On March 10, 2012, Missouri crested.
The 2012 Missouri basketball team was, per Ken Pomeroy’s stats, the seventh-best team in the country. The Tigers had the best offense in the country by far but were held back at times by a tiny rotation and a lack of size. After Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore, the biggest player in the rotation was 6’6, 200-pound Kim English.
All year, we knew Missouri had fatal flaws. But through game after game, the Tigers went out of their way to prove they could overcome them. They stretched defenses to the brink with 3-point shooting, then cut them in half with Phil Pressey’s penetration and Ricardo Ratliffe’s touch around the basket. Ratliffe made 210 shots in 2011-12; I swear Pressey assisted about 206 of them. They were a perfect combination.
Missouri could be beaten. We knew it. We had seen it happen four times that year, and three of the losses — two to Kansas State, one at Oklahoma State — were legitimate. (The fourth, not so much.)
But every time we came to accept this team's mortality, the Tigers worked doubly hard to deny it. After getting pushed around in Manhattan, they beat two strong teams (Iowa State and Texas) by a combined 18, then beat Baylor in Waco in a battle of top-five teams.
They lost to Oklahoma State, then won seven in a row, taking tight games (67-66 at Texas, 74-71 vs. Kansas) and blowouts (83-65 revenge vs. OSU), both. They lost to KSU and "lost" at Kansas, then took down Iowa State on Senior Night, destroyed Texas Tech in Lubbock, then won three Big 12 Tournament games by a combined 47.
By the end of the conference title game against Baylor, we all agreed. Flaws? Sure. But everything about this team screamed “Team of Destiny.”
The thing about a crest is that it’s temporary. You have nowhere to go but down. You don’t technically know you’ve crested until there’s really nothing you can do about it. Still, even if you’re allowing yourself to wonder if things can really get any better, you’re not thinking about how badly things may end up.
We know everything that has happened since the moment Chuck Neinas handed the Big 12 trophy to Frank Haith.
- We know that
Missouri would fall to Norfolk State just six days laterthe 2012 NCAA Tournament would be canceled for some unknown reason.
- We know that, in attempt to keep Phil Pressey in a Mizzou uniform for another year, Frank Haith attempted a delicate balancing act with transfers like Alex Oriakhi, Earnest Ross, and Keion Bell. And a year later, we know that he would attempt to do the same with guys like Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown. We know that these players were pretty good to excellent. (We know that Zach Price was not.) We also know that this contributed to some APR issues.
- We know that the 2012-13 team seemed like it had a ceiling just as high as its predecessor. We know that that ended when Mike Dixon got kicked out of school for being a creep and Laurence Bowers suffered a midseason injury. Bowers returned, but we know that he wasn’t the same.
- We know that a combination of the Nevin Shapiro scandal, iffy evaluation, and iffy development/retention meant that Haith was able to bring almost no successful high school recruits to Columbia. Some never developed, some never showed the potential they were supposed to have, some left and showed that potential elsewhere. We know that this also contributed to APR issues.
- We know that, after a disappointing, 23-win NIT season in 2013-14, Frank Haith asked for a contract extension that he could not be given, then left for stability at Tulsa.
- We know that Missouri went after Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall before finding out that the price tag was too high, then rode everlasting booster sentiment and a Division II national title to the hire of Kim Anderson.
- We know that Missouri would suffer NCAA punishment from violations of the “impermissible benefits” variety. We know that Anderson was not told of these violations before he accepted the job. (We also know that he would have accepted the job anyway.)
- We know that, under Anderson, faulty player development and retention remained a hindrance. And we know that delicate APR math furthered roster issues.
- We know that, after averaging 25 wins per season during Haith’s tenure, Missouri won 27 games, total, in three years under Anderson.
- We know that Missouri is currently looking for a new head coach.
We know that we saw absolutely none of this coming.
Five years ago, our biggest concerns were what tricky team Missouri might draw in the Round of 32 (it would have been Florida, which, it bears mentioning, would have given the Tigers fits) or what heavyweight Mizzou might be paired with in the Elite Eight.
We were concerned with what might happen to the team the following year, following the departure of Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Ratliffe, Matt Pressey, and Steve Moore (a.k.a. 71% of the rotation).
We were not concerned about potentially being unable to win double-digit games just three years later.
The most crushing moments come when you truly believe that greatness is on its way, when your defense shield is down and you completely believe joy is on the way. These result in the most gut-wrenching losses — the 2000 Big 12 Tournament game against Oklahoma in which Clarence Gilbert’s 3-pointer at the buzzer went about three-quarters of the way down before rimming out; the 2013 Missouri-South Carolina football game in which, for a millisecond, it looked like Marcus Murphy was going to score the winning touchdown before he got tripped up and Mizzou got goal-posted (as I wrote at the time, “It’s the flashes that cause the flashbacks”) — but they don’t usually work as five-year, slow motion disasters.
But here we are.
The NCAA Tournament is cruel. Just ask Doug Smith and the other members of the storied 1990 Missouri team. Just ask countless highly-seeded Kansas teams that have fallen through the years. Talent seems to only matter so much before fate just does whatever the hell it wants. We don't know how fate will define the coming weeks for Missouri -- whether they are destined to fall to Norfolk State or win the national title -- but the final paragraphs of this chapter only matter so much.
I wrote that on March 16, the day before the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. In that moment, it felt like anything was possible. Technically, the last five years have proven that.
Luckily, a coaching change can serve as a bookend. From the moment the buzzer sounded in Kansas City five years ago to the moment Missouri’s 2016-17 season ended in Nashville on Thursday night was, to be honest, a perfectly constructed story of sports collapse. It is almost disorienting to tie those two events together. Kansas City feels like 15 years ago.
But that story is over. I cannot promise that the next one will be better, but you figure the odds are good. (You’re allowed to tell me that the odds were good that Mizzou would beat Norfolk State, too. It’s okay. We’re all still working through this.)
We don’t know who is about to lead Missouri, and we don’t know how he will do. But the story of 2012-17 is over, and an entire fan base is ready to be shown the way toward belief once again.