It’s an old saying that Missouri sports “overachieve in the most disappointing way possible.” This is an extension of the narrative “Mizzou is cursed;” the cruel twist of fandom is how Missouri is not completely moribund in athletics, but good enough to stoke optimism before your hopes are dashed.
This storyline occurred again last week, as Dennis Gates’ team capped his incredible first year with a shocking tournament exit to the 15-seeded Princeton Tigers. It was a monumental achievement to even play in the second round at all; Mizzou’s roster was cobbled together in one offseason and picked to finish 11th in the SEC. And yet: for 48 hours, the path was wide open for a trip to the Sweet Sixteen, and the miracle season could continue for another week. What was once a dream was now realistic – Kobe Brown balling out on the biggest stage, D’Moi Hodge highlights on Sportscenter, Ben Sternberg leading the bench mob on the sidelines of the World’s Most Famous Arena.
But Missouri’s fatal flaws were exposed. This roster was never impressive on paper or in professional talent, and in order to build it into an operational battlestation, the vulnerable exhaust shafts were part of the necessary plans. Princeton picked those flaws apart, and Missouri’s season ended in what feels like crushing disappointment, but only because of the brilliant overachieving that came first.
This wasn’t a new experience for the Tigers in the tournament. How many teams have gone on a magical run in March, only to fall one game short of being the first Missouri team to get off the schneid and make the school’s first Final Four? This wasn’t even the first Mizzou team to have a dream season end at the hands of a 15 seed.
The football team is not immune either: dream seasons in 2007 and 2013 ended in brutal conference championship losses. Individual losses like the Fifth Down, the Flea Kicker, the doink against South Carolina, or the Georgia loss in 2022 don’t sting as much if the team doesn’t first go toe-to-toe with one of the sport’s best for 55 minutes.
Recruiting offers its own examples; a monkey paw curls when Missouri manages to land a blue-chipper. Tony Van Zant. Michael Porter, Jr. Dorial Green-Beckham. (Someone please put Luther Burden in bubble wrap until Labor Day.)
All of these crushing disappointments are only possible because of the joyous overachieving that came first. Missouri athletics is not guaranteed any success, situated between two great professional sports towns, and with a small-time balance sheet compared to its conference peers. In-state recruiting is good, but not a bona fide hotbed; the most successful Tiger coaches have been great developers of underrated talent. And still, even the most well-developed, well-coached Missouri teams will always hit a ceiling: either a collapse or running into a stacked blue-chip laden powerhouse.
So if Missouri athletics are always doomed to fall short of a national championship, why even be a fan? Why even carry out such an exercise in futility, and invest so much time, emotional energy, and financial support?
Because Dennis Gates’ team showed us that the journey is the destination. The true friends are the regular season games we won along the way, right? Mizzou Arena jumped with energy for the first time in a decade, and what a joy it was to truly care again. The student section crammed full, the full-throated roar for a D’Moi Hodge dunk, the simmering pre-game anticipation evolving into kinetic post-game joy. Mizzou basketball was a daily part of our lives for five months again, and while the postseason exit hurts, it can’t erase this whole winter.
In Cormac McCarthy’s astonishing novel “Blood Meridian” – you didn’t think this piece was going here, did you? – a raving prophet known simply as “the Mennonite” warns our main characters of the story’s upcoming horrors. His admonishment, “there is no such joy in the tavern as on the road thereto,” is not a one-to-one comparison, as a college basketball team and the depravity of a bounty hunter gang in the post-Civil War western expansion across Texas hardly compare, but the saying still resonates for sports fans seeking perspective after a tough end to a great season.
And while the Princeton game – or Norfolk State, or Nebraska 1997, or the MPJ what-if year, etcetera – might have left you in despair and plumbing the emotional depths, it was because you actually cared again. And that business of caring, that joy on the road thereto, is why we fill our time and our hearts with our sports teams. Thank you, Dennis Gates and the 2023 Missouri Tigers basketball team, for making us care again.