DALLAS – The countdown to the culmination of the college basketball regular season, Selection Sunday, will certainly be an agonizing one for Missouri.
With their season complete, the Tigers have left their fate and NCAA Tournament hopes in the hands of the NCAA selection committee. The Tigers’ chances to join the 34 at-large bids appear bleak after an embarrassing 94-69 loss to Kansas in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Conference Tournament on Friday in the American Airlines Center.
“Our fingers are crossed right now,” senior guard Rickey Paulding said. “We still have hope. We’ll just find out Sunday, I guess.”
With a 16-13 record, the Tigers will need to rely on their strong strength of schedule and RPI. The Tigers ended the tournament with the 12th-best strength of schedule and a No. 48 RPI.
“We played a lot of good teams,” sophomore guard Jimmy McKinney said. “Even though we didn’t come out with a lot of victories, I still feel like we deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament. We’re just going to pray and hope to God that he’ll let us in the tournament.”
The Tigers also can claim that several of their losses could have easily been victories. The committee also values highly a team’s performance late in the season, a factor in the Tigers’ favor until they lost three of their past four.
Because of the tough schedule, the Tigers have developed into one of Missouri coach Quin Snyder’s best teams, he said. The wins, though, did not show the improvement.
“A lot of people felt like we needed one more (Thursday),” Snyder said. “I know
where this team is compared to teams I’ve had in the past that have gotten in the tournament, and I think we’re better, further along.
“We just played a lot tougher schedule. We’ve had so much adversity. I don’t think we’re the same team we were a month ago.”
A month ago, the Tigers dropped to 9-10 after a 78-62 loss at Nebraska on Feb. 7. The Tigers then came to life, winning six straight but faltered later.
Snyder said the Tigers’ trying track record, more than anything, should boost their consideration.
“I also know, I’m not going to pine for my team, you can look at what we’ve done this year, and you can point to three or four games and a possession or a bounce away from us not even being close to this position,” Snyder said. “I still think we’re a good basketball team right now.”
Regardless of Snyder’s positive outlook, the National Invitational Tournament presents a more likely destination for the Tigers. All things considered from the season, Snyder said he would gladly accept a chance to continue.
“I have no shame playing in the NIT,” Snyder said. “I don’t want our season to end like this. I would want to talk to my team, but that would be my feeling, keep playing anywhere we can.”
The most recent time the Tigers went to the NIT was in 1998. Alabama-Birmingham defeated the Tigers 93-86 on March 11, 1998, in the first round in Columbia. Since then, the Tigers have not missed the NCAA Tournament.
Few could have expected the possibility of the Tigers missing the tournament at the beginning of the year. The season began with glorious celebration and hype for the careers for seniors Paulding, Arthur Johnson, Travon Bryant and Josh Kroenke, but it hasn’t followed the plan.
As a result, Paulding said any postseason opportunity, including the NIT, presents an acceptable finish to an up-and-down season.
“Our team really wanted to make the big tournament, but I think we’re at a point now where we want to keep this thing going,” Paulding said. “Whatever happens, it happens on Sunday.”
The Big 12 has recently sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament, but probably four can be considered locks for the 2004 tournament. Conference champion Oklahoma State, Texas, Kansas and Texas Tech needed the Big 12 Tournament to improve their seeding.
The others in the conference, including Missouri, required a solid effort to earn a berth. The Tigers’ chances improved when Colorado, one of the other Big 12 bubble teams, dropped its first game in the tournament to Texas Tech 79-69.