It’s only a matter of hours now. The Dennis Gates era is nigh.
Mizzou officially takes the court for the first time under its new coaching staff on Monday, closing a long book of anticipation that began back in March. You all know the story by now. Gates is hired, fanbase is unhappy, Gates begins landing big-name recruits, fanbase becomes happy, Gates overturns the roster, fanbase becomes slightly confused, Gates starts putting together a top-tier 2023 class, fanbase becomes happy again.
Before this new-look Missouri team takes the floor, we wanted to offer one last chance for staff members to fire off some predictions, as is their blog-given right. We’ve discussed the season ahead ad nauseum, but everyone’s always down for a little last-minute speculation.
Mizzou’s non-conference schedule is relatively soft, but it does offer the Tigers a chance to work out their chemistry and enter SEC play with a respectable record. Let’s get a final non-con record prediction and one game you’re circling as a must watch.
Parker Gillam, Beat Writer: I think this non-conference schedule does really work well for Dennis Gates in year one. As mentioned, it offers them a chance to really build chemistry for the first 7-8 games before the meat of the schedule begins. I’ve got them at 9-3, as I think they’ll play Illinois and kansas tough but lose both games by 10+. And although they are good enough to just lose those two games, I just think it’s likely they drop another one. The biggest swing game is likely the road trip to Wichita State, but the neutral site UCF game in Miami is another one that could be sneaky.
Brandon Haynes, Beat Writer: First off, I think the must-watch game is definitely the December 10th matchup against the Jayhawks. While this may not be the most winnable game on Mizzou’s schedule, I think it’ll prove a lot for the Tigers and showcase to fans what the future may behold. Before that matchup, however, Mizzou will face its fair share of talent. I believe the Tigers will start 7-0 with their only possible hiccup coming against Penn, and they’ll bring that success into Wichita for the first road game. I do believe they’ll pull away and defeat SEMO as well, making them 9-0 when they face kansas. Between the last three non-conference games (kansas, UCF and Illinois), I think the Tigers steal one of them, likely against UCF. Thus, I’m pinning the Tigers non-conference record at 10-2 with a 15-20 point loss to kU and a 7-15 point loss to the Fighting Illini.
Josh Matejka, Deputy Site Manager: As much as I want to believe Mizzou is walking into their first SEC schedule under Dennis Gates at 10-2, I can’t imagine they’ll win more than nine games in the non-conference... and that may even be a bit optimistic. 10-2 would require Mizzou to win both of their mid-major road games (at UCF and Wichita State) or at least split the rivalry games. Fortunately, they’re getting kansas in Columbia and Illinois may be having a bit of regroup season, which makes Braggin’ Rights that much tighter. But I think with a mostly new lineup, this group will need a lot of time to blend before they start knocking off better teams or win tougher games on the road.
The SEC is competitive as ever, and Mizzou will have an uphill battle to break into the middle of the pack. Where will the Tigers finish in their first conference slate under Dennis Gates?
Parker Gillam: Life in the SEC is tough nowadays. Still, there are enough rebuilding programs for Mizzou to make a decent jump in the standings this year. They’ll be a tough out all season long, fighting in the ever-grueling middle of the pack in the SEC with the likes of TAMU, Ole Miss, LSU, and Mississippi State. I’ll pin them finishing 8th in the conference, with 1-2 upsets sprinkled in there.
Brandon Haynes: If there’s one thing we know about the SEC, it’s that the conference features a daunting path to the season’s end. Mizzou will have to go through several Elite Eight to Final Four hopefuls throughout conference play alongside facing several teams on-par with its trajectory. At the end of the season, however, I see an 8th place finish. Like Parker said, expect an upset of two (possibly in the Arkansas/Bama week or Tennessee/Auburn week). The reality is that this program is likely a year or two away from sustained and cohesive success, so I expect a battle within that bottom-third category of SEC teams.
Josh Matejka: KenPom currently pegs Mizzou as the eighth best team in the SEC, which I think is a good marker for their true talent level. However, as I pointed out above, this group will need some time to gel. We saw that while Dennis Gates did an incredible rebuild job at Cleveland State, it still took his roster a full year to form a cohesive product before the results came. And that wasn’t in the SEC. I’ve got Mizzou fighting near the bottom of the conference before finishing at ninth with a strong run toward the end of the season.
The roster is essentially brand new, meaning there will be a lot of new players with which fans need to be acquainted. Which newcomer will be the fan favorite by years’ end?
Parker Gillam: For whatever reason, I’ve got a feeling one of the Cleveland State transfers will become the fan favorite. So, give me Ben Sternberg. I think his scrappy, defensive style of play will capsulate fans. He won’t be stuffing the stat sheet, but he’ll be that traditional “glue” guy that makes a visible impact on both ends.
Brandon Haynes: There’s just something about Aidan Shaw that I believe Mizzou fans will come to adore. His support for other programs off the court as well as his in-game skills should make him an instant favorite to cheer for. Gates mentioned earlier in the week that he expects Shaw to make his biggest impact and come toward his peak in mid-January. If that’s the case, then what bigger way to seriously impact and showcase your talents than against Arkansas on Jan. 18 when Trevon Brazile comes back to town. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brazile “postered” by Shaw in an image that Mizzou fans will never forget.
Josh Matejka: He won’t have much time on campus, but I have to think Nick Honor is going to endear himself to fans. He’s clearly considered a leader of the team — as evidenced by the fact that Gates took him to SEC media days — and he brings the experience Mizzou needs to tread water (or better?) after a turbulent offseason. Honor may not fill up the stat sheet, but I think there’s a surprising arc for him in Columbia.
Best of all? He plays a brand of basketball Missouri fans may not remember exists i.e. he takes care of the ball.
It’s easy to predict the MVP — simply look to the players who are most experienced or have the most talent. So instead, pick one player you believe will emerge as a surprising impact player throughout the season.
Parker Gillam: Too many people have forgotten about Kaleb Brown. Kobe’s brother showed flashes of brilliance last season playing generally out of position. If he can find a niche within this rotation, I think Kaleb will really benefit from being able to play off-ball. Also, as one of the few returners from last season’s team, he’ll be counted on for leadership.
Brandon Haynes: D’Moi Hodge will become a name familiar to all Mizzou fans. The reigning Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year not only brings defense to the court, but also a healthy three-point shot (33.7 percent). I expect Hodge to step up into a sharp-shooter role and showcase his talents as a true ‘3 & D’ guard. As a graduate student as well, I think he’ll be a vocal leader for the team, providing the perspective of another coach, which will benefit the development of several of Mizzou’s youngest budding stars.
Josh Matejka: I’m here to let you know that the people are sleeping on Noah Carter. Carter is going to be one of Mizzou’s most important pieces over the next few years as he brings a fluidity and efficiency to a developing, rebuilding program. His commitment was widely praised by a number of smart basketball minds, and I believe he’ll shock some people with how big a role he plays this season.
Everyone judges a college basketball team by one measure: Can you make the tournament? So let’s get didactic... What’s one thing Missouri needs to happen in order to return to March Madness?
Parker Gillam: In terms of personnel, Mosley needs to be as good as advertised, and the rest of the transfers need to fill into roles relatively quickly. Kobe Brown has an All-SEC caliber season, and the team really spreads the ball around on offense. I’m not too concerned about the defense.
In terms of actual games they need to win, I see two routes. They either go 10-2 in non-conference and finish 4/5th in the SEC, or they upset either Illinois or Kentucky and could then afford to finish slightly lower. Still, a couple of high-quality SEC wins will be required.
Brandon Haynes: Like Parker mentioned, it starts at the top. Kobe Brown and Isiaih Mosley HAVE to play high-caliber basketball and maintain consistency throughout the season. Almost as importantly though, the secondary role pieces need to establish their roles early and mesh together to find a healthy balance. With such a lackluster non-conference schedule up until kansas, Mizzou cannot afford a loss and it’ll be crucial that the Tigers beat the teams they’re supposed to beat.
Even if all goes right in non-conference play, I don’t know how well that’ll stack up against other programs who played strong non-conference schedules (just look at Mizzou’s women’s team last season). Honestly, Mizzou will likely need a victory over kansas or Illinois as well as Iowa State. Then, in conference play, they will likely need two signature victories over teams like Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Finally, they will need to win most games against teams considered in their tier. Ultimately, I think they’ll need a 10-8 or 11-7 conference record coupled with a 10-3/11-2 non-con record. (Between 20-11 and 22-9 overall). While not impossible, that challenge will pose quite the test for first-year coach Dennis Gates and the new roster.
Josh Matejka: What do almost all tournament teams need? A little bit of luck. Hey, I said we were getting didactic, didn’t I?
Most teams in the country — even some of the really good ones — don’t become who they are without a few breaks falling their way. A good team comes on the schedule with a key injury or just plays a clunker. A role player gets hot at the right time. The wins start to pile up and confidence grows. Growing confidence turns into fresh motivation and better cohesion, etc. etc.
The pure talent level on Dennis Gates’ roster is good enough to make the tournament. KenPom already considers them a bubble team. We just have no idea how this group will blend. As we’ve seen in the program’s recent past, sometimes it can take the better part of two years. But a little bit of luck can expedite that process, turning into better-than-expected results in Gates’ first season on the bench.