While big wins ultimately make up the meat of an NCAA Tournament resume, it never hurts to have a narrative for garnish.
It’s not like anyone expected Missouri to have much of either before the season. They were largely picked to finish toward the bottom of the SEC with nary a good story in sight. Sure, maybe Jeremiah Tilmon would get over his fouling issues and Dru Smith would prove he could play at a high major level. But after those two, the closest thing you could find to a Tournament-sized narrative was a random, “WiLl CuOnZo MaRtIn LaSt MoRe ThAn ThReE yEaRs At MiZzOU,” headline.
After two weeks of basketball, though, it would appear that Martin’s Tigers are grabbing the attention of some well-regarded narrative makers.
picked next to last in SEC but much better than that. Those freshmen have potential. https://t.co/80NXnQD3SN— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) November 18, 2019
Like it or not, those who hand out bids to the NCAA Tournament factor in much more than wins and losses, statistics or hot streaks and cold streaks. Oftentimes, the committee can be swayed by a team TV crews and marketing departments can sell for good ratings. Consider the Tigers of 2017. Yes, they were good enough to make the tournament, but there was no way the NCAA would even consider turning them down with Michael Porter, Jr. returning after months in recovery.
This year’s Tigers don’t have any singular talent as exciting as MPJ, but what they do have is a rags-to-riches type of story. After floundering in mediocrity under Frank Haith and hitting rock bottom with Kim Anderson, Cuonzo Martin — a coach without much of a past at any of his previous stops — returns to his home turf and builds a winner from the ground up using hometown recruits and transfers looking to make their fortunes in Columbia.
It’s imperative to start writing these narratives early in the season. Unlike football, the college basketball landscape is vast, with all eyes on dozens of teams who could make noise come March. Writers like Seth Davis, Dana O’Neil, Andy Katz — these are all names that could put you on the map (so to speak) in a big way if you’re able to make a statement early. The longer that narrative has to gesticulate, the more time you get to build upon it, and the more time committee members spend thinking about your roster and how its story fits into the fold come March.
Thus far, Missouri is still looking for that statement win. But if there were such a thing as a statement loss, the Tigers had one last week. Taking a highly-respected team like Xavier into overtime in their own building will do wonders to make writers double-back on their preseason opinions. And it’s not as if the predictions about Missouri this summer were particularly well-researched. If you followed even an ounce of Mizzou Hoops in 2018-2019, you could smell the laziness of certain writers in their ledes.
Still, it’s one thing to grab someone’s curiosity. It’s another to get their attention. Missouri won’t have any opportunities to do so this week. A win over Wofford might seem good come March, but it won’t do you any favors in October. A win over Morehead State will do even less. But going 2-0 against non Top 100 teams is better than dropping a home game to Evansville, right Kentucky?
Let’s fast-forward one week: what if Missouri is 4-1 going into a match up with Butler at the Sprint Center? You can bet your holiday PTO (I wouldn’t, but you probably could), that a number of narrative-makers would have their eyes on that. A win over Butler on a neutral court is the type of win Missouri would be looking for, and six games into the season, no less. It may not result in an AP ranking, but it sure as hell puts Missouri squarely in the Tournament conversation. The earlier the better, I say.
But until Missouri proves it can come away with a close game, it’ll just have curiosity. The possibility of a good story is like catnip to a columnist — when can they pounce and be the first to write the, “Maybe we were wrong about Mizzou,” headline? A clean week would set the Tigers up nicely to fully grab some attention during Thanksgiving week.