They say March is a time for dancing, and Mizzou Arena threw quite the spectacle Sunday afternoon.
Coach Frank Haith and his team entertained the whims of the thousands in gold they hosted to reign in the team’s path to a championship on Selection Sunday.
Fluttering confetti and the beats of transfer Keion Bell’s new mixtape effectively enveloped a scene that six months ago questioned if fan excitement would be even half as noticeable.
But the freshness of the scene could not cover up the familiarity of the results. Missouri is used to dancing in March, of high expectations and the triumph and pain that erupt with the angle of spin on a buzzer-beating shot.
“This will be our fourth straight time playing in the tournament,” guard Kim English said of his fellow senior teammates. “We’ve got beaten bad. We’ve got beaten closely. We’ve won big. We’ve won close games. We’ve won a Sweet Sixteen game. We’ve been here, and it’s a tournament.”
English’s memory was on-point Sunday, showcasing the impact and finality that gives March Madness its hallowed name. The Tigers have built images to last over the span of four years, four wins and seven games of NCAA Tournament play.
The strongest of those images came three years ago, in the same Phoenix-based West Region through which this year’s No. 2 seeded Tigers will trek. The 2009 Missouri Tigers were also fresh off a Big 12 Conference Tournament championship victory over Baylor and entered the tournament with high expectations as a top-three seed.
Those 2009 Tigers went as far as any other team Missouri basketball has branded in its 105-year history, all the way to an Elite Eight matchup with Connecticut. They won three tournament games, including a 101-91 upset of No. 2 seed Memphis in the Sweet Sixteen.
It was the only other year in Missouri history that the Tigers were Big 12 Tournament champions. The momentum of the tournament has a direct correlation to the swagger the team takes into the big dance, English said.
In the years linking that 2009 run to this year’s team, the Tigers have had their experiences in the tournament, but only in small doses.
As a 10-seed in 2010, Missouri upset No. 7 seed Clemson and almost knocked off No. 2 seed West Virginia. The Tigers fell 68-59 to the Mountaineers, who would later advance to the Final Four.
As part of a disappointing 2-7 finish in 2011, No. 11 seed Missouri couldn’t keep up with No. 6 seed Cincinnati in a 78-63 loss, the Tigers’ last game before Haith’s arrival.
The last two postseason appearances contributed to a four-year MU career that is unmatched in wins, but neither could match the accomplishment of the 2009 tenure.
"That was a fun ride for me as a freshman," English said, joking that his routine was to shoot a few shots and sit back down as a role player on the 2009 Tigers. "I was oblivious to everything. I wasn’t aware of the magnitude of all those games. I was just going out and playing. I guess that obliviousness turned out to be a good thing for us to win three games in the tournament that year.”
From beating historical and seeding odds to win the Big 12 Tournament and reach the Elite Eight, the 2009 Tigers were in many ways resilient, a term AP Big 12 Coach of the Year Frank Haith has coined for this year’s club in his first year on the Mizzou Arena sidelines.
“Postseason is really fun,” Haith said. “These guys deserve to have the opportunity to compete for a national championship.”
Haith’s guys will get that opportunity starting Friday in Omaha, Neb., when they take on No. 15 seed Norfolk State. As they prepare for the start to a "new chapter,” as Haith calls it, the Tiger seniors haven’t forgotten what it means to make it to new grounds, nor what it takes to get there.
“Just the fact that (we know) how much fun it was to win,” said senior guard Marcus Denmon, who like English and senior forward Steve Moore, played in spot minutes off the bench during the 2009 Elite Eight run.
“That’s our number one goal, to win games, and we’re going to take one game at a time,” Denmon said.
Haith has no wide array of tournament experiences, making it just once for two games with Miami in 2008. Haith deflected the notion of experience and knowledge playing an integral role when it comes time to play the games.
For Haith, it’s much simpler than that.
“Just play,” he said with a smile.
The march to return to Tiger heights begins Friday in Omaha.