Still plenty of good basketball ahead for No. 22 Missouri
By Darren Hellwege
Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
Three minutes into the second half last Tuesday at Mizzou Arena, the South Carolina Gamecocks led the Missouri Tigers by 13 points, and the crowd in the Arena was closer to what one would find at Pleasantville Methodist Church than a typical college basketball game. Watching Twitter, I saw Mizzou fans and even some of my fellow media observers go into what seems to be their default position…panic.
On the bench, injured Tiger superstar Laurence Bowers flapped his arms madly, nearly achieving flight. Had it not been for the fact that classes had started that day at the university and the student section was full, we might have reached the noise equal of absolute zero.
I joked about the crowd myself on Twitter, saying, “Quaalude Night was a terrible promotional idea.” But fortunately the Tigers only needed one person to make noise in order to kick-start their game. After what must have been a halftime speech that peeled the paint off the locker room walls, Missouri coach Frank Haith returned to the court sans necktie and got his team playing with a spark that had been missing in the first 20. Soon after halftime his sport coat was gone, leading to a few jokes on press row about what would be next.
Fortunately for the dignity of the program Haith remained clothed on the sideline and the Tigers started playing like…well, like the Missouri Tigers, and roared to a solid victory over South Carolina. And at one point, the crowd suddenly realized it was a basketball game and not a PTA meeting and also got plugged in, contributing their share to the Tigers’ emotional lift. It was the first time since February 29, when Mizzou beat Iowa State, that it truly felt like conference basketball in Mizzou Arena. But it took more than a half and the Tigers fighting back from 13 down to wake the fans up.
Missouri fans watch as the Tigers try to come back from a 13-point deficit against South Carolina on Jan. 22, 2013.
Tiger fans are funny that way. A former Mizzou star from the Norm Stewart era once told me the players even in his day knew that the Tigers fans would be the loudest in college basketball if and only if the team gave them something to cheer. Otherwise, they would sit quietly and stew. I grew up with fans who cheered loudly for their team from the opening tip, win lose or draw, so it’s still an oddity for me, but as this player pointed out the team uses that as motivation, and as we saw Tuesday it sometimes works out OK.
But the reaction of the fan base both in the arena and online is a sign of how MU fans seem to be reacting to this entire season: worrying prematurely rather than just accepting that there are good times and bad times but that overall this is a darn good team with a chance to make some real noise in March.
Missouri lost twice in recent weeks, both pretty ugly losses. The Tigers lost at Mississippi by 15 and got strangled by the Florida Gators by a humiliating 31 points. Between those two losses and then falling behind to a very mediocre South Carolina club, I was already seeing people giving up on this team. A record of 14-4 isn’t bad, but Missouri fans have high standards in this sport, which mostly is a good thing. Nobody should just shrug off 30 point losses and say “oh, no problem.” The Tigers played poorly in Oxford and downright dreadfully in Gainesville. But, it was still a good team playing poorly, not a poor team. It’s a big difference.
Any thought that this team is in trouble is remarkably premature for several reasons. First, the Tigers’ losses have all been on the road and to good teams. They’ve lost to Louisville, ranked No. 1 for much of the season. They lost in overtime to a solid UCLA team, and the two Southeastern Conference losses against strong teams on the road. Mississippi is a bit of a surprise but at 15-2 it’s time to acknowledge the Rebels as a serious contender. Florida is No 5 in the rating percentage index and the Gators’ two losses are at Kansas State and Arizona, by a total of seven points.
Another reason the panic is very premature is that both the SEC losses came with Laurence Bowers seemingly working more for Suzy Thompson (Missouri’s outstanding cheer squad coach) than Frank Haith. Hey, who can blame the guy? After spending all last year on the bench, for the senior to suddenly be on the bench in street clothes again has to be terribly frustrating, so when the Mizzou Arena crowd was sleeping through the first half, it was only natural that Bowers joined Thompson’s cheer squad in trying, in vain, to get some enthusiasm out of the funeral-like attendees. But the days of him doing the rah-rah on the sidelines are numbered. Haith tells us Bowers may return by Saturday’s matchup with Vanderbilt, and it seems quite likely we’ll see him back in uniform within the next week. Outside of Bowers and Phil Pressey, the Tigers players have two things in common: they’re all very talented and they’re all brand new to the program. Getting Bowers back will make a major difference, and this team is far, far better with No. 21 on the court.
And finally, you have to look at the upcoming schedule. The SEC is not the Big 12. Were the Tigers dealing with the current situation in the old league, one would have reason to worry, as even the middle-of-the-pack teams were usually tough, especially at home. But once you get past the best of the SEC, there’s a pretty substantial drop-off in talent level. Knowing what we now know about the teams in this year’s SEC, I’d say the Tigers should be favored in every game remaining but one, that being the Gators rematch with Mizzou on February 19. And as we were reminded Tuesday, even when the Tigers aren’t at their best they are extremely difficult to beat in Mizzou Arena. Most of the remaining road games should be wins for the Tigers, as they travel to take on clubs like Mississippi State, Tennessee and LSU. Even Kentucky is suddenly much less scary, standing at 12-6 and with an RPI of 60. The SEC is just plain weak this year outside of Florida, Mizzou and Ole Miss, and with a little luck the Tigers have a serious win streak in front of them as Bowers gets healthy.
With Pressey and Bowers at the core, the continuing meshing of the transfers and development of youngsters (particularly Jabari Brown and Stefan Jankovic) this team could well be poised to challenge for an SEC championship and then make a deep tourney run.
And if they have another half with less than appropriate enthusiasm, Haith now knows how to motivate this club. But keep the youngsters out of the locker room — if it takes Haith stripping down to his birthday suit to get a win, who are we to argue with success?