As the sterile crackle of the red bulb flickers to life, the camera points towards a group of young men and their coach seated on row of collapsible chairs on a basketball court. It is the 2012 Selection Show Sunday live in Columbia Missouri and the backdrop is a packed crowd of jubilant fans in the stands as they eagerly await the impending announcement of Missouri’s expected second #1 seed in their history in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. As the broadcast booms out over the P.A. that Missouri will be the #2 seed in the West bracket, the camera catches a clear look of dejection shoot through the team. In a surreal moment that was made to be captured by live TV, inexplicably with the look of outright disappointment still hanging on their faces, a cannon shoots off a stream of confetti, physically startling the team before they slump back in their chairs as the confetti listlessly falls on the downtrodden player’s heads, shoulders and laps. The initial image, albeit just a moment, of the dour faces of the team being in the midst of a confetti drop was a striking contrast to everybody watching. Once the initial surprise wore off a few seconds later, they ended up politely clapping, but we all knew how Missouri felt. The chip on their shoulder was deserved. They were favored by virtually everybody to beat Florida, the #1 seed in the West to advance to the Final Four. The majority of American picked them on ESPN to be a Final Four team, Nate Silver backed it up with hard math to show why Missouri would win the West, and even the President of the United States picked them. This team was not just the trendy pick in 2012 with all of America rooting for them, but as Nate Silver’s math pointed out, they were also really good. This was a team that felt insulted with a #2 seed. This was a team that had something to prove. This was not the attitude of a bottom feeder.
That is what Missouri basketball was less than just 3 years ago. 30 wins and disrespected with a 2 seed. The last time a television audience saw Missouri in the Big 12 they were hoisting the postseason tournament trophy in the Sprint Center being showered by chants of “SEC, SEC, SEC” from the ecstatic Missouri faithful. That was the last sanctioned Big 12 basketball event the Missouri Tigers ever played in, and from that very moment things have only gone south for the Tigers. Starting with the awkward confetti drop and shortly followed by their historic first round exit at the hands of first time dancers #15 Norfolk St, the Missouri Tiger basketball program hasn’t just fallen on hard times, they may have set a new bar for what bottoming out looks like.
Has any other money sport involved in realignment had a bigger fall than the Missouri Tigers basketball program? Has any one football or basketball team from the 12 teams involved in a Power 5 realignment been so bad, after being so good? Out of all the teams involved in realigment, Missouri Tiger basketball will go down as the first casualty, and as of right now hold the title for realignment’s biggest losers. As a once proud program, it is hard to grasp the true contrast of where they used to be compared to just how hard of times they have fallen on. As this is published, they are in the midst of a nine game losing streak. Historically maybe Mississippi State or TCU routinely have nine game losing streaks, but that is not Missouri. You would have to go back to before Stormin’ Norman Stewart was stomping the sidelines, which precedes Woodstock, the first one, for a losing streak nine games or longer. The interesting thing about the death of Missouri basketball is when they made the jump to the SEC, most of the prognostications (yours truly included) thought they would carry the basketball momentum from the Big 12 into a relatively weak SEC and become one of the top tier teams immediately, while their football would take a while to catch up. In reality it has been the exact opposite. For Missouri, their football is thriving and enjoying a renaissance that would take you back to the 50’s and 60’s to find the last time Missouri football was so relevant on a national level. You can question the strength of the SEC East all you want, but they take care of business in their bowl games so its hard to argue they haven’t been a success in football, but basketball… I mean, what happened? How do you describe this abomination?
This isn’t just ugly it’s almost unbelievable the numbers the last place Tigers are putting up, or not putting up. With only 1 win in the SEC and mired in a current 9 game losing streak, the future has never looked bleaker. The last time Missouri scored 37 points in a game, World War II was still considered a current event. Even more incredible, they were the only Power 5 team this year to have a losing record in their non-conference schedule, which was peppered with humiliating losses. I didn’t even know it was possible for a P5 team to have a losing record in the non-con. Heck, the last time it happened to Missouri was back in the Carter administration. Missouri may not have been a perennial powerhouse, but they at least always had a winning non-con record. The scariest thing? They seem to still be regressing.
To make all of this worse, outside of Kentucky, this is happening in a universally regarded terrible SEC. It is hard to fathom the teams that are cruising into Columbia and running the Tigers out of their own home gym. Even more worrisome is their fan support is somewhere between angry and apathetic, but mostly apathetic going by their attendance problems. To top it off their A.D. just announced his resignation so their brand new coach is now most likely a lame duck for another year until the new athletic director can find his own coach. So what this means is, unbelievably, next year could be worse. Worse than this season where KenPom has them ranked 204th behind powerhouses like Gardner Webb and IPFW.
The good news for Missouri fans is, as mentioned above, that athletic director Mike Alden is stepping down after this year and the hope is the new athletic director will be better at selecting basketball coaches. The bad news is the question remains if this is a coaching problem any longer? After two years in the SEC, Frank Haith realized he couldn’t compete and instead of waiting around for the inevitable tail spin, he bailed out while he could and took a job as the head coach of Tulsa. As if that wasn’t humiliating enough, that was just the beginning…
What came next was really puzzling. Missouri may not have been as well received of a job as how Mike Anderson left it when he split to coach Arkansas a few years earlier, but it still has a relatively new arena, SEC money, and a recent success of history that had people like Ben Howland and Tim Floyd lining up for it. Instead of flexing their muscles and spending a couple million dollars for a proven coach who could immediately have them competing for 2nd place every year in the weakened SEC, they went cheap, real cheap. Frank Haith was a major reach, but if there were any doubt that big donor MU basketball money has dried up, hiring a 60 year old Division II coach with no D1 experience, but ties to the program told you all you need to know about the state of the basketball department. From everything I have heard Kim Anderson is a swell guy, but things have gone from bad under Haith to a laughingstock under Anderson. This was predicted by all but the most fanatical Missouri fans, but I don’t know if people expected this level of futility.
The reality is for Missouri basketball fans is they are now in the SEC, and that football is all that really matters to the Missouri athletic department. Basketball is now no different than volleyball or swimming, just another sport to kill time between football seasons. If you have a good year and go to the tourney, great, but overall they really don’t care. The administration is scoring themselves on football results and revenue. For those who say they can turn this around with one hire, I would argue so could the rest of the SEC schools, but why don’t they? The undeniable trend is Missouri has been shifting resources to the football program at the expense of their basketball, as seen recently in their last two basketball hires when good coaches still wanted the job. This isn’t a matter of bad hires, this is a strategic decisions of cheap hires so they can funnel every dollar they have into football and it has paid off in spades for their football program. The question of when Missouri would finally make their first Final Four has now become a question of not when, but if, as there seems to be no end in sight. The Tiger basketball fans went into the SEC with all the hope that they would compete immediately for the weak SEC, but instead it has been a funeral. It is shocking to see a once proud program be put down in such an unceremonious manner so quickly, but in what should be an all too bitter reminder for all those Missouri basketball fans chanting “SEC, SEC, SEC” from the rafters of the Sprint Center that night in March not so long ago, sometimes it is best to be careful what you wish for.