KANSAS CITY — As Keon Lawrence leaned back in a folding chair, his postgame sandwich half eaten in the locker behind him, he said it was “common sense” that a loss Thursday would be the end of Missouri’s season.
But it seemed odd that Lawrence didn’t even know that Missouri would be turning down a likely bid to the College Basketball Invitational.
“I didn’t even know we wasn’t accepting it,” Lawrence said. “I’m glad you told me, though.”
At 16-16, it is almost assured that Missouri would receive an invitation to the new 16-team tournament this Sunday, but the team is not interested in the consolation prize.
“Our focus is on the NCAA Tournament,” team spokesman Dave Reiter said. “If we don’t make it to the NCAA Tournament, our focus will be on the NIT (National Invitation Tournament).”
Reiter didn’t offer any more details as to why the team would turn down a potential bid. Athletics director Mike Alden declined comment.
Missouri coach Mike Anderson would only say that he wanted to be in the NCAA Tournament every year so he could contend for a national championship.
“My expectation every year is to be at the NCAA Tournament, of course,” he said.
But after Thursday’s 61-56 loss to Nebraska in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, the CBI is the only tournament that would likely be calling on Selection Sunday.
The season started with one of the nation’s most challenging nonconference schedules. It was tarnished at the midway point by a nightclub fight that left five players suspended and the Tigers’ leading scorer dismissed. It ended with five losses by less than three points.
The burden of a tumultuous season showed on the faces of the Missouri players Thursday.
With 14:14 left in the second half, Nebraska center Aleks Maric was wide open under the basket for a big slam dunk to put his team up 41-32. Lawrence looked at the bench in disgust. J.T. Tiller just looked tired.
After the game, another close one that Missouri just couldn’t close out, guard Matt Lawrence limped onto the stage in the interview room with a blank look on his face.
He tried to stay positive, talking about Missouri’s win over then-No. 12 Texas and the emotional win over then-No. 22 Kansas State, just days after five teammates were suspended after the late night incident at the Athena Night Club in Columbia.
But ultimately, Lawrence is looking ahead.
“I think we’re going to move forward and celebrate our seniors,” Lawrence said. “And then, like I said, just move forward.”
It didn’t seem to hit forward DeMarre Carroll right away.
“Hopefully our young players, we can regroup and come back next year,” Carroll said, pausing, as if just then realizing that his first season at Missouri was over. Once catching himself, he quickly added, “And try to win this thing.”
Reflecting on his first season, in which he was the team’s second leading scorer and was named the Big 12 Conference Newcomer of the Year, Carroll still seemed torn.
“With all the stuff that’s been going on, I’m still,” Carroll paused, “It is not the best season, but I’m just happy we made it this far.”