The Missouri coach’s first squad in Columbia went 30-5, bringing home a Big 12 Championship and an instant-classic victory over rival Kansas. The Tigers overcame their limitations with precise execution, playing a smart brand of basketball that attracted the acclaim of the entire college basketball world.
Despite the Norfolk State incident at the end of it all, the team gave a long-suffering fan base plenty to be proud of and even more to look forward to. Sure, the senior leaders had to depart, but the Tigers still had the national coach of the year in Frank Haith and a highly rated crop of freshmen and transfers coming in to continue building the program.
But the sequel wasn’t s nearly as good as the original.
It started with the controversy.
Missouri announced the indefinite suspension of senior guard Michael Dixon for what Haith called a “violation of team rules” on Oct. 26, two weeks before the Tigers’ first official game.
For weeks, Haith’s vague statement was the only rationale offered for the suspension. After Missouri’s first loss of the season against Louisville, Dixon took to Twitter to express his displeasure with the situation; soon after, fans followed suit, and the ugliness that followed killed the considerable momentum Missouri brought into the season.
Fans are understandably upset when their team suddenly loses a player like Dixon, who averaged 26.7 minutes and 13.5 points per game en route to being named the 2012 AP Sixth Man of the Year. That the university officials were unable to reveal the specific reason for the suspension for so long only added to the discontent, expressed en masse through the #FreeMikeDixon hashtag.
All that ended after Nov. 27 when The Kansas City Star reported that Dixon had been accused of rape in August. Then The Columbia Tribune described the alleged assault in lurid detail later that day. Two days later, Dixon was linked to another sexual assault case from January 2010. The day after that, Dixon was gone for good, announcing his intent to transfer.
In its wake, the Dixon scandal left a changed perception of Missouri basketball. Gone was the program that had been a positive force for unifying the campus and community the year before.
Instead, almost every Missouri supporter became bitter — either toward the athletic department for suspending the star player or toward fellow fans who persisted in defending Dixon’s right to play long after it was sensible to do so. And that ugliness left a toxic environment that no individual, no team, no university could thrive in.
It continued with the coach losing his cool — and his jacket.
Despite the turbulence off the court, Missouri finished the nonconference portion of its schedule with a 10-2 record and ranked tenth in the nation. But as the Tigers started their first season of Southeastern Conference play, it became clear that this team’s weaknesses were both more numerous and more frustrating than those of last season’s squad.
The loss of Dixon meant guard Phil Pressey was Missouri’s only significant contributing returner from Haith’s first team. But the Tigers did have a returning star forward in Laurence Bowers and a huge crop of transfers to fill the rest of the lineup. The result was a rare but intriguing mix of hugely experienced and talented individuals who had never played together.
Center Alex Oriakhi provided a hefty post presence the Tigers had long lacked, and had won a national championship at Connecticut to boot. Keion Bell was one of the nation’s top scorers at Pepperdine, while Oregon’s Jabari Brown was a former five-star recruit. Earnest Ross provided toughness, versatility and experience in the SEC from his time at Auburn, and UAB’s Tony Criswell looked like a solid big guy for the bench.
The lack of familiarity didn’t seem to matter much until a late December trip to UCLA, where Missouri fell 97-94 in overtime despite a spectacular 19-point, 19-assist performance from Pressey. The Tigers allowed UCLA to shoot 50.6 percent from the field, with four Bruins reaching double figures.
The limitations of last year’s team were no fault of their own. Bowers’ injury and the mandated redshirt year for transfers left Missouri with a seven-man rotation that featured only two post players. Haith’s new players rectified the lack of height and depth, but they couldn’t stick to their coach’s plan and wouldn’t give consistent defensive effort.
Those seemingly correctable issues were never fixed, though, leading to a change in Haith’s normally calm bench demeanor. He stomped and screamed on the sideline, and seemingly took things even further during halftime speeches — for it became customary for the usually dapper Haith to come out of the locker room having stripped off his suit jacket and tie.
This Missouri team just never gelled like the last one, and Haith’s public reaction mirrored that of Tiger fans. It’s hard to know whether to blame the coach, the players or some other factor; maybe it’s just unreasonable to expect every group to have the cohesion of last year’s team. But the nature of the faults — mental rather than physical, seemingly correctable rather than inherent — meant that frustration set in quickly.
It ended with the throwaway.
Composure has eluded Missouri just when it matters most — closing time. The trend started in the aforementioned overtime loss to UCLA, where Missouri led by nine with six minutes to go but scored only two more points through the rest of regulation.
Late-game issues followed the team throughout the season, and point guard Pressey became the scapegoat. As Missouri’s only returner and the team’s most recognizable face, Pressey also decided to take on more of the team’s ball handling and scoring duties himself.
Pressey took 87 more shots than last season even though his shooting percentage dropped from 42.8 percent in 2011-12 to just 37.6 percent this year. And while Pressey’s 7.1 assists and 3.6 turnovers per game were both career bests, seemingly the product of his desire to make highlight-reel plays when simple passes would suffice.
The stats, however, don’t compare with the specific examples of the Tigers’ late game woes. Pressey was at his worst in the game’s final moments, a fact crystallized in the memory after the regular season finale at Tennessee. After throwing an errant in-bounds pass with the Tigers down three points with 1:33 to go, Pressey got the ball again with 20 seconds to go — only to throw up a deep three that fell to the ground two feet right of the rim.
Missouri lost its late-game composure again on Friday against Ole Miss, a 64-62 loss that eliminated the Tigers from the SEC Tournament. In a tied game with 29 seconds left, Bowers threw an in-bounds pass that inexplicably overshot all of his teammates, falling into the waiting arms of an Ole Miss player; the Rebels hit a game-winning floater with one second on the clock.
The metaphor for Missouri’s season so far was too obvious — obvious talent and promise, inexplicable end result.
The Tigers will remain a small piece of the 68-team puzzle that is the NCAA Tournament. They’ll have the chance to improve on the one crucial, painful failure of their predecessors. Given how things have gone so far, though, you might expect that chance to be thrown away at the end.