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.
: 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.TEAM MVP
: 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.REPORT CARD
•MARCUS DENMON Grade: A
•PHIL PRESSEY Grade: B
•MICHAEL DIXON Grade: B
•RICARDO RATLIFFE Grade: B
•KIM ENGLISH Grade: B-
•STEVE MOORE Grade: B-
•MATT PRESSEY Grade: C+
•COACHING Grade: A- LOOKING AHEAD
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.