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If Missouri's 2011-12 basketball season proved anything, it is that to maintain your sanity as a sports fan (and especially as a Mizzou fan), you have to take as much pleasure in the chase as you do in the end result. Mizzou had not only one of its best ever regular seasons, but one of its most fun this year. They completely obliterated two NCAA Tournament teams, Notre Dame and California, over Thanksgiving weekend at the Sprint Center. They beat Illinois for the third straight year. They plowed through a good portion of conference play. They beat Kansas via Marcus Denmon's heroics, and then they almost did it again in Lawrence. They beat Baylor three times, Iowa State twice. They then won three more games at the Sprint Center. They went 5-0 in "Kansas City, MISSOURI," and they gave us this GIF.
(Sorry, what was I saying? I've been watching this GIF for the last five minutes.)
There's no way to avoid the fact that a loss to Norfolk State puts a permanent damper on the season as a whole, but only so much of one. The ending may have sucked, but the chase was incredibly enjoyable. Since we tend to tie everything to relationship analogies, there is an obvious one here: do you view a lovely, lengthy relationship that ends poorly as a success (because it was lovely and lengthy) or as a failure (because it ended sooner than you hoped)?*
We have no idea how good Missouri will be in 2012-13. Hell, at this point, we still have no idea how the last two spots on the roster will take shape. We don't know whether Missouri will have to fight and scrap for one of the last NCAA tournament bids (or none at all), or whether another 30-5 season is in the works. But we know the chase should be a lot of fun again, and for two specific reasons: 1) Mike Dixon and Phil Pressey will still populate the backcourt, and 2) the Party Starter returns.
Laurence Bowers has personified "take pleasure in the chase" as well as anybody on the Missouri basketball team in recent years. Missouri has by all means experienced solid success with him in uniform -- three years, three NCAA tournament trips, four tourney wins -- but his play has turned mundane moments into spectacular ones, great moments into transcendent ones. His freshman year, he turned an awful alley oop pass against an awful team into a SportsCenter Top 10 moment. His sophomore year, he set Mizzou Arena ablaze with the dunk that finished the Kansas State game. His smooth athleticism and long arms have made him a highlight reel player, but his improving jumper made him a reliable figure on an occasionally unreliable team.
When Bowers tore his ACL in October 2011, it was heartbreaking for a couple of different reasons. At the time, it seemed it was a potentially fatal blow to Missouri's 2011-12 season. Plus, for a player known for his athleticism, knee injuries can keep you cruelly nailed to the ground, even when you return to action. His team soldiered on well without him, and it sounds as if his recovery is coming along perfectly smoothly. But we won't know what we have in Bowers until next October's Black & Gold game. That he'll have had a full 12 months to recover is significant -- only about eight months passed between Justin Safford's knee injury and his first action, and it seemed to take him most of the season to get back up to speed. But know this: the first time Bowers dunks in a game will be one of the most cathartic experiences Mizzou Arena will have seen in a while.
If Bowers returns at full strength, he gives Mizzou a lot of versatility on offense and help on defense. He will catch those 100-mph darts from Phil Pressey, make the occasional jumper, block some shots, etc. But this post isn't about stats or results or any sort of measurable quality. This post is about the pure joy that Bowers' game often brings to Missouri fans (who are, by the way, starved for joy right about now). It will probably do so again starting next fall, and ... well, I can't wait.
* Allow me to expand on this analogy a bit. Growing up, I was in what I feel were probably three successful relationships. They were pretty lengthy (all around two years or so), and they allowed me to figure out both how to be a good part of a relationship and what I actually want in a relationship. I consider them successful even though they ended up failing. We can debate semantics, but that what I was aiming for. There were plenty of great moments, and they led to something better, therefore they were successful. I guess whether we deem this season a success or not might have to do with the years that follow. If Mizzou's program falls apart and trips into another postseason void, then the regret for this missed chance will be incredible. But if Mizzou makes the next 10 tournaments, sees some success and, yes, maybe actually makes a Final Four one of these days, then we'll look back at this year rather differently.