Senior Writer

Missouri walks away as Big 12 champs, and that's a shame


Kim English, the tournament's MVP, celebrates alongside Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas. (US Presswire)  
Kim English, the tournament's MVP, celebrates alongside Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas. (US Presswire)  

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was wonderful. It was sad. It was uplifting. It was depressing. It was confetti. Way too much confetti, some would suggest, to salute the departed. In the end, the scene just wrung every last emotion possible out of conference realignment.

It was a Big 12 tournament title for Missouri. The last one it will ever win. The last one it ever cares to win.

That's why something was missing from what was otherwise a basketball house party for the Tigers. Missouri, its fans and its players probably don't even know that yet. They'll wake up with a smile or a hangover on Sunday -- maybe both -- and realize it can never be this good again.

They won with one foot in Birmingham (home of the SEC office) while Every True Son packed the Sprint Center. That doesn't mean Missouri can't win championships down South. It just means it can't win them the same way -- with all the love and affection -- and certainly not here. Saturday's 90-75 triumph over Baylor marked the school's first conference tournament title in this town since 1993 (seventh overall). Tigers everywhere lapped up every moment.

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From now on, winning in the SEC just can't matter as much as it did Saturday -- with seven Missourians, including four native Kansas Citians, in the lineup. In Kansas City. It can't be as inspirational as 1,000 fans meeting the team bus as it pulled up to the Sprint Center.

See how that works in Atlanta or Nashville -- those native Missouri sons mixing with the South's good, ol' boys. The argument in leaving the league was that the Missouri administration couldn't stand the Big 12's dysfunction. The conference argued that no matter how many problems, this was their home, their culture.

Both were probably right.

But in the bowels of the Sprint Center this week, eventual tournament most outstanding player Kim English was asked to consider what it would be like to win that tournament title on the school's way out the door.

"We're Big 12 guys," Missouri's senior guard said. "I came into this league a Big 12 guy ... Maybe we'll get accustomed to SEC when we're old alumni. As for now we're Big 12 guys."

God, the crowd didn't actually chant "S-E-C! S-E-C!" with 50 seconds left did it?

That seems so wrong. It's been 105 years since Missouri started playing something called basketball in something called the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The Big 12 traces its roots back that far. On Saturday, Missouri said a final goodbye to the crazy ex-girlfriend that conference had become.

Yeah, but at least it was their crazy ex-girlfriend until realignment just seemed like the right thing to do.

Kansas would have been the perfect foil on Saturday. Even Missouri coach Frank Haith couldn't let go of the now all-but-dead rivalry. The Jayhawks didn't do their part in setting up one last Big 12 meeting against Missouri by losing to Baylor in the semis. Bill Self couldn't let go himself this week suggesting this was a Kansas -- even a Kansas State -- town before it was a Missouri town.

"I gotta believe," Haith said Saturday night, "we're not an afterthought in Kansas City, Missouri."

Not now but a tradition, decades in the making, just ended. A story built in this town, in this arena, just got archived. There will be much discussion in the hours before Selection Sunday about Missouri's proper seed. Are the Tigers a 1? A 2? But before considering Missouri's seed the NCAA basketball committee must consider that the Tigers quit.

It says so right there in the dispatches from March 11, 2011. Same setting, same tournament. Just a year ago.

That's a great place to start evaluating Missouri's Big 12 tournament title, the last one it will ever win. In one year the Tigers went from quitters to champions. Haith went from bad hire to national coach of the year candidate. English did everything Saturday (19 points, six rebounds) including mopping up his own sweat after falling out of bounds.

"God," English said, "had his hands all over this year."

What a tournament, what a team, what a story. But it can never matter this much again. Whether the Tigers stumble or soar this time of year matters most here -- in the Big 12, in Kansas City its ancestral basketball home. In the SEC, I'm betting not so much. The Strength Everywhere Conference may be the best conference for the school, but it's not home. It's next.

This place, this city was Missouri's heart and soul each spring. Now heart and soul morphs into SEC western outpost.

Every conference seems to have that familiar home this time of year. Duke and Carolina battle it out in the ACC's granddaddy of all tournaments. Syracuse rules the Garden, but even tradition may die when the Orange head to the ACC.

Bit by bit, we're getting used to it. The Tigers walked off for the final time forever champions of a league they can't wait to leave.

Is it possible to retire a trophy? In this crazy mess that has become realignment only a handful of schools have won championships as they went out the door. Miami shared the 2003 Big East title in football before going to the ACC. Louisville won Conference USA in 2004, its last year in the league.

Chad Bass was one of those Missouri revelers on Saturday. He was wearing a black and gold T-shirt adorned with the SEC logo. Two weeks ago in Allen Fieldhouse, that was him was screaming "S-E-C!" from the rafters each time a Jayhawk shot a free throw. He'll probably never be able to do that again. He also doesn't care.

"I'm excited about going to the SEC because in five or six years the Big 12 isn't going to be around," said Bass, a fifth-grade teacher from Columbia, Mo.

Compare that stance to the venerable Chuck Neinas. The 80-year-old has spent the winter of his years trying to keep together a conference he loves. The Big 12's interim commissioner was booed when he presented the tournament trophy to the Tigers. I asked him as he came off the podium how that felt.

"Oh, they played great," he said playing it classy and straight.

Then I mentioned the obvious: It will never be the same for Missouri.

"I know," Neinas said.

What a tournament, what a team, what a story. What a shame.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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