Also vanished for No. 3 Missouri is the possibility of an outright Big 12 Conference regular-season championship, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and — most damaging of all — the perception that the Tigers are beyond losing games to mediocre teams.
Yes, Missouri’s regular season has been memorable. But it won’t be historic, not after Tuesday’s game at Mizzou Arena, when Kansas State bullied one of the nation’s elite.
Most of the remaining 15,061 fans clad in black and gold who anticipated witnessing Missouri’s 16th consecutive home victory walked en masse toward exits with 23 seconds left and scrappy Kansas State in control. The Wildcats completed their season sweep of the Tigers, winning 78-68 and leaving Missouri coach Frank Haith to say, “Their physicality just kind of got to us.”
By playing a physical style that flustered the Tigers for the second time in six weeks, the Wildcats gave No. 4 Kansas an opening to clinch its eighth consecutive Big 12 title and claim the No. 1 seed that now appears lost for its border rival.
Despite the result at Mizzou Arena, the Tigers and Jayhawks will still play a meaningful game on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse in one of the nation’s most-charged environments. But after Tuesday, Missouri looks much less imposing.
“That’s their game plan,” said Tigers senior guard Kim English, who finished with nine points. “That’s how they win. That’s their mantra — they’re a physical team. We didn’t punch back early. When you don’t do that and you play good teams, it’s an uphill battle all the way. It just hurt.”
On Tuesday, there was plenty of hurt for English and others in Missouri’s locker room after the first home loss of the Haith era. Hurt came from knowledge that they were punched early and didn’t swing back — Kansas State finished the first half on a 21-12 run to take a 40-30 halftime lead and never trailed after the break. Hurt came from a sense that the Wildcats intimidated the Big 12’s top-scoring offense — the Tigers resorted to low-percentage perimeter attempts because of an inability to penetrate and finished 8-of-26 shooting from beyond the arc. And hurt came from the thought that something deeper than Missouri’s third game of the season was lost — teams worthy of a top seed in the NCAA Tournament don’t stumble before reaching a spotlight that awaited the Tigers on Saturday.
As a result, a sting will linger for Missouri before facing a raucous crowd at Allen Fieldhouse this weekend. Kansas State represented a mental test, a chance for the Tigers to show how much they had grown since losing by 16 points at Bramlage Coliseum on Jan. 7 and wilting late in a seven-point defeat to Oklahoma State at Gallagher-Iba Arena on Jan. 25. Missouri’s seven-game winning streak that included home victories over then-No. 8 Kansas on Feb. 4 and then-No. 6 Baylor on Feb. 11 built the image that Haith’s team was worthy of high praise.
If so, Tuesday’s game was a chance for Missouri to continue the narrative. The Tigers had the opportunity to show that they belonged alongside Kentucky and Syracuse in the discussion as the nation’s best. A victory over Kansas State — paired with a triumph over Kansas on Saturday — would have created a convincing argument that they deserve a coveted top seed come March.
But as more 3-point attempts for the Tigers clanked off the rim Tuesday — as groans from the sellout crowd grew louder and a smattering of Kansas State fans whistled as their team walked toward the locker room after clinching coach Frank Martin’s first victory here in five tries — Missouri’s image as one of the nation’s four best teams was scrubbed away. Now, a No. 2 seed looks likely if the Tigers beat Iowa State, Texas Tech and have a favorable showing at the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
Yes, a memorable regular season. But one that falls short of historic.
“Let me just say this, folks,” Haith said. “We are 25-3. We are 12-3 in the conference. I’m proud of these guys. We want to win every game. It does taste bad when you lose.”
Heightened expectations are part of the reason for the bitter taste. Remember, this run by Haith’s team was never supposed to happen. Ten months ago, fans questioned the coach’s 43-69 ACC record at Miami and wondered what Missouri athletic director Mike Alden could possibly be thinking in picking an unknown to replace Mike Anderson. And six months ago, Haith found himself involved in an explosive Miami investigation that connected him with renegade booster Nevin Shapiro. Through it all, there were questions among some factions of the fan base about whether Haith would be fired before he coached a game.
Then Missouri surprised with blowout victories in the early non-conference schedule. Then came success in Big 12 tests in January, followed by the victories at Mizzou Arena over Baylor and Kansas. Suddenly, goals that seemed laughable at Haith’s introductory news conference became real. There was a sense that the Tigers could end their last season in the Big 12 with their first regular-season title as part of the league. There was a sense that a championship could happen.
The run was entertaining while it lasted, but Missouri’s loss to Kansas State on Tuesday should end title talk with the upcoming trip to Lawrence. Beating the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse appears to be too tall of a task for a group that failed to take care of business at home against a team that entered 7-7 in Big 12 play.
After he left the court Tuesday, English tilted his head and pursed his lips in a small room as Haith began his postgame address by praising the Wildcats’ physical play. The guard appeared lost in the moment as if he knew what the Tigers had let slip away.