They're getting there, Tiger fans. Certainly, the Missouri basketball team is not there yet. But they're getting closer.
Now, a disclaimer. If you don't want to hear that a seven-point win on your home court over a Baylor team that is 2-and-9 in Big 12 play and is missing its best player is progress, just stop reading. Right now. I'm dead serious.
Still here? Okay. Maybe you will agree with me.
On Wednesday night, Missouri maddeningly let an inferior Baylor team hang around for 39 minutes and 50 seconds. Despite shooting just 37% from the floor, and 26% from three-point range, the Bears were right there with Mizzou. The Tigers had blown every last bit of a 14-point lead. They had made some plays that had every fan in the building thinking, "Here we go again." They wouldn't admit it, but there had to be at least a player or two thinking the same thing.
But then, Missouri did what it hasn't done all year. The Tigers answered. Marshall Brown hit two free throws. Stefhon Hannah scored seven points in 79 seconds. Kalen Grimes made perhaps the best pass of his college career, finding a cutting Brown for a layup. Keon Lawrence punctuated things emphatically with an explosive dunk. Missouri won.
Was it a thing of beauty? No. In fact, it was looking like a microcosm of this year's Tigers: Good enough to get close, not tough enough to seal the deal. But then they did.
Baylor isn't a great team. Heck, Baylor isn't a good team. But neither is Iowa State. Neither is Nebraska. Illinois is a shadow of it's former self. Kansas State is good, but not elite. And Missouri couldn't close those teams out. This time, they did.
Eleven months ago, Missouri fans vowed to give Mike Anderson a two-year honeymoon. I mean, he was taking over a team that was 12-and-16 a year ago. He was missing the three best players on that team. He had less than two months to bring in some warm bodies to help revive the program.
But all that ignores the real story.
The program Mike Anderson took over was a national joke. Like it or not, somebody has to say it. Missouri had become a laughingstock, a punch line. You're a college basketball writer and you don't have a story? Look at what's going on in Columbia. The Tigers promise to provide you soap opera like material. Mizzou was a walking headline, a writer's dream.
Anderson got the Tigers off to a 9-and-0 start by beating seven patsies and a decent Davidson team, and railroading an inconsistent Arkansas squad. Honeymoon over. This team, by God, was good enough to win and win now. At least that is what the fans that had just a few months before vowed to be patient now believed.
Inevitably, the Tigers were knocked from their perch. And their fans had the chair kicked out from under them yet again. NCAA? Heck, Missouri isn't good enough to make the NIT. Again, if you listen to the fan base that has more swings than a metronome.
All that talk of the honeymoon? Forget it. We don't want to wait. We want instant gratification.
This is not meant as a shot at Missouri fans. Fans are like this. It is what makes being a sports fan so fun. I was right there with every other Chiefs fan thinking Larry Johnson could beat the Colts by himself. Spring training opens this week. I know the Royals have lost 100 games basically every season since I hit puberty. But, you know what? This is the year, man. Hey, I'm not knocking you. You did what sports fans do. You did what I do.
Missouri is not Washington State or Virginia Tech. The Tigers are not that team charging from completely off the radar to show up in the national rankings, make a run to the tournament and forget all the steps in between. No, Missouri is taking it slow and steady. For every step forward, there has been at least half a step back. But that formula still puts you a half step ahead of where you started.
The Tigers are competitive. They have had two blowout losses in the Big 12. One came to Kansas, a team that, when it plays, is maybe the best in the nation. The other came to Texas, a team that is led by, without a shred of doubt, the best player in college basketball. Other than that, the Tigers are right there. They are six points away (home losses to Iowa State by one and Nebraska by five) from being 17-and-7, 6-and-5 in the Big 12, and a legitimate NCAA tournament bubble team. Six points. You think that's not progress? Six points last year would have meant the Tigers only lost to this same Baylor team (and make no mistake, Baylor isn't any worse than it was last year) by 18.
It's not instant gratification. Barring one heck of a miracle, Missouri is not going to play in the NCAA tournament. Not this year. But they're on their way.
And that's just on the court. Off the court? Well, people respect this program again. Every opposing coach has been complimentary of the Tigers. Every one. Bob Knight, a guy that knows a little something about basketball, told Anderson he liked what Anderson was doing with his team. Opposing coaches didn't say that about Missouri the past few years. They didn't publicly ridicule the Tigers, because that is not what coaches do. But nobody was going out of his way to praise them either.
Perhaps the overwhelmingly most positive thought about Missouri basketball was summed up by a long time Tiger fan as he left the arena on Wednesday night: "I don't know who said it, but around here, no news is good news."
Good news is coming folks. There is going to be a lot of it. It may not be tomorrow. It may not be next week. Heck, it quite possibly won't even be next year. But the signs are there. They are there I the form of Stefhon Hannah and Keon Lawrence and Mike Anderson and, maybe, DeMarre Carroll.
The cloud that has hovered over Mizzou Arena is lifting. There will be some rain along the way. But it's not a constant torrential downpour. And that alone is something to smile about.