DALLAS — The Missouri men’s basketball team can’t wait any longer to turn its season around.
That much is certain.
After an 11th place regular season conference finish, the Tigers (12-15, 4-12) have little chance to play in the NCAA tournament without becoming tournament champions this weekend.
The Tigers also know that a loss to Nebraska in the first round tonight will likely end their season and the collegiate careers of seniors Jimmy McKinney and Kevin Young.
With a loss, the Tigers wouldn’t even figure to get into the NIT tournament.
At Wednesday’s media day, Thomas Gardner, Missouri’s leading scorer, said the Tigers understand the situation.
“There’s no ifs, ands, or buts. We know if lose we go home and we’re done, and if we win we continue to play,” Gardner said. “So I think the pressure gives you a little motivation and makes you play harder because you know...you’ll have to wait till next year to play again.”
After the Tigers lost 10 of their past 12 conference games, Missouri coach Melvin Watkins said he is approaching the Big 12 Conference tournament as the start of a new season.
“Once again as we prepare for Nebraska, I just wanted our energy to be up, come in here with a positive attitude knowing that the season is 0-0 right now, if we take it that way, and it’s upon us to do something about it,” Watkins said.
Although no team has ever won four games in a row to win the Big 12 tournament, Watkins hasn’t let that history deter him from telling his team they can make the NCAA tournament they’ve been eyeing all year.
“We know at the end of the rainbow, you know you got an automatic bid sitting out here that someone’s going to take. There’s teams in this conference obviously that are already in, but there’s still that carrot that is there and we’ve challenged our group, why not us?”
That challenge has been issued to the Tigers all year as their season slipped away after a promising 3-1 conference start.
Former Missouri coach Quin Snyder never ruled out the NCAA tournament before his resignation, citing the 1976 Virginia team as an example of how “crazier things have happened.” Virginia earned its first NCAA tournament berth by upsetting three nationally-ranked teams in a row to capture the ACC tournament title.
“We constantly get stories about teams going under the radar and all of the sudden being on top,” Young said. “Of course there’s always going to be a big picture but we got to focus one game at a time, and for right now, the only game we have on our schedule is Nebraska, and that’s the game we got to play.”
The Tigers split in the regular season against Nebraska (17-12, 7-9) thanks to Sunday’s 64-63 victory at Mizzou Arena. Gardner scored 11 of his 23 points in the final three minutes to seal the victory, after Nebraska led by 11 with less than five minutes left.
When Gardner and the Tigers get into a rhythm, they have shown they can compete with anyone in the conference, with early season victories against No. 2 seed Kansas and No. 3 seed Oklahoma. A 26-point loss to No. 12 seed Baylor, though, is perhaps the best example of the Tigers’ struggles.
Gardner said that while the Tigers have been inconsistent, anything is possible.
“We’re the same team who beat Oklahoma at Oklahoma and beat Kansas and we’re the same team that lost to Baylor and Iowa State, so it’s about finding our identity, trying to get back in the groove where we were playing good, and, you know, it’s up to us.”