As Missouri guard Keon Lawrence sat by his locker after Missouri’s loss to Baylor on Thursday in the first round of the Big 12 Conference tournament, his eyes began to water. But he was careful not to let any tears fall from his face.
Lawrence said the feeling was a mixture of shock and disappointment. Both feelings stemmed from his expectations for a Missouri team that improved as the conference season went on, a team that started the conference season 0-4 and 2-6 before finishing at 7-9.
“I guess I’m just real surprised,” Lawrence said Thursday night. “I came into this tournament ready to play. We all did. I thought we were going to shock some people here.”
The preseason conference coaches’ poll picked Missouri to finish in the lower half of the standings in the Big 12 Conference this season. Instead, Missouri finished sixth, two games better than last year’s 5-11 team.
After back-to-back losing seasons and failing to make the NIT last year, not many people had high expectations for the Tigers entering the 2006-2007 season. But after Thursday night’s loss to Baylor, Missouri sits at 18-12.
Still, none of that mattered to Lawrence. His goals this season didn’t center on an improving team.
Lawrence stared at the ground throughout his interview, only momentarily looking up as question after question focused on Missouri’s chances of making the NIT. It was only a little more than two weeks ago that there was talk of Missouri possibly reaching the NCAA Tournament.
“I got a feeling, I’ve said it before. We’re in the hunt for something,” Missouri coach Mike Anderson said. “I don’t know what. So maybe that means going to the NIT. We’ll see.”
Missouri will find out tonight at 8 p.m. if its 18 wins are enough to make the 32-team postseason tournament. If it does make it, there are the questions of how the team would respond after its surprising loss to Baylor and if there’s still any desire for the Tigers to play another game this season.
“I’d love playing in the NIT, so we wouldn’t be able to end the season like this,” Missouri point guard Stefhon Hannah said. “I’d hate to end the season on a bad note like this.”
In many cases, a team can be defined by how it ends the season. And if Missouri fails to make the NIT, that means a blowout loss at the hands of Baylor, which finished 11th in the Big 12 this year.
“If this was our last game, then I’m just going to be disappointed, because it’s not the way we should end our season,” Hannah said. “The way we played and the way we fought this season, I don’t think we should end it like this. I think we deserve to be in the NIT.
“I don’t want people to look at our season and just look at this game. And if this was our last game, that would be disappointing because then they might just look at this game instead of looking at what we’ve done this season.”
While Hannah said he would view an NIT berth as an accomplishment, Lawrence’s views were more similar to his coach’s. In the postgame press conference, Anderson talked about the team’s goals this season of reaching the NCAA Tournament and even an eventual goal of winning a national championship sometime in the future.
Lawrence, a freshman who wasn’t part of the collapse of the Missouri basketball program over the past few seasons, didn’t come to Missouri dreaming of making the NIT.
And while he said he would like the opportunity to keep playing, he would rather that opportunity come in the NCAA Tournament next weekend. Lawrence described what his feeling would be if the team was invited to the NIT.
“It wouldn’t be too good,” Lawrence said deliberately. “It would be good we’re still playing. But overall, it wouldn’t be something that we want to do every year.”