Friday night was supposed to be a precursor, a tune-up game. The Missouri Tigers were going to romp on the Norfolk State Spartans for 40 minutes in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and everyone knew it.
Sure, Norfolk State had gone 25-9 in the regular season, but the Spartans played in the MEAC — the MEAC. (Can you even name half of the teams that played in the MEAC?) Mizzou had gone 30-4 in its final season in the Big 12 — one of the better basketball conferences in the nation. The team had defeated the Kansas Jayhawks in Columbia and had nearly repeated the feat in Lawrence. Senior guard Kim English was one of the best college players in the country. Missouri fans were excited, pundits were impressed, and the Tigers were playing with an eye toward the Final Four. A team like Norfolk State was not about to stop them. Forty minutes later, the Tigers walked silently to the locker room. Missouri had fallen in one of the worst upsets in tournament history.
March Madness loves upsets. Since George Mason’s bracket-busting Final Four run in 2006, the expectations for “Cinderella teams” has grown exponentially. And it really does appear that there is a modicum of parity in the bracket — look at Mason, look at Virginia Commonwealth last year, look at Butler reaching the title game (twice). They never win, but fans love to watch the traditional powers sweat and, occasionally, fall. There is a certain satisfaction in rooting for the underdogs and having them prevail in a true upset. But shock, not satisfaction, materialized after Friday’s game.
Missouri wasn’t just any good team. It was one of the best teams in the country. The fact that it didn’t receive a No. 1 seed had been controversial from the start. The squad was experienced, often starting four seniors. The team had an unknown for a coach, who had left a moribund program in Miami and come to craft one of the truly great seasons in the history of Mizzou basketball. The Tigers won at home. They won on the road. They dominated their Big 12 foes and beat the Jayhawks in prime time. Their high scoring offense was fun to watch. Panic in the wake of Mike Anderson’s departure transformed to elation at the sight of the Tigers winning just their second Big 12 tournament title. We talk about Cinderella teams in the tournament, but really, this was Missouri’s Cinderella season. This was going to be the year that the glass slipper finally fit a black and gold “M.”
At least part of our obsession with upsets comes from the guilty pleasure we get from watching a cocky team or a pompous coach lose in embarrassing fashion to a school with an endowment smaller than their athletic budget. Schadenfreude. And that’s why Norfolk State’s upset of Missouri was more shocking that satisfying. Missouri is not Duke. Frank Haith is not Coach K. Outside of the state of Kansas, there is no national backlash or resentment directed toward Mizzou. Duke (deservedly so) casts an image of eminent entitlement: The media fawn over Mike Krzyzewski as the paragon of good coaching, and the Blue Devils’s appearance in top 25 rankings is automatic by this point. But the Tigers were a team with which we could identify. They had a good history — not a great one, but a good one. The legacy of former coach Norm Stewart, himself a Mizzou alumnus, can still be felt at the university, with streets and courts named in his honor. Kim English was an outstanding player who loved poetry, bringing that fluidity and grace to the parquet. The Pressey brothers competed with and complemented each other’s abilities, with senior guard Matt displaying the poise and experience of an older brother, and sophomore guard Phil playing with the scrappiness of a younger brother. Junior guard Michael Dixon embraced the role of the sixth man, playing with determination whenever he was called into a game. And Haith was a soft-spoken man who was at a loss for words when the Tigers won the Big 12 tournament. You can’t cheer against a team like that. You’re shocked when they lose.
For Mizzou fans, this season ended in disappointment. Many fans are worried about the future of the program. The Tigers played seven seniors this year: only Phil Pressey, Michael Dixon and junior forward Andy Rosburg will return for the 2012-2013 season. The next season will certainly be one full of changes, but it could also help to redefine Missouri basketball. The Tigers will begin play in the Southeastern Conference next year, which could be a boon for the Tigers. The SEC is dominant at football, but outside of Kentucky, it does not play basketball to match. The Tigers have played in four straight NCAA tournaments, and they’re likely to extend that run in their new conference. This season could be a turning point for Mizzou. It could also be a crossroads.
Regardless of next year’s uncertainty, Missouri fans should remember 2011-2012. They shouldn’t agonize over one loss. They should recall every other aspect of this season. Thirty-four games turned the Tigers into a winning team. Winning teams don’t look at the next season as an ordeal. They look at it as another chance to win. Players and fans alike got a taste for winning this season — they should want more. Top-10 rankings and deep runs into the tournament should be expected. Mizzou Arena should be filled to capacity with black and gold, and the Tigers should play like a team with national importance, like the team that they were this year. 2011-2012 ended prematurely, but it could stimulate the growth of Missouri basketball for years to come.
Oh, and Duke lost to Lehigh. And any basketball season that includes a Duke upset can’t be all that bad.