As TBS meandered through the NCAA Tournament brackets on Sunday, the intriguing local scenario still was alive and feasible and seemed semi-inevitable.
First, Kansas was announced as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, set to take on Pennsylvania in Wichita on Friday.
If you harbor conspiracy theories about how the tournament field is assembled, the vacant 8-9 seeding line for KU’s presumptive second-round game screamed for Missouri to be flashed as one of the prospective foes in waiting.
Only for Seton Hall to show up as the No. 8 and N.C. State as the 9 while MU — indeed a No. 8 seed — was assigned to Nashville to play Florida State in a West Regional game.
Never miss a local story.
Considering the Seminoles are coached by Leonard Hamilton, Bill Self’s former boss at Oklahoma State, these deployments serve as emphatic evidence that the Division I men’s basketball committee doesn’t have the flexibility or inclination to concoct mischievous potential matchups.
The lingering notion that it does is skewed by the fact that college basketball is a study in six degrees of separation, but the truth is the principles for selection, bracketing and seeding just don’t lend that kind of latitude to the operation.
Which is just as well, actually, in this case.
Especially to hear Mizzou’s Kevin Puryear say it when asked if he had hoped to end up where KU’s name came up.
“I was praying to God we didn’t end up in Wichita,” he said. “There is nothing in Wichita.”
Spoken like a True Son descendant of the program Norm Stewart built and that had slipped into chaos and irrelevance the last three years before this season of renewal under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin.
More to the point, MU doesn’t need to have the idea of playing Kansas in its grill when it has to have one singular focus with a team full of players who never have appeared in an NCAA Tournament game: winning its first NCAA game since 2010 to snuff out the school’s longest NCAA victory drought since the one between 1944 and 1976.
This season already has featured a remarkable turnaround, particularly considering the nearly instantaneous loss of Michael Porter Jr. inside of two minutes into the opener against Iowa State.
The Tigers bristled instead of buckling, though, finishing 20-12 overall (after going 8-23 last season) and 10-8 in Southeastern Conference play — more league wins than in the last three years combined — to return to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2013.
They’ve already made good on what Martin told them before the season: “You’ll be the team that said they turned it around.”
But an NCAA win against a towering and intensely athletic FSU group would be another threshold to certify that and help catapult the program forward. Not just in this tournament but toward a more appealing future as Martin continues to reap top-notch recruits and build a sustainable program even as he adjusts to ever-churning circumstances.
Like the suspension of Jordan Barnett following his early Saturday morning DWI arrest, the latest head-shaking moment for a school that sometimes can’t seem to bear any prosperity.
That’s part of what will make this matchup a fascinating measure of the program’s progress, and in a sense a microcosm of the season.
It was going to be challenging enough for MU to find its identity and flow and mojo in just its second game with Porter returning from back surgery, considering the understandable absence of feel for each other that showed up in the Tigers' 62-60 loss to Georgia in the SEC quarterfinals.
Barnett, MU’s second-leading scorer, can travel with the team, Martin said. And it’s possible he could play if MU advances to most likely take on Xavier, the No. 1 seed pitted against the winner of the North Carolina Central-Texas Southern play-in game.
“It will be the next man up,” Martin said, “and we keep moving.”
Trouble is, there are only so many next men up.
MU will enter the game with seven scholarship players, and it can’t win any battle of attrition if it gets into anything resembling the foul trouble it had against Georgia (Puryear and Jeremiah Tilmon fouled out and Jontay Porter had four).
“It’s what it is,” Martin said. “We’ve managed to get to this point.”
He meant this far despite all odds after Porter’s injury, and he wants his team to appreciate that — “responsibly,” he noted — before it tries to make a statement in Nashville.
It might not be where NCAA conspiracy theorists would have expected MU, but it’s one that probably suits Mizzou better … and not just because Puryear thinks there’s nothing in Wichita.