Sunday, March 18, 2012

Missouri's dream season ends with a nightmare

In college basketball, March is often beautiful, sometimes cruel and always defining.

Fair or not, the luster of Missouri’s 30-win season was forever tainted by the devastating 86-84 loss to No. 15 seed Norfolk State in the teams’ opening NCAA Tournament game in Omaha.

Bigger, seemingly hungrier Norfolk State was never intimidated, outrebounding Missouri 35-23. Spartan senior Kyle O’Quinn was a menace, putting up 26 points, 14 rebounds, and a three-point play on an airball that will haunt Missouri for a while. Missouri has had bad field goal percentage defense this season, but it was still jarring to see Norfolk State, a poor three-point shooting team, make 10 of 19 threes against the Tigers.

It was a staggering loss, taking a prominent place on the school’s ample list of heartbreaking defeats. When Missouri and Norfolk State took the court, 15 seeds were 4-105 against 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. This Missouri team became a statistic, the fifth 2 seed to fall to a 15. It was little consolation that another 2 seed, Duke, lost to 15 seed Lehigh later the same day.

Despite Missouri’s lack of size and shaky defense, many picked the Tigers to advance to their first Final Four. Final Four contenders do not come along every year for Missouri, and this team was one, which makes the stunning defeat feel like such a wasted opportunity.

Missouri does have something of a history of underperforming in the NCAA Tournament. Since the NCAA began seeding the Tournament in 1979, Missouri has been a 1, 2 or 3 seed seven times. Five of those seven times, Missouri has been eliminated by a lower-seeded team, including a 1990 loss as a 3 seed to 14 seed Northern Iowa.

Those are the numbers, but the pain of this loss isn’t something that can be quantified. These popular and successful Missouri seniors saw their careers end in such stinging fashion. Tiger fans can’t help but ache for them.

This season had great, unexpected moments, such as the team coming together for new coach Frank Haith, the madcap rally to beat Kansas in Columbia, the Big 12 Tournament championship in Kansas City.

But college basketball is all about what you do in March. Every part of the season should be about preparing your team for March. Legacies are authored in March.

My personal favorite memory of this senior class might be from their freshman year, in March, of course, when Marcus Denmon hit a three-quarter court shot at the half as the Tigers beat Memphis to advance to the Elite 8. It’s hard to believe now, but that glorious night in the Arizona desert was the Tournament high water mark for this group. They went 1-4 in the NCAA Tournament after that win over Memphis.

Next year will be interesting for Missouri, as the Tigers seek to rebuild after this massive senior class departs. Guards Mike Dixon and Phil Pressey return, but the health of forward Laurence Bowers will be key as he tries to come back after missing this season due to injury. The Tigers move on the SEC in a state of transition.

But talk about next year will largely wait. For now there is just a dull pain for this team and its fans. And there is still that Final Four void for Missouri basketball.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Missouri eyes first ever Final Four

The dancing began immediately after Missouri’s 90-75 win over Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament championship game. The Tiger players, clad in championship shirts, championship shirts and the joy of victory, broke out into dancing on the Sprint Center Court in Kansas City. An emotional coach Frank Haith hugged his family. The conference tournament title, Missouri’s second in four years, capped a 30-4 regular season for the Tigers.

And now the moves continue, with the Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament. Missouri is the No. 2 seed in the West Region. The Tigers’ 30-win season and high seed have fans thinking this could be the team that breaks through the program’s glass ceiling, that fills the void in Missouri basketball… the Final Four.

Missouri has won conference titles, played in the Tournament many times, notched over 1,500 wins, but has never made it to the Final Four. Five times Missouri has stood one win away from the Final Four, five times the Tigers have fallen short, most recently in 2009 in Arizona.

This is Missouri’s 25th NCAA Tournament appearance, trailing only Brigham Young for most Tournament bids without reaching the Final Four. Also, Missouri’s 22 NCAA Tournament wins are tied for the most without a Final Four.

This Tiger team is capable of making a run in the Tournament, but it will be challenging.

Missouri first plays Norfolk State at approximately 3:40 p.m. on Friday in Omaha. The game will be broadcast on TNT.

The Norfolk State Spartans won the MEAC Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans are 25-9 this season, and are led by 6-10 senior Kyle O’Quinn, who is averaging a team-leading 15.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. O’Quinn is the kind of big, skilled interior player who could give Missouri trouble, but the Tigers’ speed and guard play should more than negate this.

Should Missouri get by Norfolk State (only four times has a 15 seed beaten a 2 seed in the 64 to 68 team era, which dates back to 1985), the Tigers would face the winner of Friday’s Florida-Virginia game in a Sunday matchup.

Virginia is led by Mike Scott, a first-team all-ACC player. Scott is a game-changer, but I’d look for Florida to prevail to be Missouri’s Round of 32 opponent.

Beating Florida could be tricky. The Gators tied for second in the SEC, and just last week they pushed mighty Kentucky to the limit before bowing out in their conference tournament. Florida has talented guards in Kenny Boynton and Bradley Beal, who is from St. Louis.

Plenty of tough opponents lurk in the West Region, such as 3 seed Marquette and 6 seed Murray State, who only lost one game this season. And that’s not to mention No. 1 seed and Big Ten champion Michigan State, whose green Spartan logo is about as omnipresent in March as greening grass.

So yes, the road in March is tough. But Missouri has a deep senior class, tremendous chemistry and momentum following the Big 12 Tournament win. If the Tigers’ hot shooting continues, this could be the year Missouri dances on to the Final Four.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Three reasons I'm fine with Haith not winning the COY (coaches' vote)

Missouri beat Texas Tech Saturday as the Big 12 regular season came to an end. The conference named its award winners on Sunday, as voted on by the Big 12 coaches. Kansas’ Bill Self and Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg were named co-Big 12 Coaches of the Year. Despite Missouri’s surprising season (27-4, 14-4 in Big 12 play), Tiger coach Frank Haith was shut out from the coach of the year honor. Some Missouri fans cried conspiracy, thinking the Big 12 and its coaches didn’t want to reward a coach and a school that will be leaving for the Southeastern Conference this summer. While I understand Missouri fans’ disappointment, here are three reasons why I’m just fine with Haith not winning the award. (Note: Haith did win the AP Big 12 Coach of the Year award, though. Coach of the Year awards for everyone!)

1. Self and Hoiberg were deserving

Maybe this is the sportsman in me talking. Coach of the year is a very subjective honor, bus ask yourself, how do you determine who is the coach of the year?

If it’s who finishes the most places above their preseason prediction, that would be Hoiberg. His Cyclones were picked to finish eighth, and they actually finished third.

If it’s simply whoever finishes with the best record in conference play, that would be Self. The more partisan Missouri fans may need to put on earmuffs for this part, but Self took a supposedly down Kansas team and won the Big 12 title by two games.

2. I don’t need an award to tell me Haith had a remarkable season

Yes, Missouri is loaded with seniors. But this same group struggled under coach Mike Anderson and seemed to be at a crossroads. Senior forward Laurence Bowers was lost for the season due to an injury before a game was played.

And yet Missouri won big this year, finishing in second place for just the second time in the 16-year history of the Big 12. Missouri has been in the top 10 for much of the season. We don’t need an award to cherish and appreciate this season.

And remember, award voting is fluky. In football last fall, Kansas State’s Bill Snyder was the Big 12 Coach of the Year, but then Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy won the national coach of the year award.

3. There are bigger fish to fry, starting right now

Missouri’s last Big 12 Tournament kicks off with two games Wednesday night in Kansas City. Missouri plays at 6 p.m. Thursday night against the winner of the Oklahoma State-Texas Tech game. Should the Tigers win that, they will play in the semifinal Friday evening against the winner of Thursday’s Iowa State-Texas game. Winning one more conference tournament title, especially in Kansas City, home to multiple Tiger players and all those Big Eight and Big 12 tournaments through the years, would mean more than an award.

Winning the Big 12 Tournament would also give Missouri hope for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the biggest fish of them all. The Selection Show is at 5 p.m. Sunday on CBS. I can hear that March Madness Music now.