History says Mizzou can right its listing ship despite nonconference struggles

It's been a struggle so far for Kim Anderson and the Tigers.

Dak Dillon/Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

A challenging nonconference schedule left a large black mark for the young Tigers in Kim Anderson’s first season.

No one expected Missouri to coast into SEC play, which begins Thursday at Mizzou Arena against LSU. But few could have imagined that when the dust settled the Tigers would be 6-7 despite some substantial improvements in December.

"A lot of that has to do with we had a lot of new components," Anderson said Monday during the SEC’s weekly teleconference. "We had seven new guys that had never played here before. We had four guys coming back, got a new coach."

It all led to Mizzou entering conference play with a losing record for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president and Anderson was still on the roster for the Portland Trail Blazers, who cut him halfway through his first and only NBA season. The year was 1978, and 43-year-old Norm Stewart was in his 12th season as coach of the Tigers.

They finished with three straight losses to go 4-5, or 4-8 if you count their losses in the final edition of the Big Eight’s holiday tournament. Much like this year’s team, Stewart’s group failed to beat any of their major conference opponents and suffered a crushing blow with an 83-77 overtime loss on the road against an average San Diego State team.

Rock bottom proved to be even worse and a lot earlier for Anderson, who watched his team lose 69-61 to Missouri-Kansas City in the season opener. That snapped an 81-game win streak against nonconference opponents at Mizzou Arena, and the Kangaroos would lose their next seven games against Division I foes.

If Missouri had found a way to avoid disaster on Nov. 14, perhaps this season would be viewed through a significantly different lens. It would have merely joined the short list of close calls during the Tigers’ streak of 35 straight seasons with a winning nonconference record.

They nearly blew it in a tumultuous 1986-87 season, when early losses to middling Vanderbilt and California and a stretch of three losses in four games sent the Tigers into conference play just 8-6. But they took care of business against mid-major foes and went on to win the Big Eight regular-season and tournament titles to earn a four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The next challenge to the streak came in Quin Snyder’s debut in the 1999-2000 season, when Mizzou’s talented young team lost at Saint Louis and suffered an embarrassing home setback to Winthrop. But wins over Iowa and Illinois were the reason they still entered Big 12 play 7-5 and eventually earned a nine seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Snyder’s streak of four straight trips to the Big Dance finally ended during the 2003-04 season, when the Tigers needed a 20-point win over Iowa to limp into Big 12 play at 5-4. That would be the beginning of a dismal final three seasons at Mizzou, which included losses to Belmont, Houston, Creighton, Sam Houston State and Davidson the year before Stephen Curry arrived.

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One could plausibly argue this year’s schedule provided a tougher test than preceding seasons. Four of the Tigers’ seven losses came against teams ranked in Ken Pomeroy’s top 31, including two against top 10 teams.

Then again, nothing came easily for Mizzou, which had to fight back from a 10-point deficit to beat Lipscomb at home last Saturday. The Tigers trailed or led by only a point in all five of their wins against D-1 opponents, and only No. 85 Valparaiso ranks in KenPom’s top 185.

This young group can’t erase the disappointment of 2014 or avoid its ignominious place in the school’s record books. But the players could learn a lot from their 1978-79 counterparts about how to move forward.

Those Tigers bounced back to finish 8-6 in league play, good enough for an improbable second-place finish in the Big Eight. The next year, with future All-Americans Steve Stipanovich and Jon Sundvold arriving on campus, they went 25-6 to win the first of four consecutive regular-season conference titles, the only time Mizzou won in back-to-back years in Stewart’s 32 seasons in Columbia.

If Anderson’s players continue to grow and give him even half of that success, this year’s struggles will be reduced to a footnote.

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter at @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.