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March 19, 2012

Powered Up: An end far too early





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I waited three days to write this. Thirty-five games cannot be defined thirty-five minutes later. Autopsies are not done while the body is lying warm at the crime scene.

That's a little harsh. But, to be fair, Missouri's players were comparing what happened to them on Friday evening in Omaha, Nebraska to a death.

"It's gonna hurt for a while," Steve Moore said. "But just like all sicknesses and death, you've got to move on."

So, anyway, the point is, I didn't want to react immediately. I delivered the quotes, we gave you all the video from the locker room, but I wanted to give my own thoughts time to form in the wake of an 86-84 loss to Norfolk State that is, without a doubt, even three days later, one of the most shocking games in the history of the NCAA Tournament.

What I feel is an overwhelming void. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Not to this team. Not to this group of seven kids who had lost their coach and replaced him with a guy that, to be kind, was called unproven. Not to this team that had seen its best frontcourt player tear his knee up in September, ending his season before it began.

To be fair, I tell you guys all the time that I'm not a fan. And in the true sense of the word, I'm not. But you can't spend the amount of time that beat writers spend around these kids and not develop some sense of fondness for them. Sure we all wanted them to win. And if we didn't want them to win, we surely did not want to see it end quite so soon.

This Missouri team had overcome so much. I told friends before the season started that if Frank Haith even got a Laurence Bowers-less Tiger team to the NCAA Tournament, he should be the Big 12 coach of the year. Haith didn't just get them there. They won 30 games. They were seconds away from winning the Big 12 regular season and then they dominated the field to win their final Big 12 tournament. They were the pick of the majority of experts to make the Final Four out of the West Region. They were good enough to do it. I still maintain if Phil Pressey's final shot had gone in they'd have gotten there. It's speculation and there's no way to know if it's true, but they absolutely were good enough.

And on a Friday night in Omaha, in perhaps the most non-descript time slot in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament against a team that had never been there before, it ended in spectacularly shocking fashion.

Haith was named the Henry Iba National Coach of the Year by the United States Basketball Writers Association on Monday morning. He held a press conference just a couple of hours later. The idea may have been to talk about the award, but after a 40-second opening statement praising his staff and his players and the fans and the administration, there were no questions about it. That just wasn't the story. Not after Friday.

"I think that when you sit back and you really look at big picture, you have to say this team had a heck of a year. You can't just disregard the 34 games prior," Haith said. "Hats off to Norfolk State. They played a whale of a game. They banked threes in, they made contested shots, they played incredible. But we weren't at our best from an execution standpoint in some areas too.

"This team had a tremendous year. Exceeded everyone's expectations, I would think. I know they exceeded my expectations."

And in many ways, Haith is right. This was a magical season at Missouri. This team made a fanbase that had given up on basketball before this season believe again. More than that, it made that fanbase love Missouri basketball. As much as teams led by Stipo and Sundvold, by Chievous and Coward, by Peeler and Smith, by Carroll and Lyons, Missouri fans loved this team. And that counts for something. That counts for a lot.

But the fact is, college basketball seasons are defined by March. Is it fair? I don't know. It probably wasn't fair to Bill Self, whose fantastic career was more defined by Bradley and Bucknell than anything else before the run to the 2008 national title. It wasn't fair to Norm Stewart, who does not get the due he deserves thanks to teams like Xavier and Northern Iowa. But fair or not, that's how it is.

For 34 games, this was an amazing basketball season at Mizzou. But, as a colleague asked me in the media room on Friday night, how do we remember it now?

It is Van de Velde in the British Open. It is running out of gas when you're in the lead in the backstretch of the final lap at Daytona. It is Seinfeld. By that, I mean eight years of historically fantastic television that all came crashing down in a finale so stupid many people forget how funny the show really was.

What this senior class did for Missouri basketball is phenomenal. As Kim English said, this group (English, Moore and Marcus Denmon specifically) left Missouri basketball 100 times better than they found it. That's not debatable.

Legacies can't be defined immediately. Perhaps Haith will get the Tigers to a Final Four. Perhaps it will happen as soon as next year. And if it does, English and Denmon and Moore and Matt Pressey and Ricardo Ratliffe deserve as much credit for that as the kids who are on the team when it actually happens. They can be the Brad Smith of Tiger hoops. They may not have been the ones that got Missouri over that hump, but they pushed the car a hell of a long way up the mountain.

Unfortunately, they didn't reach the summit. A few feet short, they were shoved off by a team many had never heard of from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. I don't mean to say Norfolk State doesn't deserve credit. They deserve a ton. By the time the Tigers figured out they had a game on their hands, the Spartans had so much confidence that none of the Tigers' haymakers were going to knock them down, much less out. But the story isn't Norfolk State. The story is Missouri. There are a million reasons Missouri lost.

"We all can sit back and say this is the reason why after the fact. I don't know that I could point to one thing because you don't see that coming," Haith said. "It just boils down to Norfolk State playing a hell of a game and we not playing our best at that point in time. We just couldn't recover. It kind of caught up, some of the things that I think hurt us most of the year, rebounding the basketball, I mean they had six points off of airballs. Stickbacks where they shot an airball and they made a layup and got fouled. I mean, how many times that happen? It's pretty crazy. That was six of their points. I think they banked a three. You know, that can happen. There were some things that happened in that game that were just…"

Haith stops. He doesn't really have the word for it. Three days later, neither do I.

"We've had a lot of adversity. I think that's the beauty of the success of this team that they've had," Haith said. "Not just Frank Haith and the Miami thing, but obviously with Laurence Bowers getting hurt and a couple guys transferring, Ricky Kreklow transferring and then we lose Kadeem Green mid-year. There's a lot of things, and that's why I think, man, this team has done a hell of a job, this staff has done a hell of a job and I'm very proud to be a part of it."

One loss doesn't erase all of that. But it changes it. Van de Velde doesn't have a Claret Jug on his mantle. Missouri is one of six two seeds to lose its first NCAA Tournament game.

And three days later, what I felt on Friday night is still what I feel. It wasn't anger. It wasn't sadness. It was just shock.

"You can't go back and continue to play after having a game like we had," Haith said.

And that's the part that none of us are ready to accept. It wasn't supposed to end. Not like this. Not so soon. Not this year.

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