Whether you are a blind loyalist, or even the biggest skeptic, you can find enough to support your own argument so far this season. Everybody is going to find their own "facts" about the team to support what they thought was going to happen going into the season. My job isn't to tell you to blindly support or oppose anything to do with Mizzou basketball. I'm here to give my perspective, and I hope it's fairly balanced. So the question I've been posed, is:
Is it time to buy in?
It's a cut and dried answer, and I say yes, it's time to buy in.
There were several reasons why last years team wasn't entertaining. The ball movement was terrible, the pace was plodding, and they were prone to turnovers and defensive mistakes. Overall it wasn't easy to watch Mizzou basketball a year ago. Sure they were playing hard, but they were so far behind from a roster standpoint, there wasn't a reason to think they'd even be competitive in most games. The good news is the Dark Winter is over, and Mizzou went out in the offseason and worked and got better. People bickered about the recruiting class, about whether Kim Anderson should even have the job, about whatever they will during the long college basketball season. And while everyone was bickering over the same things day after day, Kim and these kids just went out and worked hard in the offseason to try and get better.
The improvement was on display as they lit up the scoreboard vs Missouri Western in the exhibition, and was met with skepticism. After all, Mo Western is a Division II opponent, and not a very good one. The big first test was Wofford. A team Mizzou should beat, but would have a tough time with for a lot of reasons. Small conference team, sure, but Wofford had experience and a coach with a proven system and beat some very good teams a year ago and Mizzou still won the game. The level of energy they played with was palpable, something often missing from last year. All of the things I mentioned earlier about why Mizzou was hard to watch last year suddenly went away during game one.
Pace was unbearable last year. The rules changes (outlined here) are aimed at helping the pace of play with a shorter shot clock, freedom of motion foul calling, and the like. Sure those things are going to help increase the pace of play, but Kim Anderson came on board wanting to have a fast paced scoring team. Maybe not quite like the Mike Anderson teams, but his UCM teams all played with good pace and were efficient offensive teams. Basically the opposite of what we saw last year. Mizzou is already playing with better pace, and it could get better. They're trying to slow teams down a bit defensively, but the offensive approach has been very attacking early.
Another place where you expect some ups and downs because of the youth on the roster. But through the first two games the Tigers were doing a good job with holding onto the ball. It wasn't until their road trip to Xavier, an incredibly tough place to play for any team, much less a young team, when the Tigers struggled with turnovers. More than half of their turnovers through three games came on the road against Xavier, and half of those came from players who you expect to be better with the ball. Tramaine Isabell (5), Terrence Phillips (2) and Wes Clark (2) all contributed to the struggles. Phillips also had a tough time staying on the court with foul trouble. So these things should improve as the season goes on.
I was going to use eFG% as my header, but Mizzou has already improved offensively from a standpoint of converting shots into points. Being the 299th best team is saying there are only 52 teams worse on offense than you are. By my count Mizzou was the third worst power 5 team by the eFG% measure. Last season the Tigers didn't do anything well offensively. 246th in 3P%, 310th in 2P%, 261st in FT%, and 285th in tempo. So they took a lot of time to miss shots. And every category has improved this year, and by a LOT.
One reason for this is the roster has more balance. They have more guys who can knock down open jumpshots, they have more guys who can get two feet in the paint on drives. And Kevin Puryear, while undersized, has given them a guy who can battle underneath the basket and actually score as well. And because they've got guards than can drive, and shoot... they're room around the basket for the bigs to score. All of those things put together and Mizzou goes from the bottom third to the top third of NCAA Division I for eFG%.
Welp, it's a problem. The starting lineup has featured Wes Clark, Terrence Phillips, Jakeenan Gant and Kevin Puryear, and has featured both Namon Wright and K.J. Walton. The rotations have been very guard heavy, which has caused Mizzou to struggle with rebounding. The Tigers only won one rebounding battle, against Wofford. This is going to be a problem all season long. Mizzou is getting good rebounding efforts from it's guards, including Namon Wright who actually leads the team at 5.3 per game. It is going to require a full team effort, and even then its likely to end up on the losing end. The Tigers had Jalen Reynolds in foul trouble in the Xavier game, and let his backup James Farr go for 14 rebounds, including seven offensive rebounds. That was a big difference in the game when you're trying to get stops.
So basically the Tigers have improved on three out of the "Four Factors" for winning basketball. But there are other areas of improvement.
More than anything, there has been a big influx of passion to the roster. Perhaps it was just a matter of being beaten down so much last year, coupled with so many guys being put into positions they weren't comfortable in, but this group seems to love playing together. It starts with the energy and Terrence Phillips plays with. Kevin Puryear helps because he can match the intensity, and will get points through his effort. Namon Wright is attacking this year like he didn't last year. Wes Clark looks like he's more comfortable where he is and is flying around the court making plays.
I don't want this to be a sunshine-pump piece. I hope you all trust me enough to know I do my best to stay realistic in evaluations. My expectations for the ceiling of this team haven't changed. I still feel 15-16 wins is still the expectation, with a ceiling of maybe another win or two. But last year the Tigers gave you no reason to go down to Mizzou Arena other than you already paid for your tickets and had nothing better to do. This year is not the case. This team plays a much more entertaining version of basketball and it's actually worth watching. They're made up of almost exclusively freshmen and sophomores, they're playing fast and they're only likely to increase the speed as they play together more. The direction of this program looks to be trending up.
They'll have a big task taking on Kansas State in the CBE Tournament on Monday. If the Tigers can pull the upset, they'll likely get to face off against North Carolina, where it's unrealistic to expect a win. But it's important to win the first game of the tournament, and show more fans, particularly a national audience, you can compete. Other games in the non-conference are looking more winnable than they did just a few months ago. Illinois is in a bit of disarray with injuries and a lack of a point guard, and NC State opened the season with a loss to William & Mary at home, and haven't played a team ranked over 254th since. So instead of being 7 - 6, the Tigers have a legitimate chance to notch a few more wins than most expected. Which will only boost them into the conference season where all kinds of teams are struggling. Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Auburn have all lost games. Some of those teams have looked awful losing as well.
The opportunity is there for a pretty good season. And that would be welcomed after last year. So get on board, the worst that will happen is you'll watch a team fight pretty hard, and watch some young kids grow up.