March 29, 2009

A Year to Remember

All the stories and all the commentary these next couple of days will say Saturday's loss to Connecticut took nothing away from the greatest season in Missouri basketball history. Around 2 o'clock this afternoon, hundreds of Tiger fans will likely be standing outside Mizzou Arena when the team bus comes up, letting the players know they certainly see no tarnish after the 82-75 setback.

You know, that sentiment is right. Yesterday does not diminish this season. But at the same time, I'm not sure it's fair to these Tigers.

When I was in high school, I was on the swim team. There were a handful of kids who came out for the team simply for the exercise or for something to do. They would often lose 100-yard races by more than a lap. The crowd would cheer for them when they finished. We called that the pity clap.

These Tigers don't deserve a pity clap. What Missouri did on Thursday and Saturday was not continue a Cinderella run. No, what Missouri did is validate the first 36 games of the season by pounding Memphis and taking UCONN to the wire. The Tigers deserved to be there. They really are that good.

A streak of 14 wins in 16 games stopped yesterday at the hands of Connecticut (pre-season No. 2). And, honestly, no it doesn't take much away from the season. It was still a great one.

But read the stories today about the game. Pay attention not to the words of the writers, but to the words coming from the Tigers themselves. They were not happy to be there. They expected not just to win that game, but to win two more.

And you know what? It makes sense. This team was good enough. They didn't get to the first Final Four in school history, mostly because they ran into a team that is almost unfairly big and athletic, partly because one of the smallest guys on that team had the day of his life. But that doesn't mean they weren't good enough to get there. Pitt didn't get there either. They're good enough. Either North Carolina or Oklahoma will miss out. They're most definitely good enough.

This Tiger team belongs in that discussion. They beat Oklahoma. They beat Memphis. They took UCONN all the way to the final minute. They're part of that group. As the round they lost in suggests, Missouri truly was elite this season.

Whether it continues, we will not know for a few months. Can the Tigers be this good again next season? Who really knows? But for the first time in years, the program as a whole is on solid ground. The pride and excitement of Missouri basketball is back.

It would have been fun to hang a Final Four banner, and out of this world to hang a national title commemoration. But in the end, maybe this season ended in the perfect place. Just outside of Phoenix, the nation found out what many of us already knew: A program has risen from the ashes.

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