Most college basketball fans had the Missouri Tigers losing to the Spartans in the NCAA tournament; only it was the wrong Spartans. The Norfolk State Spartans, the MEAC champions and the 15 seed in the West regional shockingly ended the second-seeded Tigers season Friday with a thrilling 86-84 victory in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament. It was just the 5th time in tournament history a 15 seed had taken down a 2 seed, and the first time since 2001 when Iowa State was upset by Hampton. The most successful regular season in Missouri Tiger basketball history ended in complete and utter disaster. The Tigers won a school record 30 games, including 14 conferences games, also a school record. A team that had overcome the firing of their head coach, the hiring of a new one, an undersized lineup, and an injury to arguably the team’s most valuable player could not overcome Kyle O’Quinn and his Norfolk State Spartans.
It was over before you could blink. Everything from the Big 12 tournament championship to the 2nd place finish in arguably the best conference in the nation all seemed to fade away. As the clock began to tick and it became apparent that Norfolk State was capable of the upset, the memories of a truly great season flashed before Tiger fans eyes. And after the final buzzer sounded and Norfolk State celebrated their miracle, it still seemed surreal. How could this happen? This was the season for Missouri to put their program on the map nationally. All the promises Kim English made about the Tigers reaching the final four seemed to slip into oblivion.
The Tigers became the first team in NCAA tournament history to make at least 10 3-pointers, shoot at least 50 percent from the field, commit fewer than 10 turnovers and still lose the game. Missouri also became just the second team in NCAA tournament history to lose their first round game after winning at least 30 regular season games, joining the 2011 Belmont Bruins. Staggering, beyond belief, inconceivable, and nearly impossible; this wasn’t the way it was supposed to end. “Disappointed in the way it ended here. Proud that I’m leaving Missouri basketball 100x better than the way I found it. Special four years,” Kim English tweeted shortly after the loss. English, who shot just 1 for 12 from the field in Missouri’s loss to Norfolk State, along with fellow seniors Marcus Denmon, Matt Pressey, Jarret Sutton, Andrew Jones, Ricardo Ratliffe, and Steve Moore saw his college career end in shocking disappointment.
However, it’s extremely unfair to judge this remarkable class on one game. This senior class was the most successful senior class to ever suit up and play for the Tigers. Over their 4-year careers in Columbia, the Tigers went 107-34 and made an appearance in the NCAA tournament every year, including an Elite 8 run in 2009. The 107 wins were the most wins by any senior class in school history. Pressey, Moore, Sutton, and Jones likely will see their basketball careers end, but Denmon, Ratliffe, and English will likely play professionally overseas in Europe, if not in the NBA. Between Denmon, Ratliffe, and English, English projects as the best NBA prospect. Standing at 6’ 6”, English has shown the ability to be an effective perimeter player as well as a solid interior defender. Doubts about English’s ability to effectively play the 3 in the NBA are legitimate and justified, but look for English to be selected in the mid to late 2nd round.
Ricardo Ratliffe is extremely undersized and with his lack of perimeter skills, he would be forced to play the 4 in the NBA where he would likely be giving up 4 to 5 inches of height and 20 to 30 pounds. That being said, Ratliffe proved to be an extremely efficient offensive player this season (led the nation in field goal percentage) and a versatile player in the low block. Ratliffe doesn’t project as an NBA draft pick, but I find it hard to believe the nations leader in field goal percentage doesn’t land on a professional roster somewhere in Europe.
Marcus Denmon is an extremely interesting prospect because he has proven that he can effectively handle the ball and shoot from behind the arc with consistency. Denmon will likely be forced to play point guard in the NBA, almost exclusively as a backup. He could be a solid pickup for a team that needs a backup point guard that can spread the floor and score the basketball. Look for Denmon to be selected in the mid to late 2nd round this June.
As for Michael Dixon, Phil Pressey, and Lawrence Bowers, they still have time to leave their legacy at Missouri. With talented transfers Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross, the Tigers will likely be competing for a top 3 finish as they begin play in the SEC next season. Dixon, Pressey, and Bowers will use the disappointment they felt after falling to Norfolk State to motivate them this offseason. This Tigers season was one of extreme ups and downs, but unfortunately it won’t be the Big 12 tournament championship or the thrilling 74-71 win over Kansas that will be forever remembered. It will be the stunning, unexplainable loss in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament at the hands of the Norfolk State Spartans that will be etched in memories forever.
Missouri guard Kim English summed it up the 2011-2012 Missouri basketball season with just one word; fun. That word seems as appropriate as any, as the Missouri Tigers racked up the wins en route to a overall record of 27-4, winning the most games in the regular season in school history. The Tigers went 14-4 in conference play, the 14 wins being the most wins in a conference season since 1994. Yeah, fun sounds pretty appropriate.When Mike Anderson left the program to fulfill his dream of coaching at the University of Arkansas last April, English had another impactful and resounding quote.“We will reconcile the loss of our coach by doing one thing, and one thing only: winning,” English said shortly after Anderson left for Razorback country. And boy did they ever win.
The Tigers started the season by winning their first 15 games, which included a 29 point drubbing of the 23rd ranked Fighting Irish, a 39 point beat down of Pac 12 leading California, and a 38 point trouncing of the Oklahoma Sooners to begin Big 12 play. Tiger fans soon forgot about Anderson and turned their attention to supporting new head coach Frank Haith, hired a mere 6 months ago from the University of Miami. Haith’s time at Missouri began rather tumultuously, as fans were strongly opposed to the hire. Current students at the university even wrote a strongly worded letter to the athletic department expressing their disapproval of the hiring of Haith. Tiger fans feel as if they should have landed Matt Painter, current coach of the Purdue Boilermakers. Haith was inappropriately untactfully forced to defend himself at his introductory press conference.
By season’s end, Haith needed to defense. He let the success of his team speak for itself. Frank Haith arguably was the most important part of the Tigers success this year, as he took the same players Mike Anderson had failed to succeed with and created a system in which players like Michael Dixon, Kim English, and Ricardo Ratliffe thrived in. English returned to his sophomore year form, and Dixon and Ratliffe had their best years ever. Missouri was picked unanimously by Big 12 coaches to finish an underwhelming 5th at the outset of the season. At the time, it made sense. The Tigers had a new coach, a new system, and it was unclear how the players would react to losing 5 of the last 6 games that culminated in an embarrassing 78-63 loss to Cincinnati in the NCAA tournament the previous March.
The Tigers also lost senior forward Lawrence Bowers for the season to a torn ACL before the season began in October. Many thought the season would be another bitter disappointment, and many around the program were curious as to how the players would respond to such difficult circumstances. But the Tigers responded about as well as they could have responded, as the Tigers saw their record blossom to 25-2 in mid-February, which included a thrilling and memorable 74-71 win over the Kansas Jayhawks. Missouri struggled a bit down the stretch, finishing the season splitting the last 4 games and ending up 14-4 in conference play, good for 2nd place. The 2nd place finish was the best finish by the Tigers since the Norm Stewart years and there was excitement surrounding the program for the first time since the early 90’s. The Tigers were back. Missouri was ranked in the top 10 in the nation for almost half the season, an astonishing accomplishment considering Missouri was didn’t see their name debut in the rankings until early December.
Going forward, this Missouri Tigers team is extremely dangerous in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers have the best guard play in the nation, as they lead the NCAA in field goal percentage and are in the top 10 in both turnover margin and assists. Featuring five seniors, one junior, and one sophomore in their seven-man rotation, Missouri has players that are past the “me, me, me” phase of their careers—a trait typically synonymous with mid-major programs that make deep runs into the NCAA Tournament.
As teams prepare for the tournament, they tend to shrink their rotation to the group of players that can offer them the best chance to win. However, Missouri has been accustomed to doing this all season long due to injuries, transfers not being eligible and an overall lack of scholarship players on the roster. Sure, they will encounter difficulty when guarding bigger teams down low, but that also works in their favor on the opposite end. The Tigers were tested by bigger teams such as Baylor and Kansas throughout the conference season, and they held their own winning 3 of 4 games against the two schools.
The deficiencies of smaller players tend to camouflage themselves in the paint better in comparison to that of the bigger players stepping out to the perimeter—making guarding Missouri a very daunting task, especially with all of the motion they run to get their shooters open for easy jump shots. Ultimately, guards win games in March and you’d be hard pressed to find a team in the big dance that will have better guard play than Missouri consistently. As great as the season has been for the Tigers, it could get even better with a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Missouri seemed to be caught up in the emotions of senior night Wednesday, its lackluster effort on defense allowing a flurry of 3-pointers by Iowa State that had the Tigers clawing from behind for most of the game.But when Missouri’s Steve Moore dived to corral a loose ball midway through the second half, it provided a spark the Tigers would capitalize on en route to a 78-72 victory that clinched the No. 2 seed in next week’s Big 12 tournament. Steve Moore has found ways to curiously and perhaps unconventionally wake up Missouri on several occasions this season. Lee Summit West product Michael Dixon led Missouri with 21 points, boasting an impressive field goal percentage of 80 percent. Dixon’s drive and layup gave the Tigers a two point lead with just over 3 minutes remaining, a lead they would not give up.
It was Missouri’s 13th Big 12 win, the most in school history as it prepares to leave for the Southeastern Conference next season. Finishing in second place would be the Tigers’ best regular-season performance since coach Norm Stewart’s final season, 1998-99. Missouri entered the game on its first two-game losing streak of the season, including an emotional 87-86 overtime loss at No. 3 Kansas on Saturday so this was a huge gut check for the Tigers. The Cyclones are no slouch, and to come out and hold serve at home was big for this team.
Big man Royce White led the Cyclones with 20 points and nine assists, as the Cyclones tallied their 6th conference loss and ninth loss overall. Iowa State continued its hot shooting from behind the arc, draining 12 3-pointers after entering the game leading the Big 12 by averaging 8.9 per game. The Cyclones hit six in the first half and led 40-36 at halftime after trailing 7-0 to start the game.
After Missouri’s early lead, Buba Palo’s layup with 8:50 remaining in the first half gave the Cyclones a 22-21 lead they kept until Dixon made a half-court pass to English for an easy layup with 12:12 left in the game.Scott Christopherson had 15 points for the Cyclones, who lost for the ninth consecutive time to Missouri. The team shot only 39 percent from the field, but kept pace with the Tigers by taking 15 more shots from the field.Iowa State held a 39-28 advantage on the boards, its seventh consecutive game outrebounding an opponent.
Ricardo Ratliffe added 16 points for Missouri and Pressey had four assists, giving him 183 for the season and breaking the tie with Anthony Peeler for most in a season for Missouri. The Tigers honored their eight-man senior class before the game, complete with fireworks that caused a delay early in the first half when residue needed to be mopped off the court. The class has won 103 games, most of any in school history.