Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mizzou caps season with NIT appearance

Missouri’s NCAA Tournament hopes were dashed for good in Atlanta last Friday, when the Tigers fell 72-49 to Florida in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.

Missouri (22-11) hung tough with the No. 1 Gators for about 30 minutes, but Florida pulled away in the final 10 minutes. The game came the day after Missouri’s double overtime win against Texas A&M. Missouri’s loss to Florida was a nice effort, but also a reminder that Florida, which went 21-0 against SEC teams this season, is one of the nation’s most complete teams.

For the first time since 2008, Missouri’s name wasn’t called on the NCAA Tournament’s Selection Sunday. It broke a string of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances by the Tigers, which tied for the longest streak in school history. Missouri has made the tournament 26 times altogether, but appearance number 27 will have to wait until at least next year.

Missouri was selected to play in the second-tier National Invitational Tournament. The NIT does have a lot of history, if not very much prestige these days.

Heading into this year’s edition, Missouri is just 1-7 in the NIT, although as a 2 seed the Tigers have a decent chance to make a run in the tournament.

The teams in Missouri’s quarter of the bracket are certainly manageable, as one would expect in the NIT. But an inability to take care of manageable opponents is why Missouri is in the NIT. Still, beating Davidson, Southern Miss or Toledo and then one of Minnesota, High Point, St. Mary’s or Utah is all it would take to get to the NIT’s final four, at world-famous Madison Square Garden in New York City.

But the NIT is less about matchups and more about simply seeing the Tigers play good basketball. Play hard, play reasonably smart, win a few games and give some positive final note to what has been at times a frustrating season. Making a run in the NIT isn’t cause for throwing a parade, but it beats playing poorly in the NIT.

Should the Tigers make a run to the NIT’s final four, playing at storied old Madison Square Garden would be a great experience for them and some nice exposure for the program. And hey, as challenging as this season was, the NIT brings another chance or two to see the Tigers in action at Mizzou Arena, and a fairly cheap chance at that.

Regardless of what happens in the NIT, the story of this season has been written, of course. Even if they won’t make it every year, the Tigers’ goal going into each season should be to get into the NCAA Tournament, and they had a few too many bad losses to make that happen this year.

Next year will be a big year for Missouri, trying to get back into the NCAA Tournament and avoid getting too much negative momentum for the program.

The NIT may not be much consolation, but it’s a chance to get a leg up on building some positive momentum.

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