Missouri basketball is having fun again after stress of NCAA was lifted

Saturday, March 22, 2014 | 5:17 p.m. CDT; updated 7:31 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 22, 2014

COLUMBIA – There was a lot missing on Tuesday night for the Missouri men's basketball team.

The Tigers played their opening-round game of the National Invitation Tournament against Davidson without freshmen guards Wes Clark and Shane Rector. Both were suspended with legal issues. The Tigers played in a mostly vacant arena. Only 2,403 fans watched the game from inside Mizzou Arena. They played with less pressure, too. The stresses and uncertainty of being a team on the NCAA tournament bubble were gone.

In its place, a long-lost calmness returned to the Tigers. They started having fun again.

The good vibes still existed Friday afternoon when Missouri coach Frank Haith and his players met with reporters in advance of the team’s second round NIT game against Southern Mississippi on Sunday. Haith was all smiles and cracked jokes; players could be heard singing down a hallway inside Mizzou Arena.

“I’ve been a part of teams that are on the bubble, and you feel the pressures and you’ve got guys that are really good players, and they put more on themselves than they need to and they stress a little bit,” Haith said. “Could that have happened with those guys and our team a little bit, surely it could have.

“I think it happens to a lot of teams that want to play in the tournament. You’re right there, and you just put a little bit more on you than you need to, but were our guys relieved of that the other night? I don’t know. I think they just went out and played. I thought our fans were a big part of that.”

A season-low crowd showed up, but the fans had the presence of a larger contingent – they were a loud bunch. With 16:55 remaining, the Tigers trailed 54-41, and it seemed like the team’s season also had just 16:55 left. That’s when the fans’ persistent cheering – as well as a big play from an uncommon source – invigorated the Tigers, according to sophomore forward Ryan Rosburg.

“When Danny (Feldmann) dunked, that might’ve been the loudest I screamed all year, and I was sitting on the bench,” Rosburg said of the walk-on junior's baseline jam in the second half. “I think that kind of ignited us, but before that, I thought we were starting to play looser, and I thought that the crowd we did have was outstanding. Such diehard fans were here. It’s the NIT and people understand we want to be in the NCAA tournament, but the ones that were out here were amazing. It just lifted us off and we started playing and having fun.”

Added guard Jordan Clarkson: “We played free, just played basketball … free minds, kind of just hooped.”

Missouri hopes to keep the good times rolling against Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles start four seniors and are 28-6 on the season after beating Toledo 66-59 in the first round. 

“They know how to win. They play tough, hard-nosed, just gritty,” Haith said. “Their defense, they play zone all game, but it’s an aggressive, attacking zone. Both their post guys are built like the Tennessee guys. They’re undersized but bulky guys, very physical. It is going to be a heck of a game for us.”

This is Haith’s fifth appearance in the NIT as a head coach, and he believes his players are taking this experience seriously. He thinks his team's focus is on advancing to the tournament’s final four, which is played at Madison Square Garden in New York. A victory on Sunday would put Missouri one win away from the Big Apple.

“We’re right there, one step closer to get to New York, and there’s no question I think guys get more and more excited about that,” Haith said. “The first one (NIT game) is always tough because you’re thinking about not making it, and it happens so quickly. You find out Sunday, then you may play Tuesday, so it’s still lingering there that you didn’t make the NCAA (tournament).

“But as you move forward now that it’s another week, there are some teams that unlaced their shoes, more teams, based on this weekend, so you’re still in an elite group still playing. I think it becomes more and more of a positive for your guys.”

One reason coaches cherish the opportunity to play in the NIT is because it allows for them to continue running meaningful practices. Another is because a long run in the second-tier tourney can generate positive vibes that could bleed into next season.

The Tigers players believe an NIT title would make a so-far forgettable season a success.

“I think so, just because we finished out strong and won something,” Clarkson said. “Not too many teams come out with a win at the end of the season.”

Still shorthanded

Haith announced that Rector has been reinstated after his weekend arrest on suspicion of possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana and will play Sunday.

Clark and two Missouri football players were also arrested. Clark remains suspended.

“Wes Clark is still suspended based on a violation of team rules,” Haith said. “If he cleans up everything, he should be back with us shortly, too.”

The Tigers’ top backup guard, Clark averaged 4.1 points per game in 20.4 minutes per game during the regular season.

Supervising editor is Mark Selig.

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