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Dennis Gates has scaled up Mizzou’s recruiting — and its ambitions

The Tigers have already shipped out more than 100 offers and hosted seven top-150 prospects in the 2024 class.

Naas Cunningham, the No. 3 prospect in the 2024 recruiting class, took an unofficial visit to Missouri in late September.
Michael Clubb/Lexington Herald-Leader/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Maybe we should have chipped in and bought Jalen Reese a commemorative plaque.

Two weeks ago, the point guard and four-star prospect in the class of 2025 earned the title of the 101st player to make a scholarship offer from Missouri coach Dennis Dates. Few would mark it as an inflection point, but it’s telling that it only took the new staff five months to reach that milestone. And as we mark the start of the early signing period, it offers hints about how they’ll carry the program forward.

Back in March, I tossed out a stray thought: Gates’ actions will tell us more about his recruiting approach than words.

What do we know now?

For one, the spigot has been turned. For example, Mizzou shot-gunned out 80 offers between April and May, at one point averaging one a day. Part of that was a necessity. The newly assembled staff came together midway through the 2023 recruiting cycle and needed to create a board rapidly. And just as important, they needed to prioritize rising juniors, which they could start calling directly in June.

The three players inking their respective letters of intent — Anthony Robinson II, Trent Pierce, and Jordan Butler — were among that first tidal wave of offers.

By the time the July evaluation period arrived, Gates’ crew had eased their pace. But still, the volume swamps anything we saw from the previous staff. Under Cuonzo Martin, the program rarely offered rising sophomores, much less rising freshmen. Not anymore. So far, Gates’ staff has offered 25 high school underclassmen.

It’s not hard to see the distinct philosophies at work.

Under Martin’s direction, MU prioritized local talent. Those recruits were the first to receive offers and usually the first to take unofficial visits. Next, the staff selectively targeted Michigan, where assistant coach Cornell Mann tried leveraging long-term ties. And as the local pipeline ebbed, Martin’s staff tried forays into northeast Ohio, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee. Regarding elite talent, the program rarely offered top-50 prospects unless there was an existing connection.

Or you could call Martin’s tactics what they were: selective. MU’s recruiting board rarely stretched beyond 30 names in any given cycle. And a year out from signing day — as we are for the Class of 2024 — it usually stopped at 15 prospects.

And Gates? Well, he’s been a tad more expansive. As of today, MU’s offered 45 players in the ‘24 cycle.

Martin’s rationale wasn’t complex. He could legitimately tell E.J. Liddell, Caleb Love, Tamar Bates, and Aidan Shaw they were the priority, adding that MU would remain in the picture until a player said otherwise. As far as earning a spot on a final recruiting graphic, it worked like a charm.

Until closing time.

Had Martin locked up Liddell and Love, few would have quibbled. But Martin’s method wasn’t without a tradeoff: scant backup options. By now, the vast majority — around 80 percent of the top 150 prospects — have made their college decision. So, you’re often forced to evaluate the market for late-bloomers for the spring period.

Yet there’s another cost involved: time needed to lay the foundation for the next recruiting cycle. In September and October, staffs make the rounds to open gyms across the country to get face time with rising juniors and sophomores. Or, as we saw this fall, you’re already hosting juniors for campus visits. But suppose a staff is forced to pivot after a recruiting miss. In that case, it can wind up slightly behind schedule — and that’s problematic when your stated goal is prioritizing local talent from the start.

Of course, this time three years ago, I preached patience. Back then, Mizzou had just signed Jordan Wilmore, a deflating end to a cycle that saw MU miss on Love and fail to secure more highly regarded bigs such as Ryan Kalkbrenner, John Hugley, and Davion Bradford. At the time, I said we should hold off pressing a panic button and see what haul Martin would bring among 2021 prospects. Well, we know what happened. Mea culpa.

But at least so far, Gates has offered up a stark contrast. He filled two of three known scholarship openings by mid-July, which allowed the staff to zero in on Jordan Butler. A month ago, those efforts paid off in a dogfight with South Carolina and Butler’s commitment.

Now, it might sound extreme to ship out 45 offers to 2024 prospects. But look at the early returns. This fall, nine of those recruits visited campus, seven of whom are among the top 150 in 247Sports’ composite index: Naas Cunningham (No.3), John Bol (No. 23), James Brown (No. 27) Marcus Allen (No. 40), Dallas Thomas (No. 49), Peyton Marshall (No. 88), Jordan McCullum (No. 130). Meanwhile, Asa Newell (No. 9), Annor Boating (No. 32), and Ayden Evans (No. 188) have all reportedly said they want to see Columbia up close.

The current staff also has 20 offers out to 2025 recruits. In addition, it has hosted Vashon’s Nicholas Randall and Chicago native Melvin Bell for unofficial visits. But, as diligent as Martin’s staff might have been, it never drummed up this kind of early foot traffic.

None of us should be too surprised. Gates and Charlton Young, the Tigers’ associate head coach, deployed a similar model on Leonard Hamilton’s staff at Florida State. For his part, Young told a podcast that the core of FSU’s success was simply showing up early. Some of those players were five-star caliber from the first time evaluators looked at them. But others, like Jonathan Issac, blossomed later on. By then, the ‘Noles had been on the scene for several years — and those connections withstood the pressure applied by truant bluebloods.

Now, they’re installing the same software at Mizzou Arena. Among this first signing class, it’s hard to miss Young’s longstanding links to Robinson and Butler. Yet the ‘24 cycle might belong to assistant coaches Kyle Smithpeters and Dickie Nutt. Both recruit local grassroots programs such as MoKan Elite, Brad Beal Elite, and the Chicago-based Meanstreets. There’s also some overlap in Arkansas, which is Nutt’s home state. For his part, Smithpeters appears to be leaning on relationships in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, the territory he worked while leading the program at John A. Logan College. Of course, Young’s ties to Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas remain vital.

It’s telling, though, that the top prospects from Missouri (Bol), Illinois (Brown), and Arkansas (Thomas) have already been on campus. And if Newell jaunts north, MU will have hosted the No. 1 and No. 3 prospects from Florida.

But even if Mizzou doesn’t land many of those prospects, the scale of its recruiting board ensures it has optionality. And that’s a commodity Martin’s staff seemingly lacked.

What do I mean?

Even if Martin had erected a fence around Kansas City and St. Louis, his in-state territory goes through dormant cycles. When that happens, you need to forage. And often, that means offering a scholarship to start a relationship. However, Martin often inverted it: slowly building a connection and using the offer as a token of sincerity.

And look, relationships matter. But if you’re a top-150 recruit, you’ve likely grown up with little knowledge of MU. And time is a valuable commodity for you, too. So, are you going to allocate it for a coach who puts off what most high-major coaches use as the opening for their pitch?

Recruits aren’t job applicants. College programs are, and only elite ones get to be choosy about where they send a resumé. Through that lens, Martin wasn’t active enough in the job market. Gates might not land a dream gig, but he’s ensured enough feelers are out there that he’s always aware of an opportunity.

Ideally, Mizzou’s lofty ambitions pan out. But its liberal use of offers ensures that it has some basis for a relationship with another talent. Sure, they might have to make up ground. And assistant coaches won’t be starting from scratch.