Monday, February 27, 2012

Missouri must regroup quickly after Border War

As fans, we like to look at where our teams are and what lies ahead. It’s that mystery, that anything-can-happen dynamic that helps make our sports so compelling. We love to talk about the state of our team and what we think will happen next. That’s a lot of what I try to do in this column.

But a game like last Saturday, the electrifying swan song for the Border War, that’s something we linger over. One of the great atmospheres in the storied history of old Allen Fieldhouse. Such high stakes. Missouri soaring to a 19-point lead, playing as good of basketball as any team has played this year. The pride of the Kansas basketball program in full bloom as the Jayhawks stormed back and the crowd got louder and louder and louder. Overtime. The remarkable Marcus Denmon nearly willing Missouri to the win yet again. Kansas winning 87-86 in the final frantic seconds.

Hopefully some day these teams will work out an annual nonconference game. But it won’t be like this again. A December nonconference tilt would be a lot of fun, but it can’t replicate the annual showdowns in Columbia AND Lawrence for Big 12 supremacy.

As the last scheduled basketball Border War game, it was indeed a weighty game. I felt drained at the end having just watched the spectacle. The Missouri players must have been far more drained from the effort and emotion of that day. But they can’t linger over that game.

Which leads us back to that first paragraph, what’s next for Missouri (25-4, 12-4 in Big 12 play through Sunday). Saturday felt like the climactic scene of a movie. But now is not time to roll the credits. It is time for March.

After the Wednesday Senior Day game against rising Iowa State, Missouri closes its regular-season schedule with a road game at last-place Texas Tech. Iowa State’s Royce White is playmaker who can cause problems inside, and the Cyclones could technically still finish second in the Big 12.

Under first-year coach Billy Gillispie, Tech has struggled, winning just one conference game so far. But that one conference win was at home, and Tech did push Texas to overtime last Saturday, as well as hanging with Iowa State for a while in the game before that.

Following the regular season, of course, is Missouri’s last Big 12 Tournament, appropriately in Kansas City.

These last two weeks of basketball before the NCAA Tournament are something of a closing argument, a last chance for teams to improve their tournament seeds – or slide down the seed lines. Missouri can still get a great seed, but it’s crucial that they put the bitter Kansas loss behind them. The Tigers can be proud of how well they played in a beyond-tough road environment, but losing a 19-point lead to your biggest rival can weigh on a team.

I still think Missouri is in line for a No. 2 seed, but late season stumbles could drop that as far as a No. 4.

In any event, this has been a remarkable season for Missouri. Last Saturday was huge, but the crucible of March draws neigh. This team’s legacy waits to be authored.

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