Missouri can see Final destination
There was really no basis for comparison until Maryland finally reached the Final Four.
Sure, head coach Gary Williams thought his Maryland team was every bit as good as the best the ACC had to offer. But he had no comeback whenever the talk turned to how his school measured up against Duke and North Carolina.
They had titles. He didn't.
In 2001, the Terps finally broke through and reached the Final Four (in the school's 17th NCAA Tournament appearance). Williams had some evidence to support his case.
A year later, Maryland won the program's first national title. That gave Williams his Exhibit: A, whenever the debate raged.
"Until you do it, the reality is, you're measured by whether you get (to the Final Four) or not ... if you're at a basketball school in a major conference," Williams said. "In our league, Duke, Carolina, Wake, N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Virginia (and even Florida State) had all been there. We hadn't.
"In our minds, our fans couldn't talk about Duke or Carolina until we did it. It was constantly thrown in our face, and once we got there, no one could say that anymore."
In reality, before Maryland reached the Final Four in 2001, it was in the same group as Clemson -- namely, the only two ACC teams never to reach the Final Four.
"There's no debate when you haven't been there," Williams said. "Then we were fortunate to get back there and win it. That changes everything."
Heading into the 2003-04 season, two programs have been to the NCAA Tournament at least 20 times without ever getting to the Final Four: Missouri (21) and BYU (20). And, by the time the 2004 NCAA Tournament rolls around, one will be expected to be in San Antonio:
"You can't hang on to something that you're program has never done before," said Missouri coach Quin Snyder, who's gathered enough talent in his fifth season to break through. "It's hard to do and you have to be lucky as well as really good. No one has higher expectations that we do.
"We would love to as a group get there for the fans of Missouri. There isn't pressure to do it, but we know it would be an amazing accomplishment to do something like that."
Missouri, however, may not get a chance to live up to any expectations. The NCAA is currently investigating Synder's program, and if any major violations are found, the postseason may be off limits. The school received a letter of inquiry in September. An NCAA report is due in December.
For now, we can only assume the Tigers will be free to play in the NCAA Tournament. And for Missouri to be mentioned in the same sentence as Big 12 rivals Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas -- let alone the country's elite programs -- the Tigers need to be among the 2004 Final Four teams.
These Tigers have been close. In fact, in each of Synder's previous four seasons, Missouri has lost to a team that eventually reached the Final Four -- North Carolina in the first round in 1999; Duke (and Snyder's mentor Mike Krzyzewski) in the second round of 2000; Oklahoma in the Elite Eight in 2001 and magical Marquette team in the second round last year.
Memphis coach John Calipari said familiarity pays off. Calapari's UMass team lost to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight 1995, then reached the '96 Final Four (it's the school's only appearnace there) Missouri's senior leaders Rickey Paulding, Arthur Johnson and Travon Bryant were on the Elite Eight team two seasons ago.
"To get to the Final Four, the most important thing is your seed," Calipari said. "The second thing is that you have to have a player like Dwyane Wade (Marquette) or Marcus Camby (UMass), the kind of player who can take over a game and dominate. You're not going to do it with just terrific college players."
Calipari believes Missouri has a player in Paulding who can take over a game (see: 36 points in last year's 101-92 OT loss to Marquette). The question, however, is whether Missouri can get a high enough seed after a season of Big 12 top 25 teams beating up each other.
"To do that in that league isn't easy," Calipari said. "It's hard to finish fourth in a league and get a No. 2 seed. They need to finish well and then they'll need one player like Paulding or Johnson to be a top 10 player in the country and carry them. Can they do that? I would say, yes. But where they finish in their league is another question. I knew at UMass we would finish first in our league."
Bracketing plays a huge role in making the Final Four, too. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said the Huskies were talented enough to get to the Final Four in 1995. He's convinced that if top-seeded UCLA's Tyus Edney didn't beat Missouri to get to the Sweet 16, the second-seeded Huskies could have been in Seattle instead of the Bruins and playing for the national title. UCLA beat Arkansas for the '95 title.
"Missouri wouldn't have been able to keep pace with us," said Calhoun, who is also making the assumption that had the Tigers beaten the Bruins then they would have defeated Mississippi State before playing Connecticut in the Elite Eight. "And then in the Final Four, playing Oklahoma State would have been a good matchup for us, too. The road map to the Final Four is getting in the right brackets."
Connecticut was another team that reached 20 NCAA bids before reaching the Final Four. But after its Final Four futility (if you can even call it that) ended in 1999, the Huskies wasted no time in winning it all -- beating Duke in the title game.
"I never felt like it (was an albatross)," Calhoun said of getting to the Final Four. "I just felt it would take time. But we always heard we weren't the same pedigree as Kentucky or Indiana because we didn't have (the Final Four) history. We're the new rich now.
"I always had the belief that we had a chance. But the more guys who get there have gray hair or are losing it more. It takes a skill to navigate through to the Final Four."
Calhoun points to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim as a perfect example of a coach who knew how to get to the Final Four, but until last season, always came up short. But, with the best player in the country the last six weeks of last season (Carmelo Anthony), Boeheim got there again and finally won cut down the final net.
Before Synder's arrival, Missouri had its own coach who was losing his hair when it came to the NCAA Tournament. Norm Stewart took Missouri to the 16 NCAAs from 1976-99, but never got further than the Elite Eight (1976 and '94).
Snyder obviously doesn't fit the mold of an aging coach chasing an elusive goal. And he hasn't reached the point of pulling out his now closely cropped, but thick locks.
But while relatively new to the coaching fraternity -- having been a head coach for all of four seasons -- he's not unfamiliar to the Final Four, getting there as a Duke player in 1986, '88 and '89, and then as a Coach K assistant in 1999.
"I've seen the determination and the leadership that Coach K showed to get to the Final Four," Snyder said. "I've seen the culture that was created there and how hard they worked to obtain those goals. I was fortunate to get there as a player and as a coach. We've been to the tournament four straight seasons and knocked on the door. It takes time to knock it down."
But, like Calipari said, Missouri does have the two potential star players in Paulding on the wing and Johnson inside to carry the Tigers to San Antonio. Both players are legit Big 12 and national player of the year candidates. Missouri also has the unselfish compliment player in Travon Bryant, a third senior starter. And it has newcomers who are infusing the energy in practices to possibly push the Tigers to a deep run.
Snyder said freshman guard Thomas Gardner might be one of the Big 12's biggest surprises with his ability to shoot from the perimeter. Highly-touted freshman Linas Kleiza, a hit at the World Championships in Greece over the summer, is a bruising 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward who has "great feet," and could eventually play small forward.
But the question is at the point where former Saint Louis guard Randy Pulley and sophomore Jimmy McKinney have to share the position, as well as get the ball in the hands of Paulding and Johnson as much as possible.
"We've got a group of guys (Paulding, Johnson and Bryant) who have won more NCAA games than any group of players at Missouri (the seniors are 5-4)," Snyder said. "And that's before we even get to this year's tournament."
As for the NCAA investigation, Snyder said any distractions will be treated as part of this season's business and the team is prepared to deal with them, put what comes in proper perspective, and hopefully move forward to achieve the program's on-court goals.
And if Missouri is able to weather the off-court news -- good or bad -- and break through to the Final Four? If so, the attitude around the program, not to mention within the alumni, would drastically change.
"It's amazing how it helps in other areas of your university," Williams said. "Everyone starts sticking out their chest more. Getting to the Final Four takes away the fear of saying, 'we're great.' Until you actually do something, a lot of people are afraid to say that. And once you do something like that (the Final Four or the title) you see that it's realistic to do it again.
"We always used to say we had a chance to get to the Final Four, but how did we know unless we had been? You're just guessing. You're guessing on what it takes to get there. It's not the same unless you've done it."
It's Missouri's turn.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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