Starting Wednesday, energized Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State basketball teams will depart the Sunflower State and pass through or over the state of Missouri en route to the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis. Flocks of their fans will follow.
The symbolic parade-by of former rivals and a fledgling power will make for a stark and exasperating contrast for fans of Missouri’s flagship institution.
Missouri, after all, was relegated to the NIT and left trying to salvage something to build off starting Tuesday at Mizzou Arena, where much of the night Davidson threatened to end MU’s dud of a season with a thud.
Say this for what’s been a meandering Mizzou, though:
With ample excuse to shrug or wilt as Davidson led by as many as 13 in the second half, the shorthanded Tigers instead played with a certain desperation and unity uncharacteristic of their season to fend off the Wildcats 85-77.
The Tigers rallied despite having just seven available scholarship players because of Tony Criswell’s ongoing stature in limbo and the suspensions of freshmen Wes Clark and Shane Rector, who had been arrested Saturday on suspicion of misdemeanor possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana.
The unflappable, inevitable junior Jabari Brown led MU with 30 points, but perhaps the victory was embodied by senior Earnest Ross.
Seemingly consumed with the prospect of facing his last game at MU, he scored 10 of his 16 points in the second half.
But it was his lunge over a table for a loose ball with MU up seven in the final seconds that most resonated.
And his energy to keep playing only intensified after the game when he took the public-address microphone to thank a sparse but engaged crowd of perhaps 2,500.
So, yippee, you might say, MU stays alive in the NIT and advances to play host Sunday to the winner of the game Wednesday between Southern Mississippi and Toledo.
This may seem like a triviality even to Tiger fans since a berth in this secondary tournament is so easily mocked. Playing in a consolation bracket just doesn’t offer much consolation.
But that doesn’t mean that the NIT has to be irrelevant.
A rebuilding Wichita State won it in 2011, earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament a year later, barged into the Final Four last season and is a No. 1 seed this year.
Coach Gregg Marshall literally will point to that on the greaseboard in his office as a pivotal building block.
Virginia, a top NCAA seed this season, made a run in the NIT last season. Baylor won the NIT in 2013 and is a No. 6 seed in this NCAA Tournament.
“You can use it as a springboard,” MU coach Frank Haith said after the game, later adding, “I think it’s important for our guys to understand we’re building for the future right now.”
So in a way the future becomes now for a Missouri team that hasn’t found its identity this season or at least not an identity to get behind as a team that often seemed to settle into freelancing offense and stooped into porous defense.
Still, MU will have to go deep in the NIT and maybe win it to make any difference at all in the perception of this season.
And even then it would be hard to know if that’s just cosmetic. Or what it would really mean to the future because of the perpetual flux the program seems to be in now, both in terms of personnel and thus strategic shape-shifting.
If Brown and Jordan Clarkson leave for the NBA after this season, MU will face its fourth straight season of radical strategic makeovers starting with Haith’s first year following Mike Anderson.
That first team was a senior-based four-guard sensation that earned a NCAA No. 2 seed before the miserable first-round loss to Norfolk State.
With only one returnee from his first team last season, the Tigers tried to stress the inside game but ultimately were a reflection of the whims of guard Phil Pressey and never found a groove.
And now, there is this group that with the exception of a few weeks in December looked better on paper than it ever has in reality.
Still, after three straight losses in early February, Missouri was hovering in most projected NCAA tournament fields by winning three straight before the absence of leadership and a core became apparent.
With a bid all but in their hands, the Tigers lost four of their last seven by an average of 18 points entering the NIT game and looked joyless most of the time.
They finished in a three-way tie for sixth place in the underwhelming Southeastern Conference, which instead of MU reinvigorating as anticipated it seems to be conforming to.
So no matter how you dissect the numbers, no matter how much you might think MU had better credentials than, say, an N.C. State team it beat on the road, this was a well-deserved NIT berth.
And, sure, how the Tigers play now can be a springboard, and kudos to them for playing that way Tuesday.
But wherever this goes from here, some sort of fundamental foundation must start to form and take next season. Or MU will be on the outside looking in again.