LEXINGTON, Ky. • By the end of this long and depressing night, even as the small contingent of giddy Colorado State fans partied in the stands behind their team bench, laughing and chanting and dancing in the aisles like they’d just shocked the world, this never felt like one of those typical March Madness Cinderella stories.
No that wasn’t Cinderella floating across the floor inside half-empty Rupp Arena late Thursday night, mainly because the Rams were just too busy strutting around the place with the aggressive air of confident favorites, not scrappy underdogs.
And by the end of this night, the only one scrapping and scuffling around were the frustrated Mizzou Tigers, who were coming to grips with the painful reality that they were on their way out of the NCAA Midwest regional opening round with a rude and abrupt thud.
Colorado State 84, Mizzou 72.
And on the other side of the arena, many of the Missouri loyalists who had traveled here hoping for the best, stayed to endure the bitter end. They slumped in their seats wondering what the heck just happened. This wasn’t a dreamy fantasy to them. To them it was like they were stuck inside an uncomfortable nightmare that just wouldn’t end. Same old story. Same recurring mistakes. A gifted basketball team with so many talented parts that could never find a way to become whole.
Even when the sad outcome was unavoidable, the Tigers did keep fighting, but it was too much too late. It felt like they were always running in place. All night long – heck all season long really — Mizzou just couldn’t get into that groove we kept expecting them to find. And now a faceless Colorado State team was systematically dismantling them by exposing every one of Mizzou’s many fatal flaws.
“I said all along that if we didn’t find a way to finish games, we were going to be sent packing,” said senior forward Alex Oriakhi. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
As Oriakhi talked, teammate Phil Pressey sat glumly by, nodding his head. “We just could never get it right throughout the year,” said Pressey.
The season ended with the frustration of watching a talented Mizzou basketball team inexplicably show up without a slightest hint of urgency at the start of this game. It wasn’t about Pressey going off the rails this time, because the junior played more than good enough for the Tigers to win. He scored 20 points, had seven assists and only one turnover, and hit on three of his six 3-point attempts.
The trouble this time was the vanishing act of so many others. The Tigers were supposed to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country, but Colorado State destroyed them on the boards (a staggering 42-19 edge). Oriakhi (two rebounds), Laurence Bowers (four boards) and Tony Criswell (four boards) each grabbed one offensive rebound, and that was the extent of Mizzou’s work on the offensive glass.
Colorado State killed them, outworked them, outmuscled them. They owned the glass and controlled the paint. The one flaw in Pressey’s game was his inability to defend CSU guard Dorian Green, who slashed into the paint all night for a game-high 26 points.
There wasn’t enough defense. There wasn’t enough rebounding. There wasn’t enough pounding the ball inside when it became so obvious that that was the way to go.
The longer you look at this team, it’s mystifying how they have just not played any better than their 23-11 record. But like football philosopher/Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells says, you are what your record says you are.
So even though we kept seeing glimpses of Mizzou’s potential, we never saw it realized. So perhaps the idea that so many talented, but disconnected parts could be expected to jell into a great team in one season was a mistake from the start. But it just feels like they could have done so much more with this season. You keep waiting for those breathless moments when the world is going nuts around them and they play the game with the sort of veteran calm that championship-caliber teams possess.
But this game never felt right, just like this season never felt quite right. Nothing ever happened all night that made you believe Mizzou could survive and advance. There was no calmness, no icy composure. In fact, there wasn’t even the slightest hint of the desperation of a team that didn’t want its season to end.
And I guess they got their wish.