One of the sad truths about college sports is that you’re always in competition — even with the programs that share your name.
Coaches and players often do their best to show support for their fellow students. Not a game goes by where you don’t see some other team presented at halftime or between quarters. It’s always a processional, complete with promo, personal introductions and pitches: “We know you’re here rooting for this sport. Here’s why you should go there and root for this other sport.”
It’s a fairly common thing for many programs to avoid — you can always roll out the softball or baseball team in September, long before they'll take the field in early spring. You can even cross-promote with men and women — due to scheduling conflicts, fans don’t often have to pick and choose who gets their hard-earned cash on a day out. However, there’s always going to be conflict when the seasons overlap.
This takes us to the situation currently facing Cuonzo Martin and the men’s basketball team, who go on the road to face Xavier in their first road matchup of the year. Xavier, one of the country’s best non-blue-blood programs, is currently ranked 21st in the Associated Press poll and expected to compete for a high seed in March.
By contrast, Missouri has been... very much not that in the past few years. However, with an influx of transfer talent, back-to-back foundational recruiting classes and an upperclassman star from 2017, Missouri has looked tantalizing in its first two games back. Everyone here (and just a few outside our borders) expect Missouri to not only be good, but perhaps better than they’ve been since early in the decade.
Meanwhile — and please be seated if you haven’t heard and can’t handle the shock — the Missouri football team continues to struggle mightily. Things have reached the point where, on this site at least, we’re using words like, “disaster,” just as openly as we ponder the ways the season could be saved. And while fans haven’t had the chance (offline, of course) to show their displeasure, we should have a concrete idea soon. The Tigers return home for their first home game in a month on Saturday. Combined with the abysmal three-game slide, the 11 a.m. start should make for quite a telling attendance number.
Even if you still believe in the Barry Odom regime, it’s impossible to deny that fan apathy, perhaps the most dangerous of threats to a program’s long-term success, has taken hold. If you don’t believe me, let Sam or me know [note: don’t actually do this] — we’ve seen first hand how boring, losing football impacts engagement online!
This brings us to the crossroads of fan interest. While the football season wanes and the basketball season waxes, fans are rapidly jumping from the football train. Waiting just on the outside, Cuonzo Martin and his squad offer something else fans of the football and men’s basketball programs haven’t felt in a long time — hope.
There is the matter of the natural skepticism of Missouri fans, of course. Tiger faithful are used to heartbreak, especially on the hardwood. Say the word, “Porter,” and you’re more likely to be met with an eye roll or facepalm than a wistful stroll down memory lane. We risk beating the colloquialism to death, but people here want to see before they believe. It’s the “Show Me” way after all.
However, Tuesday starts an interesting road for Cuonzo Martin’s 2019-2020 Missouri Tigers. After two tune up games, the Tigers start a run where they’ll face off against competitive teams on a weekly basis. Wofford, Butler, Oklahoma/Stanford, Temple... these are all teams that have tasted recent success in March, success with which Missouri has been unfamiliar. By going on a run, or at least winning a handful of these games, Mizzou Hoops can grab fan attention in a way that hasn’t been seen or felt since 2017.
And could it come at a better time? Football loyalists are tired of the back-and-forth on the gridiron. They’re fed up with long losing streaks, disappearing units and blowouts against lower-level opponents. They’re looking for something consistent. Something they can hold on to. Hope is as powerful a thing to grasp as any, even though it can’t be quantified.
So while you’d undoubtedly get the company line from Cuonzo Martin and his roster (“We want to see our brothers on the football field succeed just as much as us”), it’s impossible to ignore the opportunity at hand. Missouri fans are disappointed after a summer of expectations has been left unfulfilled, and the men’s basketball team seems primed to step in and give them something exciting to cling to.
Fans are reaching out. Now it’s the Tigers’ turn to reach back and take hold of a fan base desperate they can get behind with no reservations.