Prince Geoffrey: As if the way one fell down mattered.
Prince Richard: When the fall is all there is, it matters.
On January 8, the Missouri Tigers stood with a 12-1 record, ranked 21st in the nation, just one possession away from an undefeated non-conference mark. They had beaten two teams that would go on to make the NCAA field, one of those games on the road. The team's biggest flaw was no great secret: When they threw the ball into the post, there was no one who could throw it into the ocean. But it was understood that while that flaw would prevent them from reaching the Final Four, it couldn't keep them from the Big Dance. They had a three-headed scoring beast in Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross that few teams could match. They'd already done the heavy lifting. All that remained was to walk over the creampuffs that comprised two-thirds of the SEC schedule. They were well up the ladder, just a few rungs from a place in the bracket.
Then the Missouri Tigers participated in the worst basketball game ever played and began their plunge to earth.
It's hard to convey the depth of the aesthetic atrocity that was the Missouri-Georgia game, so just know this: In detention sites that don't exist on maps, black ops have stopped waterboarding detainees and have started showing them the game tape. The Bulldogs, who counted a win over Chattanooga as their best in a 6-6 nonconference slate, missed half of their free throws, made less than one-third of their three-point tries, and still managed to top the Tigers in overtime. In Columbia. I once wrote this about Mizzou's 112-105 loss in a titanic clash at Oklahoma in 1989: "On a night when Oklahoma would have beaten any team in the country, the Sooners were the only team in the country that could have beaten Missouri." This was the opposite of that. On a night when Mizzou would have lost to any team in the country, the Tigers were the only team in the country that could have lost to Georgia.
Still, inexplicable things, they happen. Burn the film. Wipe the hard drive. Move on.
But exactly one month later, after a loss at Mississippi, the Tigers stood 4-6 in the SEC, far worse than most had projected. However, there still was a way to rationalize it. They were unlucky, you see. The Tigers lost in overtime to Georgia after missing a shot that would have won it in regulation. They fell by three at Vanderbilt and then by six at LSU, a margin inflated after the home team made some free throws in the closing seconds. They lost by five to a Kentucky squad that, as you know, turned out to be awfully good. The Tigers fell by ten at Florida, a team that went through the league undefeated, but they trailed by just three points with a little over seven minutes to play. Finally, they lost by three in Oxford after rallying from eighteen points down.
The Tigers were just a few plays a way from being 7-3 or better in the league with losses to two Final Four teams. They were better than their record, you see.
They backed up the thesis by winning three straight, a span that included finishing a season-sweep of Arkansas and a victory over a Tennessee team that eventually advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. They were back above .500 in league play. The fall had stopped.
But then they burst into flames.
Mixing metaphors here, sure, but anyone who saw it will verify that the Tigers were burning and plunging. It was a flippin' cataclysm, people.
I got this assignment when Bill asked for a "postmortem" on Missouri's basketball season, and what a poetically perfect request: Postmortem. Noun. An examination to determine the cause of death.
So what killed a season that started with such promise?
The autopsy photos are hard to look at. The fifteen-point drubbing at Georgia. The old-fashioned Smoky Mountain ass-whuppin' at Tennessee. The second-round NIT whimper that saw the team's two leading scorers combine to shoot just 8 for 26 from the field. Images of the wins could even make you queasy. A three-point victory at home over Vanderbilt was much like the loss at home to Georgia. On a night when Vandy would have lost to any team in the country . . . .
Here are a few things we know. Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross combined to average 51.4 points per game. When you have three guys who can score like that, they don't need much help to win games. And they didn't get much help. No other Tiger averaged even six points per game. None scored more than 14 points even once. Once SEC play started, the rest of the team combined for five double-figure scoring games - Johnathan Williams III had three of them, scoring 10 twice and 11 once (and it took two overtimes in that one); Ryan Rosburg put up 11 at Mississippi; and Keanau Post (whose next best game was six points and who failed to score at all in 24 contests) tallied 14 against Mississippi State. We haven't seen anything that unbalanced since Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.
We also know that the Tigers suffered from three other fatal afflictions: They didn't share the ball, didn't care for the ball, and didn't stop the ball. In league play in their 14-team conference, the Tigers ranked 11th in both opponents' field-goal percentage and three-point field-goal percentage, 11th in turnover margin, 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio, and dead last in assists per game.
That's the story. Not the season, but the fall. When a year is defined by what didn't happen - didn't score, didn't share, didn't care, didn't stop - the fall is all there is.
The season was preceded in death by the atmosphere inside Mizzou Arena. The cause for this one is harder to peg. Missouri crowds have come out in vocal support for teams considerably worse than this one, and we're just two years removed from the building being electric. But it seems far longer since Marcus Denmon scored nine points in two minutes. Part of it has to be a product of the action on the floor, which was often hard to watch. And part is surely the move to the SEC. While the transition has been undoubtedly good for football, basketball has suffered the collateral damage. Missouri's fans have embraced the indifference to hoops shown around most of the league, and they're at a loss for someone to hate. Kentucky and Arkansas are good prospects, but there's no deep reservoir of antipathy. People around this program are accustomed to great rivalries, and now they don't even have a good one.
Rediscovering the intensity inside Mizzou Arena is going to be key to any sort of Tiger basketball revival, and so will be establishing some continuity within the program. Bill asked me "how does Mizzou improve?" and the short answer is that I don't know better than anyone else, but I do know that if the solution isn't contained in the core of next year's team, it's likely to be someone else's problem to fix.
Frank Haith inherited a one-year window for success and a long-term problem when he succeeded Mike Anderson. The Norfolk State flame-out in the 2012 NCAAs took some shine off an otherwise sparkling season, but Haith gets credit for coaxing that effort out of the same group of players that underachieved the previous year. But when the core of that team was gone after a single season, Haith's inheritance was a depleted roster and Anderson's failure to land any foundational recruits beyond Phil Pressey. So in an effort to quickly stockpile talent and to balance scholarships between classes, Haith aggressively courted transfers from other four-year programs. And he wound up with some pretty effective bandages (Alex Oriakhi, Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson), but no building blocks. Throw in last year's wasted freshman class (Negus Webster-Chan and Stefan Jankovic, we hardly knew you), and Haith is back where he started. But now it may even be worse.
Earnest Ross and Tony Criswell are out of eligibility, and Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown have entered the NBA draft. There's a chance that Brown could return, but it's safer to assume that he won't. Those four players accounted for 1,909 of the team's 2,553 points - that's 74.8%. Brown alone (698 points) scored more than the seven returning players combined (634). And while someone will put up shots in the absence of Brown, Clarkson and Ross, none of the returning players seem particularly likely candidates to become go-to guys.
Johnathan Williams III is the team's leading returning scorer (5.8 points per game), and he will certainly develop a more sophisticated offensive arsenal, but to date his points have flowed largely from his activity in the paint, including offensive rebounds. He may someday average 14 points per game, but he'll need to grow into that role. Ryan Rosburg (4.8 ppg) shot 71.6% from the field (yowza!) but took less than three shots per contest. He developed an up-and-under post move late in the year, but his repertoire to date has consisted largely of put-backs and point-blank shots. Wes Clark probably has more of a scorer's mentality than any of the returners, but made just 35.9% of his shots as a freshman (one encouraging sign: his three-point percentage - a respectable 36.8% - was higher than his overall percentage). Three big bodies - Keanau Post, Torren Jones and Danny Feldmann - appear to be rebounders and defenders more than natural scorers, and freshman point guard Shane Rector had a dispiriting season; he failed to make a single field goal in nine tries (all 11 of his points came on free throws), and he had just three assists against 10 turnovers in 105 minutes of play.
five six newcomers that we know of. Zach Price, a 6-10 transfer from Louisville whose most notable move to date in Columbia was being arrested twice in one day last week (a record unlikely to be broken), has no reputation as a scorer, even dating back to high school. Deuce Bello, a 6-4 guard who averaged 2.4 points per game as a sophomore before transferring from Baylor, is best known as a perimeter defender. And incoming freshmen Jakeenan Gant (a 6-8 forward and fringe top 50 recruit) and Namon Wright (6-4 guard, top 100) will be, um, freshmen. You hope for production from them, but you don't bank on it. (The Tigers received a commitment from junior college guard Kevin Punter, who appears to be something of a scorer, though I'll confess to not even knowing of his existence on this very earth until the moment the news hit Twitter).
Mizzou's best offensive hope will likely be the last player to see the floor. Cameron Biedscheid, who began his career at Notre Dame, will become eligible at the semester break in December. A 6-7 swingman who will be a sophomore, Biedscheid averaged more than 30 points per game as a senior at Cardinal Ritter in St. Louis before being named a Parade Magazine All-American, and he put up 6.2 points per game in his lone season with the Fighting Irish. He's likely to be Missouri's leading scorer. The question is whether he can get the kind of help that this season's Big Three failed to receive.
In the end, the 2014-15 season will be a chemistry experiment. Can Frank Haith find the right combination among a roster that should include five guards (Clark, Bello, Wright, Punter and Rector), one swing player (Biedscheid) and seven post players listed at 6-8 or greater (Williams, Rosburg, Post, Jones, Feldmann, Price and Gant)? Next year might not be do-or-die for Haith, but it could be close. Still, this much is clear: If Haith is going to have a chance of having a long run in Columbia, the foundation for his success will be found somewhere in that mix of thirteen players. If there are building blocks there, the program can start the climb back up the ladder.