Missouri Tigers chalking up the awards as seasons wind down

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Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator

Remember when we heard “It’s a great time to be a Tiger”? That might be more true now than ever.

With two basketball teams headed to its last Big 12 tourney in Kansas City, a Mizzou softball team with a legitimate chance at a national championship, and a football team which will play in the mighty SEC starting spring drills, there’s so much excitement.

But nobody deserves a pat on the back from Tiger fans more than Brian Smith and the Mizzou wrestlers. Smith’s told me he was hired to be the last wrestling coach — the intention was to end the program. Instead, Brian Smith and his staff and athletes have made this program so successful that it would be impossible to kill off now.

And it’s so appropriate and so special that life in the Big 12 for Smith ended with the program’s first ever conference championship. With very few seniors on this bunch and Dom Bradley returning from his Olympic sabbatical to wrestle next year, the team that almost disappeared altogether a few years ago is now as strong as ever.

Let’s move on to hoops and congratulate another coach. I was stunned at the announcement that the Big 12 Coach of the Year award was to be shared by Bill Self and Fred Hoiberg. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve said before that Self’s an underrated coach and with the job he’s done after losing so many greats from last year, and how much improvement we’ve seen in Thomas Robinson’s and Jeff Withey’s games, Self’s quite deserving. And I’m awfully impressed with what “The Mayor” has done in Ames.

But to leave Haith off is just preposterous. There’s not a soul out there who thought this team would have four losses and be ranked in the top five in the nation when Mike Anderson left. And when Laurence Bowers went down to injury, it became unlikely that Mizzou would be in the NCAA tourney at all this year, much less still looking at having a chance at a No. 1 seed.

As for the Big 12’s other awards, after thinking they blew it on Coach of the Year, I have only a few criticisms of the all-conference awards. Mike Dixon as 6th Man of the Year is obvious and he should win the national award hands down. Marcus Denmon on the first team all-conference is obviously richly deserved, and while Tigers fans may have wanted him to be player of the year I think Robinson’s probably a worthy choice.

The Tigers start play in Kansas City on Thursday, and with the bracket stacked the way it is we have to consider at least the possibility of them meeting one final time with Kansas, in the finals. The notion makes me a little nervous, though…a team with only seven players playing Kansas as the third game in three days? Be careful what you wish for, Tiger fans. Mizzou will probably not be the champions of this tourney and will probably be looking at a second seed when the NCAA brackets come out. Let’s not let that spoil a great season should it come to pass.

On the other hand, while I’m being all sober and low-key about the men’s team, I’m ready to get a little nutty when it comes to the women. Mizzou hasn’t won a game in the Big 12 tournament since their spectacular 70-64 defeat of top-seeded Oklahoma back in 07-08. And this year, they once again come into the tourney with the lowest seed.

But the team’s played much better in recent weeks, and not only would I not be stunned if they upset Oklahoma State in the first round of the tourney tomorrow at Municipal Auditorium, they’re absolutely capable of beating the team they would get next…ironically enough, Sheri Coale’s Oklahoma Sooners. A win there would probably put them up against Texas A&M, a team Mizzou only lost to by a whisker a couple of weeks ago, and then…

OK, maybe I’m going a little nuts. But this team deserves so much credit for the progress they’ve made, and I can’t tell you how much it would mean to an awful lot of people to see them get at least one win in the Big 12 tourney before saying goodbye once and for all to Kansas City.

Finally, let’s give a big round of applause to a long, impressive list of Tigers named academic all-conference. Obviously it’s great to note Laurence Bowers and Jarrett Sutton from the men’s team, but Robin Pingeton’s women’s team has the following: First team: Bree Fowler, Tori Neimann, Morgan Eye, Bailey Gee and Liz Smith. Five first-teamers!! Second team: Liene Priede and Maggie Flynn.

Pingeton and her staff have certainly changed things at Mizzou, in ways evident both on and off the court, and everyone associated with the university ought to take great pride in these all-conference performers, just as we do in those who earned awards for their great play. That Mizzou has five first-team all-conference academic performers is remarkable—no other school had more than three—and deserves to be recognized more than it will.

As Frank Haith collects his Coach of the Year award and the Tiger men’s team makes its run into the NCAA tournament, we’ll hear a lot in the weeks to come about what a great job Mike Alden did in hiring Haith. And I agree completely. But, let’s not forget that, more and more, we’re seeing that he also made an outstanding hire when he brought Robin Pingeton to Columbia.

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