(Missouri Basketball App) -- Four years, 102 wins, two coaches and one wild ride. I was a student when this class of Mizzou basketball players came in, and through a fortunate twist of fate, I'll be there tonight to see them off.
With all the excitement this season has brought, it hadn't dawned on me how close we are to the end of the journey. It wasn't until I watched Vanderbilt upset Florida, and watched the seniors get subbed out one by one, tears in their eyes, that I realized: that's us tonight. Tonight Mizzou Arena says goodbye to the winningest class in Tiger history.
I remember being at the Black and Gold game my junior year, and seeing exciting freshman prospect Marcus Denmon drive with reckless abandon. I remember hearing about this kid we got from Baltimore who could shoot lights out. And then there was Big Steve living his own private "40 minutes of hell" as the Tigers sprinted up and down the court over and over.
We watched as they learned a new system. We watched as they struggled against Big XII heavyweights. We watched as they lost games they had no business losing. But the arena kept filling up, and the trio kept going. Steve shed pounds, Marcus grew into a steady scorer, and Kim would erupt in a flurry of points from time to time even as he struggled to find his role. They were part of an unlikely run to the Elite 8 in 2008-2009, and helped put Mizzou basketball back in the national spotlight.
Then, Ricardo Ratliffe and Matt Pressey, little brother in tow, came to town. One could argue it was Phil towing Matt, but the older brother never played like it. For what he lacks in skill, Matt has refused to be relegated to the bench. His effort and ferocity make him indispensable. Ricardo, despite adjusting slowly to the shock of D1 basketball following his JuCo days, has blossomed into an undeniable scoring machine.
Over the next two years, we learned about the players. Some of what we learned was funny, some was disappointing, and some was heartbreaking. Marcus Denmon let the nation into his life with an interview detailing his hard upbringing. We learned about the people he lost, and the pain he carries with him. Kim told the world about his stutter, and Ricardo spoke about his home life. We grew to know these young men day after day. Their pain became our pain, their memories our own.
Even after I graduated, I felt connected to this team. When I would watch games on TV in Chicago, I felt like I was back in the arena with them. It was like seeing friends you hadn't seen in years. They had opened their lives to us, and in so doing, bound us to them. That's why 2010 was so hard for fans to watch.
But then Frank Haith came to town and brought with him a new half court system. He asked all of us to believe, and we did- even if we did so cautiously. Boy did he deliver. Not only did he lead this team on an incredible run, but he made the players better. Denmon has become an undeniable leader who seems to be discovering with each game how good he really is. Kim English died in 2010, and went to heaven in 2011. He shoots with confidence, drives with power, and runs free of the weight he carried for three years. There is joy in his game for the first time in years. Ricardo is having a prolific season as an undersized big man. Steeeeeeevvvvveeeeeee. Enough said.
Haith may coach here for 20 years, but I don't think he'll have have a tougher time hiding tears than he will tonight. They were his guys for only a season, but they built something special together. They were Missouri's last team to play in the Big XII, and no one expected much. Together they have captivated the nation, and they've earned a victory lap.
The regular season is drawing to a close, the Big XII tourney looms, and the chase for the championship continues. But not tonight. Tonight's a celebration. Each player will be celebrating something different. For Kim, it's redemption. For Ricardo, it's discovery of his talent. For Matt, it's proof he belongs. And for Marcus, it's the joy and peace that basketball has brought him. There will be tears, and come tomorrow, it will hurt. But tonight, there should only be joy; because, for the last time, the gang's all here.