Missouri’s regular season success in 2017-18 dampened by postseason failures

Across the athletic department, the Missouri Tigers struggled to parlay their regular season success into postseason results.
Missouri punter Corey Fatony (left), Texas defensive back Kris Boyd (center), and Missouri placekicker Tucker McCann (right) in a play of the Texas Bowl at NRG Stadium on Dec. 27, 2017.

Success can be measured in a variety of ways in athletics. There are the Alabamas of the world, primed for a college football national championship run seemingly every season, and the mid-majors like Loyola Chicago, which captivated the nation with its Cinderella run to the Final Four of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Missouri’s athletic program finds itself somewhere in the middle, competing in the Southeastern Conference in most of its sports, and in the middle of the pack as a whole in terms of contending for championships. Success is most definitely relative in a program like this.

As far as the Missouri Tigers in 2017-2018 athletics specifically, there was a somewhat frustrating trend for its fans: many teams exceeded expectations in the regular season but failed to deliver in the postseason.

The most successful Tiger program in the regular season this past school year, No. 3 Missouri wrestling (19-0), was one of the favorites heading into the NCAA Championships held in Cleveland back in March. The Tigers were fresh off of their seventh consecutive conference title, a conference tournament in which they broke the record for the most points at a Mid-American Conference tournament, scoring 177 team points.

However, the Tigers’ roar in Cleveland was much quieter than anticipated, as the team only posted 61.5 points en route to a sixth-place finish. None of the nine individuals — who had combined for a 183-30 record in the regular season — could break into the top three of their respective weight classes, despite containing two 2-seeds and two 3-seeds.

“We had really high expectations of where we wanted to finish here and what we wanted to accomplish, and [we] just lost a lot of tight matches,” coach Brian Smith said in a video interview posted by Mizzou Athletics. “So my overall feeling is disappointment, but I’m still proud of my kids.”

But this type of postseason let down is something that Missouri fans of all sports have grown all too accustomed to during the 2017-18 seasons.

The two revenue Missouri sports, football and basketball, exceeded preseason expectations, performing well in the always-competitive SEC East in football, and the surprisingly deep SEC basketball conference.

However, even with momentum from the regular season, the Tigers failed in both sports to put their winning formula together and tough out a postseason victory.

Beginning with football, second-year head coach Barry Odom and Missouri finished with a remarkable 7-5 record in the regular season after a 1-5 start. The season marked a major one-year turnaround, adding three more wins after a dismal 4-8 finish in 2016. The seven wins were also good enough for the team’s first bowl birth since 2014 and a third-place finish in the SEC East.

Going into the 2017 Texas Bowl against Texas, Missouri was one of the hottest teams in the country, coming off of a six-game winning streak with aspirations of a quality bowl victory to top off an already successful season.

It was not to be for the Tigers though, who lost 33-16 to the Longhorns to end the season. The departure of offensive coordinator Josh Heupel prior to the Texas Bowl seemed to have an impact on junior quarterback Drew Lock and the Missouri offense throughout the loss.

Injuries, transfers and suspensions ensured that Missouri basketball’s season did not live up to the hype created by the addition of four of ESPN’s top 100 recruits of 2017, but the team still managed a 20-11 regular season record (a dramatic turnaround from last season’s 8-24 finish) and qualified as a No. 8 seed for its first NCAA Tournament in five years.

The return of high school star Michael Porter Jr. from a season-long injury once again raised expectations for the team in the postseason. Fans were left aggrieved when the Tigers were upset in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments in first round games to Georgia and Florida State, respectively.

The women’s basketball team was even more dominant in their regular season, coming into the SEC tournament ranked No. 14 in the nation and boasting a 23-6 record. But the Tigers were dominated by Georgia in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, and then were upset by No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Even non-revenue sports were affected by the trend of Missouri postseason failures. No. 20 Missouri gymnastics ended its season placing seventh in the eight-team SEC Championship and then fifth in its six-team NCAA regional. No. 13 men’s and No. 20 women’s swimming and diving finished tied for 23rd in the men’s NCAA Championship, and 15th in the women’s NCAA Championship.

But was this year a harbinger for further postseason issues in the long term for Missouri athletics, or was it just coincidence that these teams all happened to flop during the business end of their 2017-18 seasons?

The football team could point to Heupel’s departure as a large contributor to the bowl game loss, and the men’s basketball team would have a valid argument in saying that the sudden return of Porter Jr., combined with the suspension of senior leader Jordan Barnett, broke the team chemistry as the Tigers embarked on their tournament runs. These two programs were struck down by chance, and they can be excited for next season where they presumably, would not suffer the same misfortunes.

Similarly, the wrestling team can take comfort in the fact that although they came up empty handed in 2018, they are only one year removed from J’den Cox’s third national title, as well as Joey Lavallee’s second place finish.

While the struggles of the women’s basketball team and the gymnastics team have proved to be more recurring than those of the aforementioned teams, the continued growth and development of their athletes should lead to postseason success sooner rather than later.

It remains to be seen whether the 2017-18 athletic year will be looked upon as an outlier in which Missouri sports failed to deliver, or whether it was a sign of more postseason heartbreak to come for Missouri sports fans.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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