Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Missouri bows out early in NCAA Tournament

I usually post my weekly Mizzou columns that I write for the newspapers on here, but forgot this last one. Guess I just wanted to forget the game. But a few weeks late, here it is. 

Missouri’s up-and-down basketball season came to an unceremonious end last Thursday night with an 84-72 loss to Colorado State in the Tigers’ first game in this year’s NCAA Tournament. It was supposed to be a battle of two of the nation’s top five teams in rebounding, with Missouri a slight favorite, but instead it was a beatdown.

Colorado State schooled the Tigers in game-planning and desire, outrebounding Missouri by a staggering 42-19 margin. To see Missouri, a good rebounding team, lose out on rebound after rebound was striking. Missouri had better athletes, but the Rams were just hungrier, more focused.

Just like that Missouri’s tournament was over, almost as quick as it started. The Tigers were merely extras in the Big Dance, and this marked Missouri’s third straight one-and-done performance in the tournament.

The Tigers, who finished the season at 23-11, did not get the ball inside enough. Alex Oriakhi was on fire around the hoop in the closing games of the season, and against Colorado State he made all of his shots, but there were only six of them. Missouri did manage to jack up 23 three-point attempts, making just 7.

Part of that was surely CSU coach Larry Eustachy instructing his players to sag below screens on the perimeter, giving Missouri’s Phil Pressey open jumpers but preventing him from the drive-and-pass approach that works well for him. But a big part of basketball is which team can impose its game plan on the other, and Missouri either couldn’t or wouldn’t get the ball inside more.

It was a perhaps fitting ending to what has felt like a disappointing season. Factoring in losing several key players from last year, the new transfers and the weakness of the SEC, I guessed before the season Missouri would go 24-7 in the regular season. They actually went 22-9, then 23-11 after the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, including plenty of losses that Missouri kicked away late.

This was a team of transfers, and it struggled at times to find its identity and stick with what worked best. Mental lapses and sometimes-awful defense led to losses against lesser teams.

The Tigers did make the NCAA Tournament for a fifth straight year, tying the longest stretch in program history. But the goal should be to win games in the tournament, and coach Frank Haith is now 0-2 in NCAA Tournament games. I don’t think he’s “on the hot seat” by any stretch, but if  it doesn’t work out for him at Missouri, we’ll remember him not getting a single tournament win with his first two Tiger teams.

In any event, next season is a big one for Haith’s program. Whether or not Pressey leaves for the NBA will have a big impact on the team, obviously, although transfer guard Jordan Clarkson could be an outstanding player. Forwards Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers will be missed, but the Tigers’ next recruiting class has some size.

Missouri had its disappointments in SEC Year One, and some memorable wins. But after another early tournament flameout, the stage is set for an important season.