KANSAS CITY – Four men in suits sat silently around a table in a small room.
They looked dejected. Stunned. Lost. Every bit as much as the players down the hall changing out of their uniforms.
Matt Zimmerman stared at the floor, eyebrows raised, appearing in shock and troubled by the upset that took place on the Sprint Center court. The others had blank faces.
Given the mood of the moment, it looked like a group of war officers huddled in a bunker, waiting for their general to come in and lift their spirits.
And wait they did, four assistant coaches for the Missouri men's basketball team grieving a stunning 75-60 loss to Nebraska on Wednesday afternoon in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament.
Down the hall, a similar vigil was being carried out among the Missouri players.
“It hurts more than any other loss I’ve ever suffered,” guard Kim English said. “This was our tournament in our state, and we just chucked and gave it to them.”
As English vented, J.T. Tiller sat in front of his locker, his head buried in a white shirt.
“It was kind of like Murphy’s Law,” the guard said 10 minutes earlier. “What could go wrong did go wrong.”
Missouri coach Mike Anderson was the only one who didn’t look like he had just lost a relative.
“I put the blame on myself on this one here,” he said, keeping his head raised, unlike his assistants and players. “I didn’t have our guys prepared. The first game in your tournament is your most important. You never know how your guys are going to come out, their psyche. We talked about that and we thought we had them prepared.”
After winning the tournament last year, No. 5 seed Missouri (22-10) became the second team to lose to a No. 12 seed in the tournament’s 14-year history. More surprising was that Missouri was handled easily by a team the Tigers beat by 17 and 15 points in the regular season.
Nebraska (15-17), which hadn’t won off its homecourt since last December, played with a do-or-die urgency. The Huskers built a 17-point lead in the first 10 minutes and never let it fall below 8. They shot better than 55 percent from the field and the 3-point line, compared to Missouri’s sub-34 percent from each.
Nebraska planned better than Missouri. The Huskers finally forced Missouri to play at their preferred slow pace, often running down the shot clock and crushing the Tigers with a last-second 3-pointer or difficult shot.
“I never thought we were going to lose at one point of the game,” English said. “They played like their backs were against the wall. They were loose. They were having fun. They made shots. They played like a team that wanted to make the (NCAA) tournament.”
And, while common thinking is that they’re in, the Tigers played like a team still needing to figure things out before the NCAA Tournament. They’ve lost three of four since losing forward Justin Safford to a knee injury Feb. 24.
“We’ve got to find a way to win without Justin,” English said. “We can’t keep talking about that.
Ditto guard Zaire Taylor.
“Without Justin Safford, that’s not an excuse. It doesn’t excuse our effort,” he said. “But it’s the truth. It’s almost like we’re a new team now.”
Anderson's solution to turning the Tigers around: They need to return to their blue-collar style of play. The one that wins loose balls, which went mostly to Nebraska on Wednesday.
Whatever words Anderson presented when he walked into that room with his befuddled assistants, the loss alone is enough for English.
“It’s right here,” he said, looking around the locker room at his depressed teammates. “If you don’t got the sense of urgency after a loss like this, you shouldn’t be hooping. Like, you just lost to the 12th-place team in your league that you beat twice by 20, and we just gave them a win.”