Fans want MU basketball team to prove it

Sunday, February 8, 2009 | 7:42 p.m. CST; updated 12:01 a.m. CST, Monday, February 9, 2009

COLUMBIA — Missouri basketball fans remain skeptical, even with the team boasting a 20-4 record.

Memories of past disappointments are too vivid in fans' minds.

"I think just the performance over the last couple years is sort of discouraging, just that Mizzou tradition of disappointment," said Brydan McNeely, a Missouri senior from Kansas City. "Every time it seems like we're going to do something amazing, we fall short."

Columbia resident Bill Connelly maintains a Missouri fan blog, He has seen the sorrow of Missouri fans for years.

"Five straight years missing the tournament, it's hard to get back on the horse," Connelly said. "It's hard to trust the team when they've been mediocre for a while."

Freshmen Jake Wiig and Drew Dotzler are roommates in Excellence Hall and members of the Missouri wheelchair basketball team. Wiig and Dotzler, who are from Nebraska, said Missouri fans are more cautious by nature than Nebraska fans.

"I don't know why Missouri fans are like that," Wiig said. He added that some of his teammates have become more hopeful as the season progressed.

What would it take for all of Missouri's fans to believe in the Tigers? A win over Kansas tonight would certainly help.

Connelly said a win over Kansas in front of a soldout crowd should be enough to put fans over the top. He also thinks Missouri will win the game.

"KU seems to have a little bit of trouble with turnovers from time to time," Connelly said. "It will be the most hostile environment they have seen all year."

But for some fans, even beating Kansas won't be enough.

"Beating KU here, it would be a step, but KU's not the same team they were last year," sophomore business major Brandon McBride said. "It will take something like an Oklahoma win to convince me that they are a legitimate team."

The last time Missouri had a game with as much hype as Monday's meeting with Kansas, the Tigers lost by 16 to Illinois. That game, as well as conference losses at Nebraska and Kansas State, kept fans doubting.

"When we had the chance to prove ourselves against Illinois, we kind of fell apart," McBride said. "Then you saw the fan base kind of shrink away."

If Missouri loses to Kansas, fans say it will bring all those years of losing right back into focus.

The list of letdowns in Missouri basketball's recent past is long and ugly.

The team hasn't appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2002-2003. The Tigers have had a losing conference record each of the past four seasons.

In 2003-2004, Missouri started the year ranked No. 5 but limped to a 16-14 record and lost in first round of the National Invitational Tournament.

After advancing to the Elite Eight in 1994, Missouri enjoyed another strong season in 1995. But the Tigers lost by one in the second round of the NCAA Tournament when UCLA guard Tyus Edney drove the length of the floor in 4.8 seconds to score at the buzzer.

Away from the court, the program suffered a series of embarrassing controversies. During the disappointing 2004 season, former coach Quin Snyder came under fire during a scandal involving guard Ricky Clemons, who was arrested on domestic assault charges. His academic records later came under scrutiny.

MU could not even name its new basketball arena without incident.

Billionaires Bill and Nancy Laurie received naming rights after donating $25 million to the construction of the arena. They decided to name it Paige Sports Arena, in honor of their daughter Elizabeth Paige Laurie.

Then, reports came that she cheated her way through college, and the university changed the name to Mizzou Arena.

Last season, coach Mike Anderson kicked guard Stefhon Hannah off the team after an altercation at a Columbia nightclub left the senior with a broken jaw. Anderson suspended four other players.

It is the off-court incidents that weigh most heavily on some fans.

"Over the years, it's like the citizenship isn't there, maybe not the best character guys," said graduate student Timothy Gilbert, who has been at the university for five years. "That's what's really been bothering me. I'll try and root for them but then they'll go out and somebody will do something stupid."

Still, Connelly says winning can heal all those wounds.

"Last football season showed what it takes to really get Missouri fans on board," Connelly said. "It helps to win. That's probably the most important thing."

 Missouri fans just need the team to prove it's worthy. After all, they do live in the "Show Me" state.

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Spencer Engel February 9, 2009 | 7:37 a.m.

I was as skeptical as anyone over the past few years, but this is a different team. We've already beaten Oklahoma State and Texas on the road and we're practically unbeatable at home. I don't know how much more you can ask from this team without being unreasonable.

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