KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 10: Steve Moore, left, Michael Dixon, right, and Laurence Bowers, middle, of the Missouri Tigers celebrate with teammates after they defeated the Baylor Bears 90-75 to win the championship game of the 2012 Big 12 Men's Basketball Tournament at Sprint Center on Saturday in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Missouri fought through a ton of adversity to finish the regular season 30-4. The Tigers will be looking to transfer their unprecedented success into the program's first Final Four appearance.
Missouri basketball fans were not looking forward to the 2011-2012 season.
An off-season of turmoil that was headlined by Mike Anderson's shady departure from Columbia, the threat of losing almost half the roster from last year to transfer and a less-than-popular hiring of Frank Haith as its next coach didn't give Tiger fans much reason to hope.
Even with everything that happened in the off-season, the Tigers started the season ranked No. 25 in the nation and were picked to finish third in the Big 12.
Then the worst news of the pre-season came. The Tigers' most valuable player, Laurence Bowers, went down with a knee injury and was lost for the entire season. No one would have been surprised to see Missouri slide to the middle of the pack in the Big 12 and struggle to get into the field of 68 because of all the adversity they had faced.
A funny thing happened though. Missouri's players decided to put the past behind them, not worry about what they couldn't control and buy in 100 percent to what new coach Frank Haith was selling.
The early injury to Bowers forced Haith to adjust the team's playing style before they played a game. The new head coach decided to move to a 4-guard system, which put a lot of doubt into college basketball experts' minds about the Tigers' ability to win games in the physical Big 12.
The experts were wrong. It worked.
Even with an inherent significant size disadvantage against nearly every team they faced this season, the Tigers were able to evolve into possibly the most efficient offensive team in the nation.
They used incredible quickness from point guards Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon, incredible unselfishness from the entire team and great efficiency from Ricardo Ratliffe to average more than 80 points per game while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor as a team.
The Tigers got those important contributions from their point guards and post man, but a pair of seniors led them all season. Marcus Denmon led the team in scoring and was second on the team in rebounding while shooting 46 percent from the floor. The Kansas City native is a finalist for the John Wooden award, given to the best player in the nation.
Kim English almost departed for the NBA after his junior year out of frustration with Mike Anderson's system, but recommitted to the team when Haith was hired and put together a very impressive senior year.
The Baltimore native scored almost 15 points per game on 53 percent shooting from the floor. He also did a exceptional job on defense, drawing a huge number of charges and making a concered effort to box out against much larger players for defensive rebounds.
The Tigers also got important contributions from Matt Pressey and Steve Moore, especially defensively, but the five players mentioned before are the ones that need to be contributing on offense for Missouri to play into April.
Missouri finished its non-conference schedule with an unblemished 13-0 record, including two convincing wins against California and Notre Dame, as well as a win against Villanova in New York and a win in the annual Arch Rivalry against Illinois.
While they lost four games in conference play, two of the losses came against Kansas State, a team with an outstanding defense and a lot of height. Frank Martin's team was also able to exploit weaknesses in Missouri's defense because of the amount of experience they have had playing against the Tigers in conference play in recent years.
The regular season saw a lot of great moments for Missouri, including a game-winning shot from Michael Dixon in Austin against Texas and a back-and-forth affair in Waco against Baylor, but nothing came close to the last two installments of the Border War, two games that were some of the best in all of college basketball this season.
The first matchup of the season between Missouri and Kansas was one of the best ever played in Columbia. Missouri looked to be left for dead when they were down by eight points with just over two minutes left, but an incredible individual effort from Marcus Denmon to score nine points in three possessions helped Missouri win its last home Border War game.
The second matchup of the year was a de facto Big 12 championship game, played in late February, and may have been even more thrilling then the first. The final scheduled game between these two teams in Lawerence saw Missouri blow a 19-point second half lead before losing a tight contest in overtime. The win for the Jayhawks sealed their eighth straight regular season championship.
Even with the crushing loss in Lawrence, the Tigers came together and became the image of a true team, fighting their inherent size disadvantage and shallow bench. They finished the season in a close second place to Kansas in the Big 12, ending the regular season 27-4 (14-4).
Jumping ahead to the conference tournament this weekend, Missouri had little trouble disposing of Oklahoma State and Texas on the way to the tournament championship against Baylor, the team the Tigers beat in 2009 to win their first Big 12 Tournament championship.
The championship game was competitive throughout, but Missouri held a 6-12 point lead for the majority of the second half and finished the game with a convincing 90-75 win and a second Big 12 Championship in four years. Kim English averaged 23 points per game in the tournament and was named tournament MVP.
The win against Baylor brought the Tigers' season total to 30, but that wasn't enough for the committee to award the Tigers a 1-seed, apparently. After virtual locks Kentucky and Syracuse were named 1-seeds, North Carolina and Big 10 champion Michigan State secured the other two 1-seeds.
Missouri was placed as a 2-seed in the West regional but will play their opening round games in Omaha, Neb. The Tigers get things started on Friday when they face 15th-seeded Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion Norfolk State.
If the Tigers take care of business there, they will face the winner of the 7-10 matchup between Florida and Virginia on Sunday.
The other top seeds in the West Region, which will be held in Phoenix, are Michigan State (1), Marquette (3), Louisville (4) and (5) New Mexico.
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