Originally posted on Fox Sports Midwest  |  Last updated 3/11/12
KANSAS CITY, Mo. Well, this we sure didn't expect. These Missouri Tigers, Big 12 tournament champions? These Missouri Tigers, a 30-4 record and the latest fashionable choice for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament? These Missouri Tigers, marching toward becoming perhaps the best team in school history? No, we most definitely did not see this coming. Not last year when former head coach Mike Anderson bolted the fast, athletic bunch he'd put together, bolting for Arkansas and leaving this program in chaos. Not when new head coach Frank Haith became embroiled in the scandal of his former employer, the University of Miami, which brought calls for his firing even before he coached a game at Missouri. Not when Laurence Bowers, the team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer from the year before, went down with a torn ACL before the season. Yet here was Mizzou, after its 90-75 win over a hot Baylor team on Saturday night, hoisting the Big 12 trophy on the floor of the Sprint Center in Kansas City. That trophy just as easily could have been a prize for the most surprising team in the country. "I don't know how I'm supposed to act, I guess," the usually staid Haith said afterward, nearly cracking a smile. "Shoot, if you told me we're going to be 30-4 at this time of the year, I mean, I would have said you're crazy, particularly when we lose Laurence Bowers. It's just been a special moment. And we're really blessed. God had his hands all over this year." Divine intervention might be the most plausible explanation. A team that entered the season ranked 25th in the nation is now in the mix for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament that begins next week. It's not that Missouri's players weren't talented coming into the season. Guys like Kim English and Marcus Denmon have always been enormous talents; ditto for Ricardo Ratliffe and Phil Pressey. It's just that expecting such a leap from a team that last year was an 11 seed bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament now with a new coach, in a new system and without their top rebounder never really seemed within the realm of possibility. Even on Saturday, the team's adversities kept coming. Denmon was battling a sore ankle, English a bruised thigh. The two were up until 3 a.m. together the night before, getting treated while they watched TV. Even at that unlikely hour, this team found a bit more motivation. English was angry when a national TV sports anchor predicted the Missouri-Baylor game would be an ugly defensive battle. That it most assuredly was not. The Tigers led the entire game, shooting 54 percent from the field and dropping 9 of 21 from 3-point range. In Missouri's final Big 12 game before leaving for the SEC, point guard Pressey was the conductor, finishing with 15 points and eight assists, while four other Tigers scored at least 15 points. "Any team that achieves success, you play the season out," Haith said. "And there's no question I played the season out, when we finished the ballgame and all the things that have happened this year and what this team has endured and all the things that people say what this team is not, and not what we are, it's just a humble moment for me." Which brings us to what the Tigers fans were chanting after Saturday's win and what the Missouri players were echoing on the court: "One seed! One seed!" That would be the team's easiest path to the Final Four, which Missouri has never reached. That would also mean playing early rounds in nearby Omaha, Neb., and, should the Tigers advance, regionals in St. Louis. "Nothing about (the No. 1 seed) is the easiest path," said English, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. "All 68 of those teams are capable. I remember last year VCU was one of the first four that played on Wednesday and they got all the way to the Final Four. Easiest path? Not at all. It's the respect factor . . . (bracket expert) Joe Lunardi, if you're watching, look out for us." Missouri has been a No. 1 seed once, back in 1994, and only been a two seed twice. The program has only made the Elite Eight three times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Yet you can't fault these guys for aiming higher than Missouri's ever reached before. "We get a chance to compete for a national championship, and that's a blessing," Haith said. For just about any past Missouri team, a coach bringing up the word "national championship" would provoke guffaws, perhaps cause school administrators to have the coach's head checked out. With this team, though, it's entirely within the realm of possibility. Afterward, icing his bruised thigh in the locker room, English mused over a question: Is this the best Missouri team ever? He pondered it. Jon Sundvold led Missouri to four consecutive Big 8 championships in the 1980s. Derrick Chievous played for some stellar Missouri teams in the late 1980s. That 1994 team which made the Elite Eight? Those Tigers were great, too. Is this team better than all of them? English didn't want to commit. But then English's eyes lit up. "If we win six more games, then yes," he smiled. And after all the unexpected achievements this season, you can't help wonder if Missouri just might. You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.
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