ATLANTA — It stopped being interesting right around the time the Tigers stopped looking interested. And now they’re almost certainly heading to a postseason tournament, but not the most interesting one.
For 20 minutes Friday, Missouri looked like an NCAA tournament team. A good one, too. Not a bubble team, not a flukey group. The Tigers played aggressive and inspired basketball, matching up evenly with the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
Another half like that could have catapulted the Tigers off the bubble and into the NCAA tournament. CBS will announce the bracket Sunday.
But then the Tigers lost interest. They lost interest in sharing the ball; they lost interest in guarding the 3-point line; they lost interest in preventing turnovers.
Missouri fans might lose interest too, as the Tigers are almost definitely destined to be a National Invitational Tournament team after what ended up being a 72-49 thrashing at the hands of the No.1 Florida Gators in the third round of the SEC Tournament.
“They came out in the second half a little more fired up than us,” senior guard Earnest Ross said. “It was something we had to be able to match, and I don’t think we did a great job tonight of doing it.”
At least if Missouri truly is destined for the second-tier NIT, it means Ross, a senior, will get another home game. The Tigers will probably earn a seed high enough to host another leftover.
The 32-team NIT begins Tuesday, and its field is announced following the unveiling of the NCAA tournament bracket, as part of Selection Sunday.
A win against Florida probably would have put the Tigers in the big bracket, and they could have still helped themselves if they stuck with Florida like they did in the first half. But the committee might now focus on the final score, which screams blowout.
Missouri’s fate is now out of its control.
“That’s in the hands of somebody higher than us,” Ross said.
Here’s what those higher-ups will see:
- A 22-11 record, but 12 of those wins coming during an unimpressive nonconference schedule.
- A tie for a sixth place in what is widely considered college basketball’s weakest power conference.
- Zero wins against teams ranked in The Associated Press Top 25.
- A pre-weekend conference tournament exit.
“It’s disappointing, yeah,” guard Jabari Brown said of Missouri likely missing the NCAA tournament. It could be the Tigers' first absence from the Big Dance since 2008.
Missouri had chances to improve its resume throughout the final month and a half but continually came up short.
There was the trip to Mississippi in early February, when Marshall Henderson torched the Tigers for 29 points.
There was the trip to Georgia three weeks later, when Missouri managed just 3-for-18 shooting from behind the arc.
Then there was last week’s trip to Tennessee, where the Tigers looked dead, and got whacked.
Loss. Loss. Loss.
The frontcourt is still the team's Achilles' heel.
Senior forward Tony Criswell did not travel to Atlanta.
Three players still tug the weight of an improvisational offense that, while sometimes effective, isn't reliable.
These Tigers still don’t fit well together, which is illuminated by how well Florida does.
One thing is different.
Now that the smoke has cleared, there are fewer questions about that elephant waiting at the end of the hall. The topic that Haith is never interested in talking about.
Everyone knows what tournament the Tigers are likely going to.
“We’ll see,” Brown said.
There doesn't seem to be much suspense.
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.