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Border War Roundtable: Re-assessing Mizzou’s chances after a 9-0 start

Before the season, a win on Saturday seemed like a pipe dream. Is it less so considering Mizzou’s hot start?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Wichita State William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

It’s one of the most overused gifs in the sports internet jargon. It’s a hacky joke from a sophomoric film. You know it. You may have used it very recently...

But come on. How can you hate on it? It’s a perfect puzzle piece to fit the emotions of many a dejected fan. Let’s face it — most of our teams won’t win championships. What’s the adage, that 99 percent of teams end the season with a loss? But until that final horn sounds, out is made or whistle is blown, there’s almost always a chance for [insert your favorite sports team here.]

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for Mizzou fans to feel this way ahead of a Border War — left with nothing but blind hope and Dumb and Dumber references for comfort. It’s how we felt not but a few weeks ago with the prospect of a new coach and remade roster squaring up against the defending national champions.

But that was before Mizzou started 9-0. That was before they were regularly putting up 90+ points without their most purely talented scorer. That was before D’Moi Hodge became an All-SEC producer and Tre Gomillion became the emotional backbone of a program in just a few weeks.

So how are we feeling now? Well, honestly, maybe not all that much better. But the conversation is at least worth having. So with the undefeated Missouri Tigers and once-defeated kansas Jayhawks set to square off in Columbia this weekend, we brought together some of our best and brightest basketball minds to assess the match up and how the perspective has changed over the past several weeks.

Before the season, we figured Mizzou would be improved but nearly improved enough to hang with their rival to the west. How has Mizzou’s 9-0 start changed your perception of their chances on Saturday?

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi Valley State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Harris, Basketball Editor: Truthfully, it’s about the same as it was a month ago. The soft launch confirmed a lot of my thoughts about personnel, play style, and the rotation — outside of Isiaih Mosley.

More than anything, I also wanted to see how Kansas would set up its rotation to account for losing Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun, David McCormack, and Remy Martin. A year ago, KU started leaning into small-ball rotations and — shockingly — playing zone for short stretches. Well, Self’s back to manning up, but KU’s stuck with undersized groups. It’s logical to some extent. His traditional fives — Ernest Udeh and Zuby Ejiofor — are freshmen. Meanwhile, K.J. Adams has earned his trust defensively.

The decision to scale down is the source of optimism. Last year’s rout in Lawrence rooted itself in the necessity to run two bodies at McCormack and KU exploiting MU in rotation. The Tigers are also better equipped to apply on-ball pressure against Dajuan Harris. Now, there are still tradeoffs involved, but overall, this roster and its stylistic choices let you sketch out a fathomable scenario where the Tigers pull off an upset.

Parker Gillam, Beat Writer: The chances have increased immensely. For me, with so many new pieces on this roster, I was very concerned about how they would come out of the gates against inferior competition. The fact they have not suffered a loss yet speaks to how quickly this unit has meshed, and the way in which they play (high assists, high steals) tells me that they have some real chemistry.

Would I bet on them to win this game? No. But, if they play their A game (which they have done this season, although sparingly), they will keep this game close. And, in a rivalry game like this one, that’s all you can ask for.

Matt Watkins, Guest Speaker: I can’t say that my expectations have changed much. The Tigers were heavy favorites in eight of nine outings. They won with varying degrees of ease in those contests. Winning all of them is fairly noteworthy, winning any one of them individually is not. Their win in Wichita was more impressive, but it may have exposed some crevices for better teams to exploit going forward.

We knew this team was going to have some offensive firepower. They do. We knew they’d lean on turnover creation to cover up an undersized lineup. They have. The only amount of surprise, to me, is they’ve done it largely without significant contributions from Isiaih Mosley in the scoring column. It depends on your perspective on what that means going forward.

The Border War was officially revived last season, but it returns to Columbia for the first time in over a decade. How do you expect the atmosphere to change the state of the game?

Karen Steger photo

Matthew Harris: This will be KU’s first genuine road trip of the season, and even for a program like Kansas, that’s still a tad jarring. Given their experiences in hostile Big 12 venues, I don’t expect Harris, Jalen Wilson or Kevin McCullar to flinch. But Gradey Dick’s getting his CoMO christening, and while Adams is a is sophomore, he was toward the back end of the rotation last season. After that, the rest of Bill’s rotation is comprised of underclassmen in Udeh, wing M.J. Rice, and point guard Bobby Pettiford. If the environment makes any impact on the Jayhawks, it’ll be practical, such as straining to hear Self make play calls or teammates communicate defensively.

More than anything, Saturday will be the first time this team hears Mizzou Arena at full throat. Even if you don’t have first-hand knowledge of this conflict, the fanbase’s hostility — energy is too polite — will be enough to convey it. Given the way this team defends, that might be a boost.

Parker Gillam: The atmosphere will be electric, and it will make a major difference in this game. From a student perspective, my peers have been attending a ton of games just so they can build up enough points to be in attendance for the kansas game. This has been circled on the calendar for everybody on this campus, and it will be the most energetic Mizzou sporting event in recent memory.

For the game itself, Missouri is already a team that excels at getting steals. With crowd energy behind them, this team’s defensive ability should only be enhanced. They can feed off of the noise and create chaos, which should be the name of the game against a superior opponent.

Can the noise help with shooting? No, but it could rattle a kansas team that has yet to play a true road game yet.

Matt Watkins: For those incapable of hearing praise for a despised rival, avert your eyes. I don’t think the atmosphere is going to play a big role for Kansas. Bill Self is a veteran coach. So much so that he’s brought Kansas teams into the Hearnes Center. He’s been around the block. His primary pieces are veteran players. Several brought home an NCAA Title last March. That’s not to say it won’t have some effect on the Jayhawks, but I believe it will be minimal.

That said, I do believe the atmosphere can have a very positive impact on the Tigers. Unsurprisingly, the fan support as a whole (yes, the students have been better) at Mizzou’s first eight games has been pretty sparse. Dennis Gates was very outspoken about getting fan buy-in prior to the Kansas game. That hasn’t really happened, and no one is shocked. But! Mizzou’s at their best when they’re getting opponents heated up on the defensive end, tipping passes, creating steals and running the open floor. That style lends itself to an energetic crowd. The crowd CAN have an impact, but I see it more as spurring the home side than causing the opponents to crack.

Last season was about the worst case scenario for the revived Border War: an overmatched, low morale Mizzou team marched into Lawrence and was resolutely blown away. Assuming Mizzou loses on Saturday, what kind of outcome would keep you hopeful about the season ahead?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Harris: Keep the margin under 10 points. Ideally, it would be within two possessions — and not by cutting an embarrassing deficit in garbage time. If MU is a bubble team, staying in contact throughout and giving itself a chance shouldn’t be unreasonable.

Is Mizzou badgering Harris into turnovers? Is it taking away airspace from Dick coming off screens or on closeouts? Is Wilson shouldering more of workload to power KU’s offense? I’d also like to see the base offense generate quality shots more frequently if this becomes a game played out in the half court.

In other words, I want to see signs that Gates’ overall approach translates against a top-end opponent. There are still stretches where MU seems to power down. Rotations and switches become sloppy, and its offense — especially actions in the pinch post — gets boggy. You can’t have those lulls on Saturday.

Parker Gillam: Anything within 10 points. I’m a bit of an optimist, but I have faith in this team to win this game...IF they play at the level they’ve been playing at. If they can go wire-to-wire in a competitive game and have it come down to the final couple of minutes, then I will be more than happy.

If it gets to that point, we have to face facts. Mizzou does not have a true closer right now, while the Jayhawks have Jalen Wilson. I don’t think the Tigers win a tight game in the second half, but they can certainly get the game to that point. And that would keep the positive environment around the team, keep the team’s morale up, and would keep them in the national picture.

Matt Watkins: I don’t know that there’s a quantity of points that Mizzou could lose by that would make me feel better (or worse) about this season. There are two reasons for this: 1) Rivalry games are winner take all. Playing a rival close, but losing, is still a loss. Margin of loss doesn’t enter the equation in my mind. 2) It’s one game.

Should Mizzou lose, there will be questions about their ability to generate enough wins against quality competition after a VERY soft start to the season. If Mizzou hopes to be better than a bubble-type team come March, they’ll need those wins. Those questions can’t be answered until they do it. How they recover next Saturday at UCF will be far more important to me than the margin.

Winning is a skill. The Tigers flashed it in Wichita.

Of course, it’s the Border War: We want to win and win big. And while history tells us Mizzou doesn’t often blow the Jayhawks out, what will it take for Missouri to keep their unbeaten season alive and beat their rivals for the first time in a decade?

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi Valley State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Harris: Unlike last season, Kansas enters this game fairly young, short on continuity, play with a small-ball five, and rely on a relatively short bench. Yes, they guard. Sure, they have a veteran ball-handler. But it’s not a death machine.

Wilson needs a lot of touches to get his numbers. And while Dick is off to a fast start, I’m not sure he’s a plug-and-play replacement for Braun, who became a genuine threat last year playing downhill. McCullar, for his part, has basically been a 3-and-D option. Harris doesn’t want to shoot. And Adams is dependent on Harris generating opportunities for him as a roller and cutter. If MU can speed KU up, the cumulative effect that tempo might eat into the rotation and create easy transition chances.

Unsurprisingly, Self’s smoothly transitioned to a lineup that plays five out. Harris orchestrates beautifully in pick-and-rollls, especially reading an off-ball defender with tag responsibilities. Last season, side pick-and-rolls served as his baton to beat MU silly. But given what we’ve seen so far from MU, KU might just use middle PNRs to let its vets cook.

Meanwhile, KU will throw out eye candy on the weak side to keep a defense on tilt. That’s what would concern me most. Opponents have had some success working on that side of the floor, especially generating corner 3s. Despite being a freshman, Dick understands how to use flares, staggers, and pin downs. MU typically switches off-ball screens, but it might be wise to have someone like Hodge lock and trail. Regardless, MU can’t let its focus slip. That’s how Dick might bury them.

The recipe: Force Harris into some uncharacteristic mistakes, limit chances for Dick to get a clean look at the rim, and hope a guy like Noah Carter has a good day in your Princeton-based offense. At worst, I’d want to be within two possessions at the under-eight timeout in the second half. Then hope Mosley is the closer you expected him to be.

Parker Gillam: The great equalizer in basketball is the 3-point line. Mizzou has been middle of the pack in that regard this season (120th in 3-point percentage), but they’ve got shooters that can get hot. Between D’Moi Hodge, Noah Carter, DeAndre Gholston and Nick Honor, the Tigers are going to have shoot well from behind the arc.

Now, combine that with the usual high-assist and high-steal numbers, add in a physical rebounding performance, and this team could definitely win this game. Kansas has been iffy at best this season and relies a lot upon Wilson and Grady Dick to win them games. The Tigers have to force other options to step up.

I truly believe that the Tigers have the talent and chemistry to hang with the Jayhawks. Winning, on the other hand, would take some sharp-shooting, as well as some players (Isiaih Mosley, Aidan Shaw, Ronnie DeGray III) stepping up into larger roles.

Matt Watkins: Allow me to promote a Rock M feature: “The Verdict.” We’ll be breaking down this exact question there. I won’t dodge the question completely, however.

Bill Self is one of the best coaches on the whiteboard in college basketball. Given nine days to review Mizzou’s tape and come up with a game plan, I have little doubt he will put his team in a position to win the game. You can take that much to the bank.

Ultimately, the outcome will come down to two things: 1) Dennis Gates’ game plan; and 2) Execution by the players on both teams. I’ve been impressed thus far with Gates’ schematic work, both on a larger scale and adjustments within games. How he draws this game up along with any necessary adjustments and counter-adjustments within the game will play a big role in the outcome.

And of course, players making shots that they generate will be a huge key as well. You can draw up the open shot. You can’t draw up the shot being made.