A Tiger-Ram tussle

File Photo.

After all of that, that four-month journey of good and bad, we've come to this.

The Missouri Tigers (23-10) are the No. 9 seed in the Midwest Region, and they'll meet No. 8 seed Colorado State (25-8) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Lexington, Ky.

The Tigers may be going to the dance with a serious limp, but they're still dancing --- for a school-record fifth straight year, they're dancing.

"Obviously, we're extremely excited about getting back to the NCAA Tournament," Missouri coach Frank Haith said. "It's not that easy, because there are a lot of great teams out there. It's hard.

"We get a chance to play when the lights are the brightest. That's what this tournament is all about, guys living out a dream ... one shining moment."

Said senior Laurence Bowers: "I really think we have a team that can go on a special run."

Perhaps. But before we look forward, let's take a look back.

Here are some noteworthy happenings this season and how the Tigers ended up where they are:

* Missouri was ranked No. 15 in the preseason poll.

* Senior guard Michael Dixon, the only true security blanket for point guard Phil Pressey, started the season on the bench as he dealt with some "off the court issues." Most believed it had to do with his classwork.

* Dixon left the program in late November. In the end, those "off the court issues" had everything to do with a lack of class, not a lack of classwork.

* The Tigers started the season 10-1, with the lone loss coming to powerful Louisville during a trip to the Bahamas. No shame there --- in either the loss or the location of the loss. Missouri had climbed to No. 12 in the polls.

(By the way, if MU wins Thursday, it would get a rematch with Louisville on Saturday. Here's thinking Louisville will win its first game against either North Carolina A&T or Liberty, which will meet in a play-in game Tuesday night).

* The next week, MU climbed to No. 7 in the nation after a win over then-No. 10 Illinois in the always-festive, just-before-Christmas, Braggin' Rights Game in St. Louis.

Happy Holidays, Tiger fans!

* The Tigers dropped back to No. 12 after dropping an overtime decision at UCLA. Missouri was in charge down the stretch, but let it slip away.

These things happen once in a while, right? No big deal.

* Senior Laurence Bowers goes down with a knee injury in Missouri's SEC opener against Alabama. He would miss the next five games, while Keion Bell also missed time with an ankle injury. Missouri went 2-3 in that stretch.

* The Tigers started losing games on the road they should have won, and the scenario was always the same --- poor play down the stretch, with Pressey leading the poor-play show. They lost five more games in the regular season --- four by three points or less, one in overtime --- using the exact same script.

These things just can't happen time after time after time, can they? This was now a big deal.

* Missouri tumbled to No. 22 in the polls, then out of the Top 25 in Week 13. Soon after, they dropped out of the "Others receiving votes," thanks to the series of bad road losses to bad teams.

* Friday night, Missouri had a 14-point second-half lead over Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, but the same thing happened --- a late collapse in a 64-62 loss.

"It's been a challenge," Haith said, "but it's obviously been a challenge that's come together. We're still playing."

So, here we are. This is the road the Tigers have taken --- from the No. 7 team in the nation to a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

"(Our seed) didn't really matter to me," Pressey said. "You have to play everybody, sooner or later, no matter what seed you are.

"Everybody brings their A game when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. Anybody can beat anybody and everybody has that dream of winning the whole thing."

A few words about Colorado State --- many more words on them in the days ahead.

* They are the Rams. Their RPI is No. 24, Missouri is No. 35.

* The Rams finished second in the Mountain West Conference to New Mexico, and lost in the conference tournament semifinals to UNLV.

* The Rams' leading scorer (14.7) and rebounder (9.8) is 6-10, 260-pound senior Colton Iverson (no relation to Allen), who's a transfer from Minnesota. All five of the team's starters are seniors.

"I know Colton from AAU tournaments," Bowers said. "He was a load then, he's a load now."

* The Rams are coached by Larry Eustachy, former head coach at Iowa State.

"I don't know that much about (Colorado State) yet," Haith said, "but I do know Larry Eustachy's a really good coach and they're one of the better rebounding teams in the country.

"We know we have our work cut out for us."

Last year's Selection Sunday announcement for the Tigers was held on Norm Stewart Court at Mizzou Arena and was open to the fans. Thousands and thousands of fans were there, along with the band, cheerleaders, Golden Girls and Truman the Tiger. The scoreboard was lowered for easy viewing for fans when CBS announced the pairings.

It was a celebration.

For that splendid 30-4 season --- which included winning the Big 12 Tournament --- the Tigers were awarded the No. 2 seed in the West Region.

They promptly lost to Norfolk State in the first round.

Sunday, the announcement was held in the tiny media room at Mizzou Arena. No fanfare, no fans, no band, no college girls in sequins.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this could be an omen.

It is, after all, not how you start the season, but how you finish it.