If the 2019-2020 college sports year has taught us nothing else, it should be a lesson in expectations.
There’s nothing wrong with having high hopes. Indeed, what good is the frivolity of sports if we can’t blindly rush in expecting the best? That being said, it’s good to avoid hyperbole whenever we can, both for our own sake and the sake of those in our immediate vicinity. Believe me, no one around the Thanksgiving table wants to hear how disappointed you are that Tray Jackson isn’t averaging 12 points a game or that Jeremiah Tilmon doesn’t have six straight double-doubles.
Before the basketball season even started, Missouri fans were experiencing the specific pang of unfulfilled expectations on the football field. It’s a particularly annoying sort of feeling, having a sports team let you down so thoroughly. It’s not serious enough for you to get legitimately furious — “Take it easy, it’s just sports!” — but if you don’t take it seriously enough, you could lose some major cred with your fellow fans — “Don’t you care about sports?”
Feelings were slightly less elevated for Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers heading into this season, but only slightly. If you asked anyone around Rock M Nation, your friendly neighborhood sunshine-pumpers, the Missouri Tigers were well-primed for a return to the NCAA Tournament in 2020. Cuonzo Martin’s foundational pieces were set, help was on the way in the form of Dru Smith and while the freshmen class was unheralded, it was brimming with potential. The Tigers may not be world-beaters, but they’d be as tough an out as anyone in the country.
The first five games, including an OT near-upset of Xavier, confirmed most of our highest hopes. And then came Butler.
Monday night’s loss to the Big East stalwarts wasn’t as bad as it appeared. After the first few minutes in which Butler transformed into the reincarnation of the 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors and raced to a 15-3 lead, the Tigers actually outscored them 49-48, leaning on their traditionally hard-nosed defense and just-enough-to-get-by offense. Unfortunately, we don't live in a world where you get to pick and choose which five minute stretches you want to erase. Despite several attempts to climb back in, the Tigers were never able to get within striking distance.
What really stuck out about Monday’s unfortunate outing at the Sprint Center was how the game never felt like it was as close as it was. After a certain point, you expected Butler to respond or knew Missouri wouldn’t be able to string together a run big enough to cut things close. No matter how many times Dru Smith muscled his way to the basket or forced a characteristically tight Butler offense into another turnover, it never felt like it was enough. Five minutes in, and the game already felt out of hand.
That was new territory for these Tigers who, despite their flaws, always felt like a team on the cusp of a next step. They dominated every non-Power Five matchup without playing their best ball, and they very nearly toppled a Top 25 team (on the road) despite playing one half of abysmal offense. At no point did Missouri ever feel outclassed or overmatched... that is until Butler came to Kansas City.
This isn’t some grand statement on how we need to re-evaluate how we feel about Missouri basketball in the year 2019. The beauty of college basketball is the marathon — one bad night won’t tank your season, especially against a team that will likely be playing in March. Will Missouri regret not playing better against a first quadrant opponent at some point? Most likely. But it’d be hard to fault a young team for getting throat-chopped by a roster full of juniors, seniors and one suddenly electric sophomore big man.
That being said, maybe it’s time we learned a lesson from this football season and took a step back in where we expect this team to go. That doesn’t necessarily mean tempering your ultimate hopes; this is still a team capable of finding its rhythm and forcing its way closer to the top of a soft SEC. But maybe it’s OK to take a non-cynical, believe-it-when-we-see-it approach to these sorts of event games.
Hope is good. Realism is also good. Together, they can keep our collective blood pressure manageable while Missouri figures itself out.