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Press Box: Missouri’s great season ends with crushing loss

by Greg Jackson | March 19, 2023 at 12:42 a.m.
Missouri teammates Nick Honor (10) and guard D’Moi Hodge (5) leave the floor as Princeton’s Jack Scott begins to celebrate following Saturday’s NCAA Tournament second-round game in Sacramento, Calif. (Associated Press)

I wish the Missouri men’s basketball team didn’t play until today.

I wish I could’ve written this column Friday.

But wishing doesn’t make it so, because what happened Saturday night sullied any optimism Tiger fans like myself may have had.

After being on Cloud Nine on Thursday after Missouri won its first NCAA Tournament game in 13 years, I was quickly brought back down to earth with Saturday’s disappointing 78-63 loss to the Princeton Tigers.

The 15th-seeded Princeton Tigers.

I was primed to write highly of Kobe Brown, who put this team on his back time and time again this season.

Brown had every reason to leave Missouri after last season, when Cuonzo Martin was fired after not putting a competitive product on the court consistently. Hundreds of players across the country entered the transfer portal, and nobody would’ve blamed Brown for joining the club.

But instead, he stayed at Missouri -- along with his younger brother, Kaleb, and Ronnie DeGray III -- and decided to be a leader of a rebuild. He took the road less traveled.

He had a season to remember, leading the Tigers in scoring and rebounding, and he turned around his career with his perimeter shooting.

I’ll never forget being at the Illinois game, when Brown torched the 16th-ranked Fighting Illini for 31 points, along with eight assists, five rebounds and four steals. I’ll remember him leaving the court to chants of “Ko-be! Ko-be!” The same thing happened in the Tigers’ next game, a win against Kentucky.

Seriously, before that, when was the last time Missouri fans chanted a men’s basketball player’s name after a great performance? It’s been a while.

I was ready to talk about Dennis Gates turning around this program in Year 1.

Sure, Missouri won its first nine games against mediocre talent, but a 28-point home loss to Kansas humbled everyone in a hurry.

Then something happened. The Tigers played like an AP Top 25 team.

DeAndre Gholston beat Central Florida at the buzzer. Missouri routed nationally ranked Illinois and nationally ranked Kentucky. And they barely lost on the road to nationally ranked Arkansas.

The Tigers tied for fourth place in the Southeastern Conference, then made the SEC Tournament semifinals for the first time since joining the league ahead of the 2012-13 season. No wonder Gates was offered a contract extension through 2029, along with a salary bump to $4 million next season.

He took a team full of transfers like D’Moi Hodge and Tre Gomillion and Nick Honor, sprinkled them together and produced a 25-win team. That’s impressive.

See what I did there? For two minutes, I made you forget about what happened Saturday night. I gave you a reason to think about the positives of the season, when 365 days ago, positives were few and far between, especially when a future star like Trevon Brazile decided to take his talents elsewhere.

That’s the problem with recency bias. It’s hard to see past yesterday when the disappointment is so fresh today.

Just remember this.

Before the season began, my hope for Missouri was to make any postseason tournament, hopefully the NIT. The NCAA Tournament wasn’t even on the radar.

And yet here we are, talking about how it feels like a disappointment the Tigers didn’t make the Sweet 16.

But if Missouri had played Arizona instead of Princeton, how differently would you be feeling today?

That’s the thing about this team, something I brought up four weeks ago. With the volatility in which the Tigers play the game, you have to take the highs like Thursday with the lows like Saturday.

I hope it’s not a roller-coaster ride much longer. I hope we see the Tigers consistently in the top 25 in the country throughout the season, with expectations to make the second week of the NCAA Tournament. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll one day find a way to end that Final Four drought.

But for now, we’ll have to sit and wait. And it’ll seem like forever.

If it’s any consolation, Kansas will be waiting just as long as Missouri for the 2023-24 season to get here.


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