Before and during Missouri’s Big 12 Conference game at Kansas on Monday night, Jayhawks supporters repeatedly chanted “N-I-T” at the Tigers.
The fans’ suggestions that the Tigers belong in the National Invitational Tournament aren’t necessarily correct, even considering how bleak things appear for the Tigers (9-9, 4-4 Big 12 Conference). History indicates a hot finish could vault the Tigers into the NCAA Tournament. With nine losses, though, it won’t be easy.
“We know if we continue this effort we know that we can run some off,” senior forward Travon Bryant said. “That’s kind of the mentality we have to have right now for us to run a couple games off so we can get back to the upper echelon of the Big 12.”
The Tigers have made it to the NCAA Tournament in each of Quin Snyder’s four years as coach.
Despite a strong effort at No. 20 Kansas, which leads the conference, the Tigers are in the middle of the pack. Halfway through the conference season, the Tigers are tied for seventh with Colorado, which lost at Texas on Wednesday.
Should history repeat itself, the Tigers would only need to pass Colorado in the standings to make the NCAA Tournament. The Big 12 has had six teams represented in the past four NCAA Tournaments.
Three times in the past four seasons, the Tigers were the sixth team from the Big 12 to make the tournament. They had a 10-6 conference record in 1999-2000 and a 9-7 conference record in 2000-01 and 2001-02.
To reach nine conference wins, the Tigers must finish 5-3.
“If (our margin of error was) not nothing, it’s a hair below,” Snyder said. “We’ve felt that for a while. I think this team knows what we’re facing, and there’s not an ounce of feeling sorry for themselves or quitting. We’re just going to keep working. I got to believe that you keep doing that.”
In the Tigers’ final eight conference games, they have road games against Nebraska on Saturday, Baylor on Feb. 21 and Kansas State on Feb. 28. Each of those schools has one conference win.
The Tigers also host Colorado on Tuesday and Iowa State on Feb. 18. The Buffaloes, 1-2 on the road, have lost six straight games in Columbia, and the Cyclones, who are 0-2 on the road, lost to Baylor in Waco, Texas, for the Bears’ only win.
Aside from these games against lesser teams, the Tigers will face three more ranked opponents. Two will be at home, where the Tigers are 6-3.
No. 13 Oklahoma State comes to Missouri on Feb. 24, and the Jayhawks will be in Hearnes Center for its final game on March 7.
The third test will be at No. 19 Texas Tech on March 3. The most recent time the Tigers traveled to Lubbock, Texas, the Red Raiders rolled to a 91-68 win.
A 5-3 finish would not guarantee a spot in the NCAA Tournament, though. In 1998-99, Nebraska finished sixth in the Big 12 with a 10-6 record and did not receive a bid.
“We’re definitely concerned,” senior forward Josh Kroenke said. “The realization is we’re getting better, but we’re 9-9 and we’re 4-4 in conference. We have an opportunity right now to really bear down as the season winds down and put together some wins to boost our resume for the tournament.”
Two factors that compose a tournament resume, RPI rating and strength of schedule, should be in the Tigers’ favor. As of Sunday, collegerpi.com ranked the Tigers 51st in RPI and 12th in strength of schedule.
In addition, the Tigers have played six teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, but are 1-5, beating No. 22 Oklahoma in overtime 79-75 on Jan. 17.