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March 16, 2014
What went wrong?
The NCAA Tournament Selection Show is just hours away. And for the first time in six seasons, there simply isn't much interest for Mizzou fans. Yeah, there were still the select few eternal optimists wondering late Saturday night if conference tournament titles by Western Michigan and UCLA could help the Tigers' RPI enough, if the Selection Committee would penalize BYU for a late-season injury to one of its top players and leave the Cougars out of the field, replacing them with the Tigers. And, honestly, in the words of Lloyd Christmas, "So you're telling me there's a chance!"
Yeah, there's a chance. It's incredibly remote. Missouri had tons of chances to secure a spot in the field of 68, to make Selection Sunday at least suspensful and at most a foregone conclusion. But it didn't happen and it appears fans of the 22-11 Tigers will have more reason to tune in for the NIT Selection Show than that of the tournament everybody actually cares about.
Yeah, that's harsh. It's also true. The simple fact is that at a program like Missouri, the NCAA Tournament is the goal. Every year. No exceptions. It won't always be reached. Missouri has never made six straight NCAA Tournaments. That fact will likely remain true later this evening. There is a difference between goals and expectations. No, you cannot expect Missouri to make the Big Dance every single season. Yes, it is the goal to do so.
If the Selection Committee shocks us all and Missouri's name appears somewhere on the board a little after 5:00 today, the rest of this story will largely be moot. Missouri will have another life and a chance to right a season gone wrong. But we're operating under the assumption that isn't going to happen and that the Tigers' next game will be in the NIT (likely at home and likely Tuesday night). One more win--any other win--probably would have put Missouri in the field. Two would have done the trick for sure. But it didn't happen and the Tigers are likely headed for "that other tournament."
That leaves one very basic--but hardly simple--question: How did we get to this point?
To begin to answer that question, we've got to go back to the pre-season. I cannot tell anyone what their expectations should have been. I can only tell you what mine were. In October, I stated both publicly and privately that I viewed this Missouri team as one that was likely to be on the bubble come the third Sunday in March. I saw a team with only three proven scorers (and only two who had done it in a BCS Conference). I saw a team trying to make a shooting guard into a full-time point guard. I saw a team with potential, but little proven, in the front court.
I also saw a team playing in a poor conference with plenty of opportunities for wins. I saw a non-conference schedule that I thought held some opportunities for wins that would be important to the committee (West Virginia, UCLA, Illinois, NC State, Long Beach State--only one of those is a likely tournament team. NC State and West Virginia made pushes but will probably fall short while Illinois and Long Beach were worse than we thought).
After that non-conference slate, Missouri was 12-1, losing only on a late bucket to an Illinois team that at the time looked like it would provide at least a fairly decent loss. The Tigers were ranked and all of a sudden expectations changed.
There is nothing wrong with adjusting expectations. In fact, there is something wrong with refusing to do so. While I thought the Tigers were a bubble team in October, I stated in late December that it would be a disappointment to miss the NCAA Tournament. When you're 12-1 and playing in the SEC--a conference that should have at worst given the Tigers 10 or 11 league wins and a record above .500--you should make the tournament. It's similar to what happened during football season. Before the year, I wouldn't have bet a nickel on Missouri's chances to make the SEC Championship Game. By the time the Tigers kicked off against Texas A&M in the regular season finale, it would have been a kick in the gut if they'd not made it. There is nothing wrong with changing expectations as results dictate you do so.
The SEC was as weak as I thought it would be. In fact, it was weaker. Kentucky, the nation's pre-season No. 1 team, was a disappointment (they'll make the tournament, but if you're pre-season No. 1, you shouldn't be a seven or an eight seed). LSU and Alabama underwhelmed. So did Tennessee for much of the season. Ole Miss and Arkansas were right with Missouri, teams that looked like NCAA players one day and NIT observers the next. Georgia hit its stride starting with a win in Columbia, but was so bad in the non-conference it still won't make the Dance. Texas A&M and Vanderbilt overachieved but still weren't good teams. Auburn, Bama, South Carolina and Mississippi State were just bad. Missouri faced the league's only elite team, Florida, just once in the regular season. And yet the Tigers limped to a 9-9 record in the conference, winning just two games away from home and dropping more home games (2) than Frank Haith had lost in his first two years combined (1).
The reasons were multiple. We'll list just a few.
From the outset, something wasn't right between Tony Criswell and his head coach. Criswell averaged 5.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in 18.8 minutes as a junior on a team with a more proven frontcourt. Those numbers dropped to 3.9 and 3.4 in less than 14 minutes this season as he bounced back and forth between suspended, benched and a bit contributor all season. He did not even travel with the Tigers to the SEC Tournament. Haith has left the door open that he could play in the postseason, but even if he does, few are expecting him to play much of a meaningful role.
Fellow juco transfer Keanau Post was expected to be a difference maker in the paint. A certain contributor and a likely starter. Post averaged only eight minutes a game, never played more than 22, didn't even see the court in five games and scored more than a third of his points for the season in a single game against Mississippi State, the SEC's worst team.
The disappointing seasons from Criswell and Post meant that Johnathan Williams, III and Ryan Rosburg were asked to play far more than they should have been. The duo each started every game in the regular season, averaging a combined 48.9 minutes that would have been higher if not for foul trouble. Both showed flashes of great production. Williams was one of the country's top freshman rebounders and had 11 points and 15 boards while leading the team in assists in a double-overtime SEC Tournament win over Texas A&M. Rosburg shot 70% from the floor and had as many as 14 points and 12 rebounds in a game. Both also went through stretches of virtual invisibility during the season. Stefan Jankovic transferred early in the season and the only other post player, freshman Torren Jones, played little early and too little late.
In the backcourt, Wes Clark battled the same inconsistencies as Rosburg and Williams, at times looking like the point guard of the future and at others looking like he wasn't ready for the college game. The other freshman, Shane Rector, frankly didn't play enough to even begin to make an assessment of his game at this level.
Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross carried this Tiger team, as was expected all along. The trio averaged 51.2 points (70.2% of the team's total), 14.5 rebounds (38.9%), and 6.7 assists (60.5%) in a combined 103.4 minutes per game (51.2%). When one of the three was off, Missouri had trouble winning. When two were off, the Tigers had little chance.
The Big Three offer a major conundrum when looking at this team. Are they absolved of blame because too much was put on them? Or do they shoulder their fair share (or more) because they were really the only three players capable of leading this team to the NCAA Tournament? Each person will have his own answer to that question and, honestly, neither is probably totally correct or totally wrong.
All three struggled at times during the season. Over the final four games, none could make an outside shot consistently, other than Ross in the first half against the Aggies. Mizzou historian Tom Orf stated that the Tigers' three-point performance over the final four games was the second-worst four-game stretch in the last 27 years (Ross, Clarkson and Brown combined to go 8-53 and the team shot just 17.5% from deep in the final four). Did they hit the wall from playing too many minutes? Were they exhausted mentally from having to carry so much of the load all season long? Were there issues off the court (we know about the illness of Brown's father and another family situation has been referenced but not revealed) that finally caught up and hurt the product on it? As is almost always the case, it was probably a combination of all those factors and more.
The fact is that Missouri is extremely unlikely to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Haith's three seasons. The why, to the extent that it matters, will probably trickle out in fragments after the season ends.
What it leaves us with is an off-season that has many more questions than answers. Will Brown and Clarkson be back? If not, can the Tigers replace them? Are the three transfers for next year capable of replacing the production of the three that look to be leaving? Do they represent the final year in which Haith's program will lean so heavily on poaching players looking for a fresh start from other programs?
Of course, in college sports, all questions ultimately land on the desk of the head coach. Many will ask over the next few months if Haith is coaching to keep his job next season. It is a question that only Mike Alden can answer. My guess is, barring a disaster, he is not.
Haith has been at Missouri for three years. He has won more than 70% of his games and has made two NCAA Tournaments. He has done so with three completely different teams. His first had seven players. His second lost its backup point guard and most proven scorer (Mike Dixon) before he ever played a game and lost its emotional leader (Laurence Bowers) to an injury after which he was never quite the same player. His third was missing vital parts due to various factors (early departures and underachievement being chief among them) and ultimately played much of the season 3-on-5, at least on the offensive end of the floor (and, yes, to be fair, the defense, or lack thereof, is a major issue over Haith's three seasons and a major question going forward).
Some will deem those excuses. Others will deem them reasons. There's a difference, but my computer does not have enough memory to delve deeply into which is which and how much each matters. In the end, they're all part of the story, whether reasons or excuses.
Next season, there are no excuses. The roster Mike Anderson left behind (along with the absence of a recruiting class) can be no crutch. To be clear, Haith has never used it as one, at least publicly, but many of his supporters point to it. It is fair to do so. Until next year. Next year, he has a roster he constructed completely. He has players he wanted. He has the roster he put together. By the time the season starts, he will have been clear of any NCAA cloud for more than a calendar year.
Again, I do not believe Frank Haith is, or should be, coaching for his job next season. But much like they were for Gary Pinkel at this time a year ago, those questions are going to be asked. A lot. They already have been by fans and media alike. Pinkel went out and made the questions look reactionary and, to be blunt, stupid. Will Haith do the same? His future--and that of Missouri basketball--ride largely on that answer.