One thing I had forgotten about meaningful basketball in January and February is the impulse to re-evaluate the season after each game based on a single criteria: is my team dancing in March now?
Some programs (mercifully) never truly have to think about these things. Duke fans are among the most passionate in the country, and I can almost guarantee you none of them can even fathom what it’s like to wonder about playing in March. For them and others, it’s a matter of when and where, not if.
Some fans never have to think about these scenarios for less uplifting reasons — namely, because the thought of getting there is so laughable.
For the past three years, that’s been Mizzou basketball: a hoard of ravenous fans, used to seeing their team play in March, getting relegated to wondering when they might get to watch a meaningful game in December.
There are countless Bracketology and Bubble Watch content templates, each churning out program- and conference-specific looks at who’s got the best chance and who still needs to beat whom. We take the uncertainties of our team’s status and constantly feed ourselves with certainties such as, “Lunardi says we’re in,” and “Brennan says we’re out.”
I love reading Bubble Watches and Bracketologies. My spirits fly when I see the Tigers on the right side, and I panic when they’re not. But even without columnists telling me how many wins Missouri needs to get, it’s been nice when I can successfully make myself take a step back and appreciate good, dramatic basketball again. This has been a miraculous turnaround year.
The significance of all this isn’t lost on Cuonzo Martin. He knows what’s happening in Columbia. So when he goes to the podium after an emotional, hard-fought win over another team vying to make that field of 68 and says to the media that he’s not worried about making the tournament, because he already thinks they’re in? To hear an opposing coach look at Missouri and say, “Yeah, they’re in”? To start getting that feeling that you don’t have to worry about “Will they make it?” but rather “How will they stack up when they get there?”
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin on Mizzou's win over Mississippi state
“I’ve never debated whether or not we’re an NCAA Tournament team,” Martin said. “When you talk about one of the better teams in the country, that’s not a debate. We are one of those teams.”Posted by Rock M Nation on Saturday, February 10, 2018
I forgot how good that feels.
Missouri and Mississippi State both came into this game with winning streaks: Missouri’s at three, Mississippi State’s at four. Neither team had lost since the game in Starkville a couple of weeks prior.
While the Tigers sat mostly on the right side of the bubble by every known measure, the Bulldogs needed this, plus another Tier A win or two, to really put themselves back in the thick of things.
So in essence, you had one team trying to take someone else’s spot on the bubble. Sounds like a pretty fun afternoon to me! And other than the near cardiac arrest many of us suffered, it was!
To the box!
Missouri avoided its biggest flaw ... for 38 minutes
About nine minutes in, I glanced at the box score and was pleasantly surprised to realize Missouri hadn’t committed a turnover yet. The Tigers wouldn’t commit their first for another six-plus minutes.
At the same time, the 348th-best 3-point shooting team in the country started the game 4-for-5, so I suppose the Tigers needed their own little miracle.
Still, though, Missouri largely avoided turnovers, only coughing up the ball seven times in the first 38 minutes. That coincided with Kassius Robertson sinking two free throws to put the Tigers up 12 with 97 seconds left.
You know what happened after that.
Mississippi State began pressing, and to put it nicely, Missouri didn’t have an answer for it. The Tigers struggled to inbound, got caught in traps, and made risky passes. In all honesty, Missouri is probably lucky things weren’t worse than they were. MSU turned a 12-point deficit into a tie game on a Lamar Peters run-out 3-pointer.
There’s an argument to be made somewhere here that the refs missed a foul call on Robertson before he coughed up the handle. But in a game in which Missouri over-performed against its own TO% by about five percentage points and against Mississippi State’s by four, the Tigers’ season-long Achilles Heel was almost single-handedly responsible for a 12-0 MSU run that took all of 62 seconds.
This team’s sloppiness with the ball is deadly. It’s a flaw that has cost Missouri at least three games — two of them would have been Tier A wins, per KenPom — this year. And despite playing one of its best offensive games against a really good defense, it almost cost them a fourth. And they won’t always have double digit leads to absorb blows like that.
The best defense? A good offense
Mississippi State came into Mizzou Arena on Saturday riding a four-game win streak mostly because of the brothers Weatherspoon and a top-20 adjusted defense. Missouri was likely looking for some redemption as the Bulldogs’ defensive effort in late January held the Tigers to 62 points on a matching 27% TO rate and 27% 3-point shooting in Starkville.
The Tigers put on an offensive clinic in the first 20 minutes, shooting 60% from the field and 58% from 3-point range and racking up nine assists to only three turnovers. And it wasn’t as if the Tigers were hitting contested shots. The Tigers moved the wall extremely well, leading to several wide open looks.
Robertson was the beneficiary of many of those, going 4-for-6 from deep and scoring 14 points. Jordan Geist also chipped in an efficient eight points on 2-for-2 from 3. And despite the late collapse, Missouri still shot 44% from 3 in the second half and put up 79 regulation points.
Missouri needed it too. The Bulldogs were unconscious from deep for the first few minutes of the game. (If the Bulldogs shoot their season percentage to start the game, Missouri is winning by 17 at the half.) And while they did eventually cool off, the Bulldogs still shot about 39% from deep in regulation, a cool 11% better than their season average.
Couple that with the fact that Mississippi State dominated the paint (36-22 in paint points) and crushed Missouri on the offensive glass (13 boards for 14 points), MSU played above its own head on offense. Missouri needed one of its best offensive performances of the season to fend off a hot, confident team. And got it.
I was talking with our Matt Harris about this game on Saturday night, and he made a simple, powerful observation (always contributing, even when he’s away): despite falling victim to its biggest flaw, getting tough calls from the officials late in regulation, and coughing up a huge lead, Missouri was still able pull out a win.
Maybe some of it had to do with the Rally for Rhyan atmosphere and the guys having that added motivation. But let’s be honest about this element of it too: This is a game Missouri doesn’t win early in the year. They didn’t against West Virginia. They didn’t against Florida. Hell, they didn’t against Arkansas.
Starting with that Tennessee win, Missouri has slowly shown it has the ability to close games late. And now we know it can close out games that appear to have gone sideways. A team that once crumbled at the first sign of trouble showed it could take a haymaker from one of the league’s hottest, most desperate teams and still come back to take the fight.
After the game, Coach Martin said there’s no doubt in his mind this is a tournament team. For much of the past month, the Tigers haven’t shown us reason to think otherwise.