Well, it has certainly been an interesting and entertaining beginning to Dennis Gates’ career at Missouri.
The Tigers began the season undefeated at 9-0 after taking down mostly inferior competition, were humbled by Kansas, beat UCF on a buzzer-beater in Florida, and then trampled Illinois in St. Louis.
Missouri moves on to conference play at 11-1 with everything still on the line. Here’s what we do know as of right now, what the rest of the SEC looks like, and what the outlook is for the Tigers the rest of the way.
- Points Per Game: 88.8
- FG%: 51.3%
- 3PT%: 36.9%
- Rebounding Margin (Total): -2.5
- Assists Per Game: 20.0
- Turnovers Per Game: 12.7
- Blocks Per Game: 3.3
- Opponent FG%: 43.4%
- Opponent 3PT%: 36.1%
- Opponent Turnovers Per Game: 19.8
Of the nine straight wins to start the season, Wichita State and Penn are the only two that may end up being beneficial. The Quakers have a chance to finish towards the top of the Ivy League standings, while the Shockers could make some noise in the AAC. Keep an eye on SIU-Edwardsville, though, who sits at 9-4 and atop the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Kansas loss was disappointing, but not a back-breaker. The UCF win should remain a Quad 1/2 victory throughout the season and was a pivotal swing game. The Knights figure to be a contender in the American Athletic Conference, and a neutral-site victory over them proves that the Tigers can compete with NCAA Tournament-caliber teams.
And, of course, the Illinois victory remains the highlight of the season. The Illini may falter more in conference play, but this should never slip lower than a Quad 2 victory given Illinois’ quality of résumé. In all facets, Missouri dominated that game, proving that they can contend with some of the better competition in the country after looking lost against the Jayhawks.
All in all, 11-1 coming out of non-conference play (with just the ISU game to come in late January) is more than anybody could have asked for during the beginning of the Dennis Gates era. This team is squarely in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid with their current body of work, and they are playing an entertaining and efficient brand of basketball that should keep them in almost every game they play.
Still, there is plenty more work to be done now that conference play is here. Many consider this to be the start to the “real” season.
The SEC has become one of the premiere conferences in college basketball these past couple of years, and all the credit has to go to the conference leadership and athletic departments for making a concerted effort to compete with the top conferences in the sport.
Of course, with that comes a higher level of competition. Missouri will be tested by a plethora of ranked teams this season, and even more who are battling for tournament spots.
Mississippi State has been the surprise of the season thus far. They sit at 11-1 with wins over Marquette, Utah and Minnesota to their name. Their lone loss came at the hands of Drake on Wednesday. It’s safe to say that new head coach Chris Jans has done a solid job in his first year at the helm in Starkville, and they are sure to be a contender in the SEC throughout the season after being picked 10th in the preseason poll.
Tennessee again looks like one of the top teams in the conference as well, with the Vols being the only team to take down Kansas this season. Alabama has wins over North Carolina, Memphis, Michigan State and Houston already, while Arkansas has beaten San Diego State and Oklahoma. All of the teams mentioned above rank in the top ten of the current AP Poll.
I’d be remiss if I did not mention the Kentucky Wildcats in this conversation. While they have somewhat struggled to an 8-3 start to the season, they are still an uber-talented team with a high ceiling. Oscar Tshiebwe is already making a claim to go back-to-back as the Player of the Year, averaging 15.0 points and 13.0 rebounds per game.
LSU has only picked up one loss to start the season, although their schedule has been fairly light. Coming off a year in which they hovered in the Top-10 for much of the season, Auburn has lost two out of their last four but holds wins over Saint Louis, Northwestern and Washington. Both of those teams figure to be factors in the conference title race as well.
As of right now, the conference is projected to have six teams in the NCAA Tournament according to Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology. That number is sure to fluctuate as the season goes on.
The Schedule And Its Opportunities
The SEC is going to be a gauntlet yet again, and it does not start lightly for Mizzou. The Tigers will open up with Kentucky at home on Dec. 28 before taking on Arkansas in Fayetteville a week later.
After that, dates with Vanderbilt (home), Texas A&M (away) and Florida (away) will be key swing games for Mizzou to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Because in their next game, the Tigers get their second matchup with Arkansas before hosting Alabama. Missouri will take on Ole Miss in Oxford before hosting Iowa State in the last Big 12/SEC Challenge in late January.
They open up February with a road game against Mississippi State sandwiched by home dates with LSU and South Carolina. Then the Tigers get their lone shot at Tennessee in Knoxville, followed up by a road trip to Auburn. Texas A&M and Mississippi State then come to Columbia before the Tigers hit the road against Georgia and LSU. Missouri concludes the regular season against Ole Miss at Mizzou Arena.
The Tigers will play LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Mississippi State twice this season.
So, what does this all mean? There are plenty of opportunities for Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins on this schedule, as only the games against Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Georgia and TAMU (home) likely won’t fall under those two quadrants. The Tigers can’t afford to lose many games to those opponents.
There’s two categories the rest of these games fall in: swing game or upset potential. The opener against Kentucky will set the tone for the rest of conference play (albeit, without students) and falls into the latter category. Road games against Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU and Auburn will also be tall orders, but picking up a win in one of those games would certainly classify as the signature win of Gates’ first season and would become the foundation of this team’s résumé.
Every other game could legitimately go either way at this point. Florida, Texas A&M and Ole Miss will all be hovering around the same spot in the SEC standings as Mizzou (in my opinion, anyway), so those games will be pivotal.
Outside of that, the Tigers just have to tread water. They’re going to get beat up some, and they’re going to have low points. Such is the fate of a team in this conference nowadays.
Gates and Co. need to steal a couple games they shouldn’t (Ex: vs. Bama, vs. LSU, @ MSU, vs. Arky) and beat the teams they should (Vandy, UGA, Ole Miss). If they can do that, then Mizzou will have an argument come Selection Sunday.