Quin Snyder’s first four years painted two very different pictures. If you look at the regular season only, you see a constant growth-and-setbacks process.
The Tigers were ranked in 2000-01, then nearly backed out of the tournament before rallying. In 2001-02, they began the season eighth in the country, rose to second, then really almost backed out of the tournament with another February funk. In 2002-03, they rose to 11th, then fell to 24th. In 2003-04, the worst: preseason No. 5, rise to No. 3, finish in the NIT.
In the postseason, though, the growth was both linear and perfect through Synder's first four seasons. In 2000, they were overwhelmed and outclassed in the middle in a first-round loss to North Carolina. In 2001, they survived Georgia and gave No. 1 seed Duke a hell of a fight in the second round. And in 2002, they took the lessons learned in those games and made a run to within about two minutes of the Final Four.
The season began like a dream. The Tigers beat No. 9 Iowa via last-second comeback, survived an upset at SLU via last-second Wesley Stokes jumper, and lived at No. 2 in the polls for a couple of weeks.
But a blowout revenge loss to Iowa (in front of what had to be at least 16,000 in the 13,545-capacity Hearnes Center) kickstarted a spiral. Mizzou got thumped by No. 9 Illinois, then lost at a bad DePaul team. They rallied by winning five of six, then basically went win-loss-win-loss the rest of the way.
A gut-wrenching home loss to Kansas finished a 20-10 regular season, and Mizzou lived up/down to its seed in the Big 12 Tournament, pasting Iowa State and losing by four to Texas. I was assuming about a 9-seed in the tourney. Mizzou got a 12.
I will always assume that 12-seed was more about placement than "You almost didn't make the tournament." The Big 12 had quite a few teams in the tournament, and once the committee foolishly gave the No. 1 seed in the West instead of Oklahoma, they had to move Mizzou to the top half of the West bracket. Regardless, it was a 12, and it lit a fire.
Mizzou outclassed 5-seed Miami from the jump, surging to a 19-5 lead six minutes in and, with lessons learned from the Georgia game the year before, never allowed the Hurricanes within fewer than six. It was 38-30 at halftime and 53-36 four minutes into the second half.
I was watching the game with The Beef at his apartment, and after the 17-6 run to start the second half, we looked at each other and said, "We have to drive to Albuquerque now, don't we?" We did the next day. And thank goodness we did -- we got to see Rickey Paulding fly in person.
No. 4 seed Ohio State awaited in the second round; the first 12 minutes were back-and-forth; Mizzou took the lead for good just 90 seconds in (not that we knew at the time) but led just 23-19 with 8:04 left in the half.
What followed were maybe the most perfect eight minutes and change in Mizzou's tournament history. Rickey Paulding made a jumper, and Clarence Gilbert made two 3-pointers in 37 seconds to bring the lead to 10. A steal and layup from Gilbert brought the lead to 13, then Paulding brought the house down.
This is a terrible YouTube embed, but ... it was 2002. Not everything was cataloged on the Internet yet, unfortunately. You take what you can get.
They say the camera adds 10 pounds; I say it also removes about a foot from your vertical jump. This was clearly a nice dunk, but in person, watching from about 20 rows up on the side of the court, I could have sworn his right hand was above the backboard at one point. He freaking soared. The buzz in the arena was palpable — every neutral in The Pit was suddenly a Mizzou fan. It was as much of a knockout blow as a first-half dunk can be.
The lead expanded to 19 on another Gilbert 3-pointer, then Paulding tipped in a missed shot at the halftime buzzer to make it 47-26.
To Ohio State's credit, the Buckeyes continued to try to peck away. They didn't pack it in. It just didn't matter. This Mizzou team was not backing down. The Tigers expanded the lead to 67-39 midway through the second half and still led by 27 with 4:30 remaining when Snyder called off the dogs. The scrubs gave up some late points to turn this immense lead into an 83-67 win. But make no mistake: This was a damn blowout.
Over the game's middle 18 minutes, Mizzou went on a 44-20 run against a rock solid Buckeye team. They would have to wait a bit longer in the next round. Against another underachiever-turned-powerhouse -- No. 8 UCLA, which knocked off Cincinnati in the second round -- Mizzou trailed by as many as eight points and was behind by a 55-49 margin with 11 minutes left. But the Tigers again wouldn't be denied. Over the next seven minutes or so, they went on a 24-8 run to seize control.
They would meet hated nemesis Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, and no amount of magic could get the Tigers past Kelvin Sampson's Sooners at that point. A lengthy losing streak to OU continued when Gilbert went 1-for-16 from the field and Mizzou went just 20-for-34 from the line. It was tight all the way, but the Sooners prevailed, 81-75.
Paulding and Arthur Johnson would thrive the next season, combining to average 33.5 points per game and nearly beating Dwyane Wade and Marquette in the second round of the NCAAs the next year. (Marquette prevailed, but Paulding severely outdueled Wade.) And with the program collapse that followed, you could say that the high point of Snyder's Mizzou tenure was a literal high point: It was when Paulding jumped out of an Albuquerque gym.