and nostalgic as the Tigers crisscross the cold Midwest for one more winter visiting all these familiar destinations. Change is hard, even change deemed necessary.

And oh, what a history to savor. Think of all the trips down to play Oklahoma State in the town with the delightfully rural name of Stillwater, in the ancient Gallagher-Iba Arena. Think of all those battles between Missouri’s Norm Stewart and Kansas State’s Jack Hartman at the Wildcats’ old barn, Ahearn Fieldhouse, with both stubborn coaches trying to outwait the other to be the last team to run out on the court. Later, the Tigers took on the Wildcats in their new arena, Bramlage Coliseum, dubbed the “Octagon of Doom.”

Remember all the challenging trips up to play Iowa State and deal with “Hilton Magic.” Remember fiery Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs getting on the officials, and remember also the relatively brief history of traveling down to play the Texas schools.

And most of all, remember all those years playing Kansas in the vaunted and historic Allen Fieldhouse, where the thunderous Kansas crowd would chant, “Sit down, Norm!” and Stormin’ Norman wouldn’t back down an inch. Think of the rare but special wins there.

As Missouri fans soak this heritage in one more season, the Tigers obviously want to go out with a bang. Missouri’s exceptional play during the nonconference season has raised the possibility of Missouri competing for the conference title, which they haven’t won since 1994.

The challenges start right away, with a Tuesday home game against a Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma squad, and then the first road test coming Saturday at Kansas State (12:30 p.m. on Big 12 Network, which will be broadcast on a local channel).

Kansas State has looked pretty good early, playing a solid schedule and losing only once, in double overtime to West Virginia. Rodney McGruder leads K-State in scoring, and Angel Rodriguez is an intriguing freshman guard. The Wildcats’ defensive length could be a challenge for Missouri.

The crowd may be a bit less intense than usual, as this game will be just over 12 hours after K-State’s football team plays in the Cotton Bowl, but it’s still an enticing matchup and a nice way to kick off Missouri’s last tour of the Big 12.

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