AMES, Iowa — Don’t talk to the Missouri Tigers about a postseason, even though their 14-15 overall record means they need to win Sunday to be eligible for the National Invitational Tournament. Teams with losing records can’t be invited to the NIT.
Don’t talk to them about the Big 12 Conference Tournament, even though the Tigers appear to be destined for a first-round meeting with either Iowa State, the team that trounced the Tigers 67-49 on Wednesday, or Kansas State, which swept the regular season series with Missouri.
The Tigers are thinking about one thing and one thing only.
“We’re not even thinking about anything else right now,” sophomore forward Linas Kleiza said. “It’s Kansas, period. We want to beat Kansas bad. We’re going be .500, whatever, we can do that, but we just want to win bad, you know. It’s coming down, Missouri and Kansas. Again, no matter what’s going on in their season or what’s going on in our season, it’s going to be a fight.”
But Missouri is entering Sunday’s showdown against Kansas at Mizzou Arena as a bruised and battered fighter after getting demolished by the Cyclones. The Tigers handed Iowa State 22 turnovers, surrendered 40 points in the paint, and finished with their season’s worst offensive production in Ames on Wednesday. That’s not exactly how a team usually prepares for its rival, especially when its rival is the No. 7 team in the nation.
“We’ve got to be up for the game,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. “I think we will be up for the game. It’s always such an event, such a big game, regardless of where you are going into it.”
Kansas, on the other hand, is in a much better position going into the game. The Jayhawks have been riding high since logging a classic 81-79 victory against No 8. Oklahoma State on Feb. 27. Kansas (22-4, 12-3 Big 12) shot 66 percent from the field in that effort. Guard John Lucas called the game “one of the best” he had ever played in, and he was on the losing team.
“The one thing I’ve told the guys is we’ve been a fairly resilient team,” Snyder said. “There’s no time for us to feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve done things the last couple games to beat ourselves. It’s got to stop.”
On Sunday, the Tigers will need to overcome not only Kansas, but their own malaise and lack of self confidence, the inevitable result of two consecutive tough road losses.
“Losing like that is embarrassing to me,” forward Marshall Brown said. “I mean, it’s on TV and everybody sees it, so I mean it hurts when you have a game plan and you don’t execute it. We still got Kansas, so we’ll see what we can do with it.”
Snyder said his players have to look inside themselves to determine whether they are going to quit or keep fighting. There were a lot of hung heads in the Missouri locker room at Hilton Coliseum on Wednesday, but players said they had no intention of giving up yet.
“It’s tough, but we know what we got to do,” freshman center Kalen Grimes said. “We’re not ever giving up. Any game puts pressure on us. Any game, we want to win. You just want to win so bad any way, anyhow. We’ve dealt with hardships. Some games we came out strong, some games we don’t, but we still stick together as a team. That, at least, is one thing I can say about this team.”
Junior guard Jimmy McKinney said it even more simply.
“We’ve got no choice,” McKinney said. “We have no choice. We have to win the Kansas game. We’re not going to pack it up. We’re just going to keep fighting. We know about the NIT. We know that, but we aren’t focused on all the other stuff. We know about Kansas.”