COLUMBIA – When Missouri players took the court inside Scottrade Center to play Illinois back on Dec. 21, the Tigers had an unblemished 10-0 record and a No. 23 national ranking to go with it.
They never anticipated that their eventual demise in that Braggin’ Rights game would be the beginning of a long spiral downhill. That game marked a turning point for the Tigers, whose unsatisfying season ended with a 71-63 home loss to Southern Mississippi on Sunday in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament.
“We were rolling through that time, there were a lot of good vibes going through our heads at that time,” Jordan Clarkson said Sunday, reflecting on the hot start to the season.
An NCAA tournament berth was an obvious goal; it seemed like a formality for the Tigers, who aspired to win the Southeastern Conference along the way.
They never envisioned that their flawless 10-game start, albeit against inferior competition, would end in a second-round defeat in a lackluster NIT performance after a .500 record in SEC play.
The 2013-14 Missouri basketball team reached that unfulfilling end Sunday afternoon, when the Tigers lost to a non-conference team in Mizzou Arena for the first time since 2005.
“We’re disappointed we weren’t in the NCAA Tournament; we want to be in the NCAA Tournament every year,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said after wrapping up his third season with Missouri.
Tournament inclusion had become routine in Columbia. The program made five consecutive appearances in the Big Dance until this team fell short of reaching that that standard.
“You look at the big picture – we have three guys returning from last year’s team, one starter. Twenty-three wins? I’m sure I’ll feel good about that later on but right now, I’m disappointed because I felt like this team…we competed, I felt like we could have had some great things happen to us this year.”
Those great things didn’t happen, though.
So where did things go wrong for these Tigers? They’re not sure.
Haith mentioned that star guards Jabari Brown and Clarkson had to fight though considerable adversity in their personal lives. Both players' fathers were diagnosed with cancer this season.
“Two guys that lead us like Jabari and Jordan, no one knows what’s going on with those guys personally, going through things personally that I think have affected them in a big way,” Haith said.
Clarkson couldn't put his finger on what went wrong for the Tigers.
“Um…I don’t know, to tell you the truth,” the Tulsa transfer said. "I think most games, we went out there and competed. Some teams had better game plans, made baskets and played defense, just did a better job of it I guess.”
Added sophomore center Ryan Rosburg: “Sometimes we didn’t execute, sometimes we had defensive miscues, stuff like that. I don’t think it was one thing in particular.”
The majority of Missouri’s scoring came from three players – Brown, Clarkson and Ross. This was the case once again on Sunday, with the trio combining for 48 of the team’s 63 points.
Haith said he didn’t expect Rosburg, who rarely played last year as a freshman, and freshman Johnathan Williams III to comprise his team’s lower post. That contributed to the team’s faults. So did having just one reliable backup on the perimeter (Wes Clark). But thanks to the transfers of Dominique Bull, Negus Webster-Chan and Stefan Jankovic, and three other scholarships being occupied by transfers currently sitting out, that’s what Haith was left with.
For a program that had made five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, those excuses won't pacify a fan-base that expects to see meaningful games in the middle of March.
"We started off so well, we got ranked and I think we just knew that we could play with anybody, and I still believe that,” Rosburg said. “We had our ups and downs this year, stuff like that, but I think that we’re definitely capable of playing with anyone."
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.