Missouri’s season came to a close on Sunday afternoon at Mizzou Arena, when the Tigers lost 71-63 to Southern Mississippi in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
Southern Miss (29-6) had the highest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) ranking of all teams that didn’t get in the NCAA Tournament, and they looked like the better team on Sunday. The Golden Eagles built a lead in the first half, and then held off the Tigers each time Missouri made a run. Southern Miss is not a particularly huge team, but they controlled the game inside and won the rebounding battle. Missouri did make seven of its 14 three-point attempts in the game.
In his final game as a Missouri Tiger, Earnest Ross scored 22 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
The Tigers were able to rally from a double-digit deficit in their first NIT game, against Davidson, but could not repeat that against Southern Miss. It was Missouri’s first home loss to a non-conference opponent since falling to Sam Houston State in the first game of the 2005-06 season, known to those of us who were there as the Ryan Bright game.
Missouri ended the season with a 23-12 record. It was a disappointing season, as is usually the case when Missouri misses the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers could have made this year’s Big Dance with just a few more wins against lesser opponents. Missouri finished in a three-way tie for sixth in what we’ll call a fairly pedestrian Southeastern Conference. The Tigers had two players with pro potential, and they still could not make it into the NCAA Tournament.
That leads us to the key questions for the team heading into next year. Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown both could have the opportunity to leave a year early to test the waters of the NBA Draft. Neither one projects to be selected very high right now, so that could bode well for them coming back. However, players have been known to leave on just the faintest whisper of NBA potential, so we’ll have to wait and see.
Beyond those decisions, Missouri will need to work to develop more of an inside presence. Freshmen Johnathan Williams III and Torren Jones showed flashes of potential this season, in Jones’ case later in the season after he got more experience. Their development will be key for the program going forward.
So far, coach Frank Haith has relied heavily on transfers, and next season transfers Cameron Biedscheid, from Notre Dame, and Deuce Bello, from Baylor, will be eligible to play. It will be interesting to see how the new faces contribute and fit in with the current players.
Next season will be a big year for the program, as the Tigers try to get back in the NCAA Tournament and reverse two seasons of decline after a great first year for Haith. Tiger fans are probably ready to put this season behind them and hope for better things next year.