By any measure, this has been an exhilarating turnabout season for Missouri men’s basketball, a pivot to renewed hope after bleak years of chaos descended into futility.
One gauge says it all: A program that mustered a total of eight Southeastern Conference wins (against 46 losses) in three seasons had as many SEC victories (against six losses) going into its game on Tuesday against Mississippi.
That in itself makes first-year coach Cuonzo Martin an intriguing frontrunner for SEC coach of the year — especially considering how he’s cajoled five holdovers and three newcomers to become better than the sum of their parts.
Mizzou forged forward, albeit with some dips, after the stunning loss 2 minutes into the season of would-be miracle-worker Michael Porter Jr., the nation’s top recruit.
And it has shrugged off — OK, salvaged — losing three point guards, including two hotshot freshmen who transferred and junior Terrence Phillips amid a Title IX investigation following complaints by at least four women.
But, oof, this still is an operation in its embryonic stage.
More to the immediate moment, this is a flawed team that at its best can compensate for its shortcomings but otherwise is downright vulnerable.
(And, geez, actually perhaps could prosper from the prospective return of MPJ despite some absurd theorizing out there about how he could throw off chemistry).
The lurking downside was exposed anew on Tuesday in a grimace-inducing 90-87 overtime loss to a Mississippi team that resides in the cellar of the SEC and parted ways with its coach just days ago.
A team Mizzou absolutely should have beaten, especially at home, but inexplicably wasn’t ready to do.
The result simmered down to the essence of where this team stands, as well-put by Martin.
“I say to our guys all the time, ‘We have enough to be successful, but we don’t have enough if we’re not on the same page and we’re not clicking on all cylinders,’ ” he said.
Cases in point: MU missed 11 of its 31 free-throw attempts — a game after hitting just seven of 17 in a loss at Louisiana State — and the Tigers turned the ball over 21 times.
“Mind-blowing,” Martin called that.
An “inexcusable lack of focus, lack of toughness,” junior Kevin Puryear said. “It’s embarrassing, actually, to have 21 turnovers on your home floor.”
For that matter, MU looked disjointed on offense — blowing a four-on-one in overtime — and plodding on defense much of the night.
After the Tigers conjured a rally from 13 down to take a six-point lead with 3 minutes, 24 seconds left, the advantage evaporated down the stretch with turnovers on three straight possessions and some poised free-throw shooting by Ole Miss (which made 15 of 16 from the line overall).
“Same thing that it’s usually been: Couldn’t close out the game, turnovers down the stretch,” senior Jordan Barnett said. “Same old, same old.”
Then MU, a team with much to play for, withered in overtime against a team that had lost seven in a row and hadn’t won a conference road game and could be said to be playing for pride alone.
Some will remember this game for Jordan Geist’s undesirable three-point attempt at the end of overtime, preceded by his blocked layup on the previous possession, and the fact that he’s been in that position more times than seems advisable.
But this game never should have come down to that, and just like you could point to everyone’s contribution in the recent win over Kentucky, you could point at everyone’s contributions to this clunker.
So add it all up, and no doubt this was less than Mizzou’s best version of itself.
Which leads to the more significant matters of why and what can be done about it.
Those are X-factor human issues for which every coach wishes he or she had a fool-proof remedy, but ones that are particularly major for a team with such a slim margin for error.
Maybe it was a dose of overconfidence, which Puryear denied even as he struggled to offer another reason.
Maybe it was a lull, part of the biorhythms of the season.
Heck, maybe it was fatigue from lack of depth and so many guys playing so many minutes — including Barnett (43), Kassius Robertson (42) and Geist (40-plus).
This much, though, is certain:
The team that played with the most urgency and energy won, and the team that was largely lackadaisical lost.
If Mizzou doesn’t seize this reminder to make that sort of intensity a defining part of its game, every game, then this turnaround season will be remembered for a late fizzle as much as anything else — with or without the return of Porter.
Meanwhile, if it makes this game a jumping-off point into the stretch instead of a trend, and it gets Porter back, the ceiling is open.
Now, it’s up to Martin to indelibly drill that in to a team that is capable of rising to new heights but perfectly free to fall.