It’s here. Temperatures are warming up, winter coats are being put away, baseballs are being thrown, and Xerox machines are being warmed up. March Madness has arrived. The time of year when people who may not have been paying attention to college basketball all year long, suddenly are swarming around televisions and computer screens with their brackets in hand. March Madness, the greatest three weeks of sports all year long.
It all gets started with conference tournaments next weekend; beginning the yearly discussion whether or not a team that fails to win their conference tournament should be a top seed or not. Of course they should. Conference tournaments are just the appetizer to main course of last minute buzzer beating shots and underdog teams bringing down Power 5 conference teams.
Locally though March Madness has become a maddening time for St. Louis area basketball fans. All three of our large schools; Saint Louis University, the University of Missouri, and the University of Illinois, will fail to make the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year. It’s been quite a fast fall for all three programs and there is no sure end to their plight in sight.
SLU made the most recent appearance, capping a three year run to the tournament with a trip to the second round in 2013-14. But after three straight seasons of 25 or more wins the Billikens have totaled just 21 wins combined in the last two years. Mizzou meanwhile last made the tournament in 2012-13 and has had the most drastic fall from grace. The Tigers, as recent as 2011-12, were ranked #2 in the nation and had a 30 win season; even achieving a ranking as high as #9 the following year. However that is when Frank Haith’s transgressions began to rise up to the surface, causing Haith to run off to Tulsa and leave Mizzou in complete disarray. The Tigers welcomed in long time assistant coach Kim Anderson who has struggled not only to find wins on the court but to find players to even put on the court. Illinois is the most competitive team locally, hovering just below .500 this season. But the Fighting Illini have been searching for the right group of players to make them relevant in the Big Ten and nationally again ever since a runner-up finish a decade ago.
The St. Louis region loves its basketball, from putting out some of the best talent in the country (Bradley Beal, Jayson Tatum, Otto Porter, and Jeremiah Tilmon to name a few recent ones) to holding the quintessential collegiate basketball tournament experience in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. However St. Louis fans have not had much to cheer about recently, even with the MVC about to hold their 26th tournament in the Gateway City. The shine of the premier “Mid-Major” conference was has been somewhat dulled over the last few years, beginning with the departure of long time conference power Creighton University; albeit Wichita State did make some national noise in 2012-13 and had a #1 seed the following year.
The MVC has rebounded nicely this year with Wichita State shaking off a tough stretch earlier this season and overcoming some injuries. Three MVC teams already have 20 wins this season with two more having a chance to reach that mark. Illinois recently picked up what is deemed to be a big recruit, Da’Monte Williams; who turned down offers from Kansas and Indiana to verbally commit to the Fighting Illini.
SLU and Mizzou are the harder teams to figure out. SLU is an extremely young team and has shown signs of playing as a team this season. Although they still lack consistent scorers, I mean this is a team that has been held below 55 points eight times this season. Mizzou meanwhile sits in the cellar of the SEC standings, recording just three conference wins this season. The only consistency they have shown this year is the continued changes in the locker room. The most recent Tiger to depart is D’Angelo Allen. The Tigers will close out their season with just nine scholarship players on the roster.
Mizzou has already added Jordan Barnett, a transfer from the University of Texas, for next year. Barnett was a highly recruited player out of the St. Louis area but never worked into the rotation for the Longhorns. Although just recently we have seen a local star transfer to Mizzou without ever putting on a Tiger uniform (Cameron Biedscheid), so let’s wait and see if Barnett actually makes it to the court.
So what is in store for local basketball fans? Can we ever enjoy our teams appearing back in the March Madness bracket? I am not sure where SLU or Mizzou is headed on the court. It would be nice to see them secure some of the local talent. And there is plenty of it outside of the top names like Tatum. I know for instance there is a player over on the east side, Jordan Goodwin, who would like nice in gold and black or blue and white. If Coach Anderson or Coach Crews could convince him to stay home that would be the start of something. And we all know that both programs need to start something. Here’s to hoping that we can fill in SLU or Mizzou on our March Madness bracket lines sometime soon.