If there’s one thing Mizzou Hoops has been able to nail down over the past decade, it’s the first year of a new coach’s tenure.
Obviously the term “nail down” is operative in this case. After all, Kim Anderson’s first season at Mizzou opened with a loss to UMKC and included a miserable run of 13 consecutive losses. But the other two coaches who have graced the Mizzou Arena sidelines this past decade? They’ve done alright for themselves in their first Tiger campaign.
Frank Haith entered Columbia as a second fiddle, a Power Five coach with a sketchy reputation and a CV thin on accomplishments. He ended his first season with 30 wins, a Big XII Tournament title and the AP’s College Basketball Coach of the Year award. Apart from the disastrous finale, season one was an unmitigated success.
Cuonzo Martin couldn’t quite top Haith, but his first year in Columbia wasn’t too shabby either. After landing a consensus top five recruiting class — including two five-star Porter brothers — Martin was able to steer the Tigers through a disastrous injury to Michael Porter Jr., adjust his game plan on the fly and lead Missouri back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years. Coming off of the Kim Anderson era, it felt like a breath of fresh air.
To expect Dennis Gates to follow in Haith and Martin’s steps would be unfair. If anything, Missouri fans should want things to play out a little differently. Haith was able to maximize the talent on a veteran-heavy roster but couldn’t build one of his own. Martin was able to cobble together a group of trusty rotation players, talented freshmen and one super transfer, but he couldn’t convince that sort of talent to continue committing. Gates’ path should be different — anything to prioritize sustainability over quick fixes.
That being said, the fix on this program appears to be moving pretty damn quick. Aidan Shaw is in the fold, the top two JUCO recruits in the country are too and have you heard about this guy Isiaih Mosley? He’s back in town for the next year. It’s be easy to look at the pieces retained from last year’s roster combined with the exciting new faces and wonder just how far Gates — a celebrated coach in his own right — can take them.
It’s good to remember, however, that these aren’t normal circumstances we’re looking at here. Gates has certainly compiled a compelling group of players, but they’re also a group without any sense of chemistry. As Cuonzo Martin taught us last season, it’s easier to build a cohesive team on paper than it is on the court. Haith’s 2011-2012 team should be all the evidence you need that a team can only be built with time. If you need more, read this piece on Mizzou’s graying roster that Matt Harris wrote back in May.
But what about Martin’s first year, you may ask. His first team was a mish-mash of pieces, wasn’t it? Yes and no. Discounting the fact that Martin carried over six players from Kim Anderson’s final year at the helm — Gates only has three — it’s impossible to overlook the Kassius Robertson factor. Robertson was a certified dynamo in his lone season as a Tiger, a shooting star that lit up the sky for a brief moment before heading off to greener pastures in Europe.
He was also more than a little strange. Transfers like Robertson’s rarely happen, especially at a school like Mizzou. While up-transfers generally see a drop in usage, efficiency, minutes or any combination of the three, Kash bucked the trend on all three. He played more minutes, with more possessions and more efficient play than any of his four seasons in college basketball. The result was an All SEC First Team selection who defied all conventional logic. To expect another result like that from someone like D’Moi Hodge, Sean East or DeAndre Gholston would be foolhardy.
So what should Mizzou fans expect from Dennis Gates’ first year? It’s probably somewhere between Martin’s first year and Anderson’s. The arrival of Isiaih Mosley certainly helps matters, and it may even vault the Tigers onto the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Still, as Nate Edwards is never shy to remind us, it’s always a good idea to eat your vegetables in the long run. The Tigers may be good enough to entertain the idea of a March berth, but it’ll take a bonafide rim protector, some serious team bonding and more than a few lucky bounces to keep improving their odds.