Let there be no doubt that the 2013-14 season is a disappointment for the Missouri men’s basketball team.
The Tigers are accustomed to playing in the NCAA Tournament.
Missouri, 22-11, has taken part in March Madness 26 times, including five straight seasons before Sunday. Twenty-five of those appearances are since 1976.
The Big Dance become the standard for the Tigers, the bar by which every season is measured, so it’s NCAA Tournament-or-bust.
Coach Frank Haith knows that, but he also believes that Missouri should go after the NIT title with as much passion and fervor as it would an NCAA crown.
“I never waver from that,” Haith said when asked about the standard being an NCAA tourney berth. “But I also know that North Carolina was in the NIT about four years ago. It’s the standard for a lot of programs, and we’re no different from any of those programs.
“But when we have a chance to play in the NIT, we want to embrace it. That’s what I want our guys to understand — embrace it and use it as a catalyst.”
Historically, the Tigers haven’t embraced it, going 1-7 in the NIT. Haith aims to change that and hopes that — with AT Stadium in Arlington, Texas, no longer in play — the season wraps up at Madison Square Garden.
“That’s the plan,” Haith said. “We practiced well today and we’ve got so many young guys. Usually, that’s a formula to get guys up to play.”
Here are a few keys to victory:1. Make use of the opportunity
Sure, the NIT isn’t the NCAA Tournament, but Missouri has a chance to keep playing meaningful games with building pressure round-by-round.
It’s an experience that could pay off for the returning Tigers in 2014-15.
“I want to get guys minutes,” Haith said. “I do want some guys to play in this event, but I think the practice and playing games — hopefully, we’re playing more than one game — I think it’s great for our team and our program.”
That group, of course, may or may not include juniors Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson. But it will include junior Keanau Post, sophomore Ryan Rosburg and freshmen Wes Clark, Johnathan Williams III and Torren Jones.
Any minutes fellow freshman Shane Rector gets are an additional bonus.
Of course, it’s likely Clark and Rector will be suspended for at least one game after Saturday’s arrest for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
That means the Tigers have to win at least one to ensure some experience for the entire returning roster.2. Guard the three
Early in the season, Missouri was good at guarding the three-point line (at least based on opponent three-point percentage), but that hasn’t been the case lately.
Davidson won’t be shy about jacking from long range, so the Tigers must get on the Wildcats’ sharpshooters, who average 8.3 made threes per game.3. Manage the game
With senior forward Tony Criswell unlikely to play, according to Haith, and presuming that Clark and Rector also aren’t available, it will be important to manage the game to keep something in the tank for the final five minutes.
That might mean being a little more deliberate and patient on offense to stay a little more fresh.
“It’ll be a challenge, but me and (junior) Jordan (Clarkson) are used to playing big minutes, (senior) Earnest (Ross) as well,” junior Jabari Brown said. “It’s nothing new really.”
Brown said he’s ready for 40 minutes if that’s what is required — Clarkson, too.
Good thing, because if the above-mentioned trio doesn’t play, the Tigers’ bench won’t have any guards. Sophomore Corey Haith suffered a season-ending knee injury last month.
That leaves junior Keanau Post or sophomore Ryan Rosburg, whichever of the two doesn’t start, along with freshman Torren Jones and perhaps junior Danny Feldman, a walk-on transfer from Columbia University, in reserve.
“Danny’s tall, long and he’s a smart kid,” Clarkson said. “He knows all the plays, and he’ll just give us some stability being able to defend and rebound. That’s what he’ll bring to us if he plays (Tuesday).”