Magic did not run out on the Tigers on Saturday afternoon in Arizona. One great team was beat by another.
Missouri's defeat at the hands of the Connecticut Huskies in the NCAA Tournament was hard to swallow. Whenever a team gets so close to its ultimate goal they can touch it, coming up short hurts. Missouri, leading by a point with less than 10 minutes remaining in the Elite Eight, could see the city of Detroit over the horizon. Unfortunately, the sun set on coach Mike Anderson's squad just as it started tasting the Final Four festivities.
Even though the disappointment leaves an unsatisfied taste in the mouths of many, the Missouri basketball program gave its followers nothing but encouragement for the future. A year removed from a 16-16 record, the Tigers roared back into national prominence that hasn't been seen in Columbia since Norm Stewart roamed the sidelines at the Hearnes Center.
Missouri's march through March included a business-like win against a Cornell team that had experienced the NCAA Tournament just a year before, a gut-wrenching victory over Big East powerhouse Marquette and the domination of No. 2 seed Memphis before finally bowing out to the Huskies. They thrilled in victory and earned respect in defeat.
The madness united the university more than any other single event since I arrived on campus in 2007. More than the football team's run to No. 1. More than the fight against Brother Jed at Speaker's Circle. Facebook in the Missouri network lit up before and every win, illustrating the pride and joy students were feeling to be a part of something like this. Even in defeat, the most common comment read something like "still so proud to be a Missouri Tiger." This was something special.
The most promising (and probably painful) part of the loss to UConn is that Missouri proved it was not a lesser team unable to pull off a major upset. They simply did not wake up Saturday morning shooting the ball as well as they normally do and can. The contest was theirs to take, but sometimes in sports the rims are unkind and the ball doesn't bounce the right way. That's basketball.
The game also provided hope for the future. DeMarre Carroll, Leo Lyons, Matt Lawrence and Michael Anderson Jr. leave the program at the peak of their careers. Congratulations to them for completing a 180-degree turn since their arrival. But it wasn't Carroll and Lyons keeping MU in the game. The Tigers would be nowhere without those two, but both struggled somewhat in their final collegiate match-up. Rather, it was sophomore Justin Safford and junior Keith Ramsey providing the energy to fuel a Missouri comeback. Safford especially took his play to another level in the month of March.
After a well-deserved break, it'll be time to look forward to the 2009-2010 campaign. J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor will be back. I look for J.T. to continue to improve his offensive output. Safford and Ramsey will continue to progress and ultimately take the role of Carroll and Lyons. Lawrence Bowers, the third big man in the mix, has the raw skill to be the best of the bunch. Kim English, Marcus Denmon and Miguel Paul all will have had a season under their belts. Anderson has another recruiting class coming into town.
The sun might have set on the Tigers hopes of getting to Detroit, but this year was just the beginning of its rise over the bright future of the basketball program.