Gordon: Reeling Tigers have unfinished business

2014-03-18T08:00:00Z 2014-03-18T08:14:09Z Gordon: Reeling Tigers have unfinished businessBy Jeff Gordon jgordon@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

Mizzou fans can see disaster coming miles away.

The Tigers have a rich tradition of tanking in the National Invitational Tournament, dating back to Norm Stewart’s days. This particular MU team tends to fold easily, as evidenced by the disastrous Alabama/Georgia road swing and its quick implosion at Tennessee.

Mix in the untimely legal woes for Wes Clark and Shane Rector – two point guards in one car with marijuana, really? – and the team is threatening to hit a new low.

Tonight’s opponent, Davidson, will be highly motivated after failing to win the automatic bid in the Southern Conference. The Wildcats went 15-1 in league play, then lost to Western Carolina 99-97 in overtime at the conference tourney.

Davidson is well-coached and capable of knocking down the three-ball. Fans can easily imagine Davidson raining shots from beyond the arc over late-arriving Mizzou defenders.

Fans can easily envision befuddled, frustrated and downcast Tigers slinking off the court after a nationally televised defeat before a small and apathetic “crowd” at Mizzou Arena. This is a scene many disappointed boosters expect.

Can Mizzou defy those expectations do a few positive things before this season ends?

The NIT does not offer redemption for this team. There is no erasing its disappointment.

The Tigers did not go to the NCAA Tournament for a host of reasons, topped by this: They could not contain Alabama’s Levi Randolph. That young man came off the bench to score 33 points against them, or nine more than he scored in his previous seven SEC games combined.

If you can’t defend Levi Randolph, you can’t go to the Big Dance. If that is not official criteria, it ought to be.

All the Tigers can do now is try to gain some positive exposure for the program while getting a head start on next season.

This consolation tourney offers freshmen Johnathan Williams III and Torren Jones, sophomore Ryan Rosberg and JUCO transfer Keanu Post an opportunity to gain more experience and confidence heading into his off-season work.

Those big guys, especially Jones and Post, made collective strides late in the season. The NIT gives them another chance to play catch-up.

(There is no substitute for game experience. Mizzou had to close out its marathon SEC tourney victory over Texas A&M with both Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown on the bench. And they did, with Clark and Rector running things. They made the most of that growth opportunity.)

Another goal for Frank Haith to improve this team’s persona while he has the chance. That would send the returning players into their offseason work in a better frame of mind – and could also perk up Tigers-in-waiting Deuce Bello, Zach Price and Cameron Biedscheid.

These transfers are not just front row spectators to this season’s disappointment. They are part of the program, working to make next season better. Life is better for everybody when the program is winning games.

As long as the Tigers are playing televised games, they are recruiting future players. Any televised victory is a good victory.

As for Haith’s own stock, a few NIT victories won’t do him much good. He is still digging out from being an unpopular hire. The Norfolk State Disaster cost him a chance to build some career equity in Boone County. The Miami investigation hung over him for two years, wearing out fans as well.

Then came this aesthetically displeasing 22-victory season in the weak SEC. Beating a couple of mid-major schools in consolation play won’t change that perception that this team under-achieved. His time to build favor this season came and went. After 33 games it’s safe to say this team never got totally in synch.

But another nationally televised no-show would only add to his image problem.

So Mizzou has every reason to take this opportunity seriously. This could be the last time this set of players and coaches work together.

How do they want to remember this season? How do they want to be remembered?

Davidson will come out firing Tuesday night in Columbia. It will be interesting to see what (if any) response the Tigers have.

Jeff Gordon

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This is the new home for STLtoday.com sports columnist Jeff Gordon. Here you'll find his columns on the Cards, Rams, Blues and more, plus his daily "Tipsheet" blog about who's in and who's out in the world of sports.

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