Missouri’s one-point loss to Michigan in the first round of the NIT was one last slap in a season filled with profound disappointment for the Tigers.
The Tigers were ranked fifth in the preseason, and the program had a distinct air of expectation. Stars Arthur Johnson and Rickey Paulding were back for their senior seasons along with fellow senior Travon Bryant, and help was on the way from high-scoring transfer guard Jason Conley.
Missouri rose to No. 3 in early December before the free fall.
The school plunged to 9-10 at one point, including a dispiriting loss at home to unknown Belmont. Missouri flashed its talent with six straight wins, then collapsed again by losing three of the last four. Kansas beat the Tigers three times — the last one a buzzer-beater in the finale at the 32-year-old Hearnes Center — and then ended Missouri’s late-season bid for NCAA consideration in the Big 12 tournament.
The school finished 16-14, missing the NCAAs for the first time in six years overall and the first time in coach Quin Snyder’s five seasons, on the same night former point guard Ricky Clemons was on HBO talking about how he had been paid to play. It was a cruel coincidence and a final reminder of the pall cast all season over the program.
“Things haven’t gone the way they’re supposed to go,” Snyder said recently. “There hasn’t been any storybook.
“There hasn’t been a chapter that’s ended storybook for us, let alone ending.”
The final chapter will come not from the NCAA tournament but from an NCAA investigation that has been ongoing since September. The school played the entire season under the threat of sanctions over the Clemons episode.
Certainly, both of its stars played much of the season as if distracted.
Johnson, the preseason Big 12 player of the year, finally lived up to the billing the final third of the season. He had a career-best 37 points against Kansas in the Hearnes finale, then continued to be the go-to guy in the Big 12 tournament and the NIT with 26 points against Michigan.
He finished as the school’s career leading rebounder and shot blocker. But during that stumbling start that Missouri never quite recovered from, he was far from the dominant player the team expected.
Paulding leaned too heavily on his inconsistent jump shot, only rarely mixing 3-pointers with darting moves to the basket. His defense also was not as solid as the previous season, and he wound up a spotty final season with only 10 points against Michigan.
Bryant, a former McDonald’s All-American in high school, was the most consistent of the three. But the 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior never realized that potential at Missouri with a softer, complementary game despite his size.
The offense often consisted of perimeter passes often followed by a shot under pressure, and the defense was curiously lacking in intensity.
Snyder may have allowed Conley, who led the nation with a 29-point average as a freshman at VMI, to fester on the bench too long while honing the guard’s defense in practice. And he entrusted the point guard position for a time to poor-shooting Randy Pulley, resulting in a 4-on-5 situation on offense.
Among the positives for next season: the two-way play of freshman guard Thomas Gardner, the team’s best 3-point threat; sophomore guard Jimmy McKinney’s looser, confident play; and the promise of a full year from the explosive Conley. Linas Kleiza, a freshman sensation inside banger who missed the second half of the season after undergoing surgery for a separated shoulder, will be back at full strength.
But it will probably take a while for Snyder to get over the way it all unraveled.
“It is a tough way to end,” he said after the Michigan game. “I am going to tell the guys that as bad as they feel about not realizing some of their goals, they are still terrific men.
“They are really disappointed now, as we all are, as we should be.”