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.