What a year, what a ride. But yikes, what an ending.
The highs of Missouri’s 2011-12 season — like the elation the Tigers felt during their home win against Kansas or capturing the Big 12 tournament championship in Kansas City — were matched by the disappointment the Tigers felt during their historic NCAA Tournament loss to Norfolk State on Friday night.
Because of the latter, the Tigers fell short of their own expectations. But nobody was expecting a 30-5 record and Big 12 tournament title back in October, when Missouri lost senior forward Laurence Bowers for the season and also had a new coach who many doubted could do the job.
All of this makes it difficult to assign grades this year, because everyone in the Tigers’ seven-man rotation performed better than he did a year ago. That counts for something and helps explain why the following grades are higher, collectively, than they were a year ago.
But that this group ended its season with one of the biggest upset losses in NCAA history counts for something, too. That is also reflected in the grading.
WHAT WENT RIGHT AND WRONG
: The 74-71 victory over Kansas on Feb. 4 was pretty darn neat, but there’s no doubt the Tigers’ 90-75 win over Baylor in the Big 12 tournament championship at the Sprint Center was the pinnacle. After all the talk about whose town it was, the Tigers painted Kansas City black and gold by putting together their best three-game stretch of the season. They finished second in the regular season, but thanks to their third win over Baylor, they still got a chance to call themselves Big 12 champs.
: You already know, don’t you? Missouri’s 86-84 loss to Norfolk State in the NCAA Tournament round of 64 on Friday was historic. Fifteen seeds are 6-106 all time against No. 2 seeds in the tournament, and one of those wins is now against a Missouri team that truly believed it could reach the Final Four. For all the good this team accomplished, this loss will always be mentioned.
: Marcus Denmon, the toughest Tiger, both mentally and physically. Denmon, a Hogan Prep graduate and second-team All-American, will go down as one of the best players in program history. Denmon was a clutch performer who averaged a team-high 17.7 points per game, played hurt late in the season and single-handedly willed the Tigers to a home win over Kansas by scoring nine straight points late in the second half to erase an eight-point deficit.
: That Missouri won 30 games. Nobody who watched this team sputter down the stretch last year saw that coming, especially after Bowers was lost in October because of a torn ACL. But several players promised to be better teammates and accepted new coach Frank Haith with open arms. Haith’s motion offense fit the pieces former coach Mike Anderson had assembled, and a small team with a short bench lost only five games and won the Big 12 tournament. Not bad.
: That this team didn’t accomplish more. After a hot start, the Tigers were ranked in the top 10 for most of the year and climbed to No. 2 in the rankings. Besides the Norfolk State loss, the loss at Kansas on Feb. 25 was brutal, too, as the Tigers blew a 19-point lead.
•MARCUS DENMON: Don’t blame the Tigers’ last two losses on Denmon. While the rest of the team seemed rattled when it blew a double-digit lead at Allen Fieldhouse, Denmon methodically poured in basket after basket and finished with 28 points. He also battled through a badly sprained ankle to score 20 points against Norfolk State. He’s had some bad performances, too — he went through a midseason shooting slump and went zero for 10 from the field in the Tigers’ Big 12 tournament semifinal win over Texas — but by and large, Missouri always knew what it would get from Denmon: good rebounding, deadeye shooting and crunch-time scoring. Grade: A
•PHIL PRESSEY: The 5-foot-10 sophomore point guard ran the show and repeatedly drew praise for his ability to orchestrate Haith’s motion offense. His shot selection irked coaches at times, but when Pressey — who averaged 10.3 points and 6.4 assists per game — was getting into the lane, making open shots and finding teammates for easy baskets, Missouri was almost impossible to defend. Pressey was also a pest on defense, leading the Big 12 in steals, though his inability to stay in front of his man at times might have cost him a spot on the conference’s all-defensive team. Grade: B
•MICHAEL DIXON: Aside from Denmon, no Tiger wanted the ball in big moments more. Some might point to the final possession at Kansas — when he walked the ball up the floor and failed to get Denmon the ball — as evidence to the contrary, but the 6-foot-1 junior guard from Lee’s Summit West sparked several rallies with his enthusiasm and scoring ability. Dixon averaged 13.5 points per game off the bench, was chosen to the Big 12’s all-defensive team and could be poised for an all-conference season next year, though the staff will continue to work with him on his shot selection. Grade: B
•RICARDO RATLIFFE: The 6-foot-8 forward turned in a fine senior season as he averaged 13.9 points per game as the Tigers’ sole offensive threat in the post. Ratliffe owes much of his success to Pressey, who routinely fed him the ball for easy baskets, but he rarely took shots he couldn’t make. Ratliffe could also disappear at times, and that is the only thing preventing a higher grade. Grade: B
•KIM ENGLISH: The 6-foot-6 guard was a criticized last season for forcing shots and turning the ball over too much. But in his senior year, English settled into his role as an undersized four-man. He stretched the defense with his outside shooting, averaging 14.5 points and shooting 53 percent from the field and 47 percent from three-point range. At 200 pounds, he could be bullied defensively by bigger players, but he managed to adequately defend the rim with his body by taking charges. A quad injury hampered him against Norfolk State — he finished with only two points and shot one for seven. Grade: B-
•STEVE MOORE: After three largely nondescript seasons on Missouri’s bench, Moore, a 6-foot-9 senior center from Truman High, flourished under Haith. Moore was Missouri’s lone big man off the bench. His averages were modest (2.9 ppg and 3.0 rpg), but his hustle for loose balls, solid interior defense and effective play when Ratliffe wasn’t productive should make Moore proud of his senior season. Grade: B-
•MATT PRESSEY: Pressey, a 6-foot-2 senior guard, was the glue guy, a teammate who focused primarily on defense and wasn’t concerned with his scoring (6.2 ppg). He often guarded the opponent’s best perimeter wing and also deserves credit for battling through a badly sprained ankle. The injury limited his effectiveness for at least the better part of a month, though — particularly on offense. Grade: C+
•COACHING: Haith did not recruit these players, but anyone who saw them at the end of last year knew they had problems. Haith earned their trust and commanded their respect from the get-go, and his assistants — who make $150,000 more collectively than former coach Mike Anderson’s staff did, according to athletic director Mike Alden — helped him coach them up on the finer points of the game. Missouri won 30 games this year because of the emphasis on hustle and attention to detail that Haith instilled, but it’s worth noting that the former seemed to be lacking against Norfolk State. Grade: A-
Missouri’s eight seniors will be hard to replace, obviously, but Haith will have some talent to work with next season. A starting backcourt of Phil Pressey and Dixon is a great start. The Tigers will also feature talented guards Jabari Brown, Earnest Ross and Keion Bell, three transfers who will finally be eligible. The real key will be in the post. The Tigers need Bowers to recover fully from knee surgery, while junior-college transfer Tony Criswell has to provide an inside presence. If either fails to happen, the Tigers will need to rely on some incoming freshmen for inside muscle, which is rarely a good thing.