Their records, rosters and reasons to play have changed more than mid-Missouri weather since January.
When Missouri (15-12) and Texas A&M (7-20) meet tonight in the first round of the Big 12 Conference Tournament, their mascots are the only things jogging memories of the meeting this season. Tip-off is at 8:20 p.m. at American Airlines Center in Dallas.
After a Big 12 season, they don’t resemble the teams that played each other Jan. 10.
Clawing for a win to keep their heads above .500, the Tigers edged the Aggies 82-77.
The Tigers entered that game having lost four of five and any win they could get, even a sloppy scrape past one of the league’s substandard teams, gave the Tigers a confidence boost.
“I think they are playing much better now,” Aggies coach Melvin Watkins said. “Obviously, they’ve been through some things, personnel, this and that, and it seems they’ve got the group now that chemistry seems to be a lot better.”
The Tigers lost freshman standout Linas Kleiza to injury, and point guard Randy Pulley, who made his first appearance in the starting lineup, was dismissed from the team in February.
The Tigers doctored their lineup, and the benefits did more for Missouri coach Quin Snyder’s health. They have won six of eight since a sour loss at Nebraska sent them into the below-.500 danger zone.
Paulding and Johnson coming up big
After glimpsing separate occasions of near-greatness, they teamed for an outstanding showing against Oklahoma State and pushed the Tigers to their biggest win of the season, a 93-92 double-overtime upset of the then-No. 7 Cowboys.
Paulding’s shooting shined in the Tigers’ next win against Kansas State, and Johnson scored a career-high 37 on Sunday against Kansas.
“If (Johnson) plays like (he did against KU), I don’t think anybody has a chance, but particularly us,” Watkins said. “He has really stepped up his game. Paulding has been on a run. They’re a better basketball team than when we played them early on.
“We felt like we gave them a pretty good run, but they’re playing a little bit better. And we’re not playing as well. That’s the difference I think.”
The Tigers avenged January’s conference road losses with wins against Iowa State and Colorado at Hearnes Center, and they tagged an impressive upset against conference champion Oklahoma State.
After the Tigers played to preseason expectations early, Snyder said his team learned its lesson. Its reputation for postseason potential will not be what carries it past Texas A&M, he said.
“We’ve been kicked around enough not to listen to that stuff,” he said. “We kicked ourselves around, and any opportunity for us is something that we’re hanging on by every thread. The smallest thread, even if that’s the case, because I don’t want our season to end.
Tigers feel they've improved throughout season
“We’ve gotten a lot better, and when you feel that and you know what a price you pay to have that happen, you don’t want to let go of that.”
Unfortunately for the Tigers, they can’t hope to match the home crowd emotion from the Kansas game against a conference castaway. After all, Dallas is much closer the Aggies’ turf in College Station than Columbia.
Snyder said the Tigers’ focus on postseason perseverance should be enough tip the emotion balance.
“As a player right now, you better have it,” Snyder said. “We always say it’s important because we’re playing. If we would have focused on what everyone else is thinking about us this year, we’d be dead in the water already.
“This team has been about shutting out whatever’s going on externally and making it important because we’re doing it. That’s the same thing we’ll have to do Thursday night.”
The Aggies, on the other hand, long to be the team they were in January.
Although the Aggies’ record, then 6-4, was by no means immaculate when they most recently met the Tigers, they had confidence in their conference chances.
They played with confidence against the Tigers, too, pulling from 13 down in the second half to within 77-73 in the final minute before the Tigers won 82-77.
After the Aggies fell at Hearnes, they essentially fell of the face of the Big 12 earth. A preseason pick to finish ninth in a constantly competitive conference, the Aggies dropped to last place.
Including that meeting, the Aggies have lost 16 straight league matchups, but Snyder warned his team that does not mean the Aggies lost every ounce of confidence they once had, too.
“They played us tough at home earlier in the year,” he said. “It’s a little bit like the game we played against Kansas yesterday where they’ve got nothing to lose, and that’s makes them a dangerous team.”
Missouri game could be Aggies' Watkins last
Watkins announced his resignation Wednesday, though, and will step down as Aggies’ coach when the season ends.
Missouri senior Travon Bryant said the Aggies’ hunger, despite their hardships, is enough to keep his squad on the ball. After all, every team playing in today’s first round isn’t fighting for the next win. They are striving for postseason survival.
“It’s big for every team that’s going into it,” he said. “Every team that goes out there dreams of winning it just like we have a chance to win it. We just know that it’s all about who plays the best on that day and that’s how it’s going to be. We just have play our game to a T every night.”