If you’ve watched the Border War since at least the early 2000s, you can probably count on one hand the number of times a Bill Self team came out flat against the Missouri Tigers. Self is a native Oklahoman, played at Oklahoma State, coached there, then coached at Illinois and now KU. He knows this rivalry better than just about anyone. And clearly much more than anyone on the Missouri sideline.
Since taking over in 2003, Self has lost to Missouri just four times. The largest margin in those four losses was four points, in 2005. The others, the Thomas Gardner game, the Zaire game, and the Denmon game, were 3 points or fewer.
Even at Illinois, Self has always had his teams ready to play the Tigers. Since Mizzou passed on Self in favor of Quin Snyder in 1999, he’s 20-4 against Mizzou. And a lot of those games have been lopsided.
It’s helped that the Missouri Basketball program has been, let's just say not quite what it used to be. While Self has been winning the Big 12 on a near annual basis, Mizzou has floundered to find its footing. From Quin Snyder to Mike Anderson to Frank Haith to Kim Anderson to Cuonzo Martin to now Dennis Gates, the face of the Tigers program has changed five times since Self was hired in Lawrence. That’s six coaches in 22 years, after having just one coach for the previous 32 years.
Obviously Desiree Reed-Francois is hoping Gates is the coach to stop the turnover and create the right foundation over the long term. But one thing was clear yesterday, Gates and his Missouri Tigers were not ready for the moment when the moment called.
The crowd was fired up. The gates opened more than an hour before tip and things were ruckus.
This is an hour before the game, as Kansas takes the floor to warm up.— The Field of 68 (@TheFieldOf68) December 10, 2022
I think the Mizzou students are ready. pic.twitter.com/pkJPxb7wKB
Mizzou fans have been craving a winning program for years. Arguably the best season under Martin was during a COVID year when crowds were limited. In some ways Mizzou fans are having to relearn how to love basketball again.
But from the opening tip when Nick Honor sailed an alley oop pass over Noah Carter’s head, to when the Jayhawks scored 21 of the game’s first 30 points, including 11 straight made field goals, KU just overwhelmed Mizzou and the crowd vanished. Last year, the same thing happened at Allen Field House and now Cuonzo Martin is out of job. Granted, Missouri moving on from Martin had more to do with the accumulation of losses from KU to Illinois to Arkansas as much as his roster assembly, but there wasn’t a huge discernible difference from the beating in Lawrence last year to this ass-kicking.
This isn’t to say Gates isn’t the right guy, or won’t figure it out. It’s not even to say that I don’t think they were prepared. They didn’t play well. And if there’s one thing you cannot do against a Bill Self team in this MU-KU matchup is not come out from the start and play your best.
But one thing to keep in mind here is that this is still a Missouri team and program in transition. Gates brought in four players from his last team at Cleveland State, another Horizon League player in DeAndre Gholston, and then some experienced ball handlers in an attempt to patch up the severe roster issues which existed when he took over last March. I want to emphasize the word “patch” there. The 9-0 start was good and fun, the close win over Wichita State is a solid win, but this team is still a ways off from being where we all want it to be.
If things fall right for them this year they can contend for an NCAA tournament berth. If they play like they did against Kansas it might get more rough come conference play. But this season is a bridge to the future. Next year when the 2023 recruiting class comes on board, and the 2024 class starts to formulate, that’s when the real vision for what Gates and his staff want this program to be.
I expect next year they’ll be more ready for the game. Dennis Gates is a young head coach experiencing his first Border War. The good news is there’s a measuring stick game on the schedule each of the next four years. Gates gets to see just how close he can get to Kansas in that time.