As I type this we are roughly 12 hours away from Mizzou’s first NCAA Tournament action since 2003. Before they take the court I want to go on the record saying what I believe are reasonable expectations for this team. Missouri fans tend to get emotional. They love to criticize when the Tigers are losing and they love to jump on the bandwagon when things look good. Not only do Mizzou fans jump on the bandwagon, they jump to irrational conclusions.
It’s not just in hoops either. How many fans were already counting the football team as number one in the country the night they lost to Oklahoma State? How many fans were calling the basketball team a bust as they trailed kU by 14 at home?
The thing about this basketball team is that they don’t exactly have the prettiest wins. But the fact is that they have 28 of them and that is all that counts. So if Missouri gets down say, oh I don’t know… 25-9 to start the game tomorrow, (sound familiar Syracuse?) I expect to hear many fans saying things like, “typical Mizzou,” or “we are overrated.” Yet those same fans will be penciling us into the title game when Mizzou goes on a 25-2 run in the second half to storm to a commanding lead. That’s when those same fans will say things like, “We honestly could be the best team in the nation,” or “We will for sure kill Marquette.”
In this tournament though, nothing is for sure. Just ask 2005 Kansas or 2001 Iowa State. When this season started back in October, if I would have told the average fan that Missouri would be favored in their first game of the NCAA Tournament this season, they would have called me crazy. After all, Missouri went 16-16 last season, finishing 10th in the Big 12. This is the same Tiger team that was picked by the coaches to finish 7th this year in the Big 12. This is the same team that was ranked for all of 4 days before getting absolutely rocked by Illinois. This is the same Mizzou squad that started the Big 12 schedule by losing to Nebraska of all teams.
But from those dismal days this team has evolved. This is a team that enters the tournament not as an at-large bid, but as the Big 12 champions. They are ranked 9th in the nation – ahead of powerhouses such as UCLA, Kansas, Syracuse, and Villanova. Missouri has come a long way and they have rightfully earned their 3 seed. On paper, individually, they may not match up. But they find a way to win.
However, before we can go ahead and start the Final Four talk it is important to remember where this team has come from. That is why I say that if this team reaches the Sweet Sixteen, the season is a success. Many fans like to jump to conclusions and say Mizzou can do even better. And they can. But judging from where this team has come, a Sweet Sixteen birth would be a great success. Winning two NCAA Tournament games is extremely hard. To be one of the last 16 teams left in the country is no small achievement. So while it is easy to buy into Digger Phelps and everyone else on our bandwagon, we must first remember where this team came from.
If the Tigers return to Columbia as the first team in school history to reach the Final Four, they should be celebrated. If the Tigers can return to Columbia as Sweet Sixteen participants, they should be celebrated. And if the team returns to Columbia before that, they should still be celebrated. This team has already exceeded all reasonable expectations even the most optimistic fan can say they had back in October.