ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Cataloging the disappointments and unmet expectations for Missouri’s four seniors could require a lengthy list after this season, but it’s one record senior power forward Travon Bryant isn’t keeping.
After the Tigers’ season ended with a 65-64 loss to Michigan in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament on Tuesday, Bryant’s last game as a Tiger brought back memories of the season’s firsts.
“You cherish a lot of things,” Bryant said. “I made a list: The last first day of preseason conditioning, last first day of practice, last first home game, last first road game. A lot of things, you go out there and cherish them. It’s something that I didn’t want to end because college basketball is special. It’s unbelievable.”
Unfortunately for Bryant and his teammates, they also had to face the “unbelievable” task of putting perspective on this season.
Falling from the top
After prognosticators punched their Final Four ticket in November, the Tigers reached a No. 3 ranking in December. Then they lost three straight. They fell, and they fell hard.
Rock bottom smacked the Tigers too many times: losing to unheralded Belmont at Hearnes Center 71-67 on Dec. 30, losing a sensational rookie to injury (Linas Kleiza), dismissing a newly added point guard (Randy Pulley), falling below .500 at 9-10 with a 78-62 loss at Nebraska on Feb. 7 and learning to embrace an NIT invitation that stung with insult.
“It was a scary ride, but we didn’t want it to end,” Bryant said.
The roller-coaster season ended too early for the four Missouri seniors. It also ended so out of place for a group that was once expected to lead the Tigers to their first Final Four that the 65-64 loss was almost appropriate. With an upside down loopty-loop that jerked them out of the season fast enough to spin their stomachs, the Tigers’ final game adhered perfectly to every puzzling principle their season seemed to follow.
They set out with expectations, faced a disparaging deficit, roared back, then fell short of a win. After so many near-misses against Illinois, Gonzaga, Texas and Kansas, flipping a coin on Missouri’s chances became a reasonable way to gauge the Tigers’ outcome.
The one-possession loss to the Wolverines was no different.
As usual, senior center Arthur Johnson powered the offense, and shooting star Rickey Paulding had the ball in his hands to save the team and its season.
As usual, things didn’t work out for the Tigers.
“I think reality just hit us,” Paulding said. “We were down when we didn’t get in (the NCAA Tournament). We were still playing. Our mindset was just to make the best of this tournament. For whatever reason, kind of like the whole season didn’t go our way, it didn’t go our way tonight either.”
Close enough to smell it but too far to taste it, the Tigers’ season ended 16-14, their most losses since the 1997-98 season. That was also the last time the Tigers played in the NIT. They bowed out after the first round, losing 93-86 to Alabama-Birmingham.
Perhaps the most perplexing team in the Big 12 Conference, if not the most puzzling group in the country, the Tigers’ woes could never be pinned to one aspect of their game.
It was all-around faulty offense against Memphis, and poor 3-point and clutch free-throw shooting against Texas. Lackluster defense, lousy ball-handling, weak boxing out, slow starts and slipping leads all made their way through coach Quin Snyder’s postgame problem-solving powwows with his staff.
Senior Josh Kroenke said the talent was never overrated, but he and his teammates had a hard time keeping consistent concentration. After the Tigers’ late run in the season of six straight wins, including a double-overtime win against conference champion Oklahoma State, their potential flickered but couldn’t hold out through the tough final stretch of the season.
“There’s not one thing you can pinpoint,” he said. “It’s just lack of focus at times. Sometimes we would get comfortable in games, and we’d forget about the good things that got us to that point where we were playing well.”
Problems off the court
Ricky Clemons, a former Missouri point guard, augmented the off-court problems with an NCAA investigation days before the Tigers loaded a bus to travel to Seattle for their match-up with the Bulldogs. After Clemons was dismissed from the team and had his scholarship revoked in July, he accused Missouri coaches of giving him money and inappropriate academic help. Charged with false imprisonment and second-degree assault in January 2003, Clemons pleaded guilty after his ex-girlfriend Jessica Bunge filed charges.
While Missouri watched its season fade in a one-point deficit, Clemons was telling his story again on HBO. ESPN.com also reported that the NCAA said its investigation will conclude in the next few weeks.
Bryant said the Tigers’ struggles on the court consumed their thoughts, and Clemons’ accusations had no affect on the season.
“I’ve completely forgotten about Clemons,” Bryant said. “In my opinion, he was given a great opportunity to come in and do some great things. He played well for us, but in the end, he did some things that shouldn’t happen.
“When that goes down and he messes up himself, he wants to try to bring everyone else down, making completely false statements. That’s not good character. We knew that whatever was going to happen with the Clemons situation was going to happen and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
Despite the Tigers’ difficult season, Kroenke said they never lost sight of their solidarity and resolve.
“There were many times that everyone thought that we were going to give up and thought we were going to throw in the towel, and I’m really proud to say that this team really stepped it up, really got down and dirty and played some great basketball down towards the end of the year,” he said. “Ultimately, you have to realize that no matter how hard it gets, you don’t want this thing to end. You have to realize it in the big picture, years down the road, how are you going to look back and say, ‘I wish I would have done something different.’”
Looking back at the careers of his signature class of four seniors, his first full recruiting class, Snyder said their role in fortifying Missouri’s program isn’t lost in a sour send-off.
“Those guys decided to play for me before I’d ever called a timeout,” Snyder said. “Anytime you try to build something, you’ve got to lay a foundation. In many respects, these guys laid a foundation, and we weren’t able to get it tonight or this year maybe to the extent that we wanted, but hopefully the foundation that they’ve laid is something that we’ll continue to build on.”
Next year, Snyder won’t have the experience of four seasoned players, but his young team that claims one senior-to-be in Jason Conley, has seen its share of misfortune.
Kroenke said leaving the season’s hardships won’t be half as difficult as finding something to fill the basketball void in his life.
“Not watch the NCAA Tournament, that’s for sure,” he said. “I had a hard enough time trying to watch sports scores last night. It still stings to see other teams getting to talking about the big dance, playing in the NCAA Tournament. I wish everyone the best of luck, but it’s just going to be tough to watch.”