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A beat writer’s Missouri basketball season preview (Pt. 1)

Football? Pffft. It’s basketball season now.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Year One of the Dennis Gates era has come and gone. Fast-paced play, emphatic dunks, buzzer-beaters, three-point barrages and countless great memories characterized his first season at the helm, but now it is Gates’ turn for an encore.

With the losses of Kobe Brown, DeAndre Gholston and D’Moi Hodge to the NBA, Tre Gomillion to graduation, Isiaih Mosley to professional opportunities, and Ronnie DeGray III and Mohamed Diarra to the transfer portal, there were plenty of roster voids to be filled this offseason. Gates filled them with a new class of transfers who will look to replicate the immediate success that last year’s class manufactured. On top of that, the coaching staff has begun to flex its muscles in the high school recruiting world, reeling in the No. 1 overall class of 2023 (via 247 Sports) following a slew of highly-touted commitments over the offseason.

Gates made a point to bolster the schedule this season, as Mizzou has far more early season non-conference tests than it did last year. Thus, we should expect plenty more great environments at Mizzou Arena and even more exciting basketball from the Tigers this season.

We are now just one week away from the season beginning. In this part of my season preview, I’ll be highlighting my projected starting lineup, breaking down the schedule by month and highlighting key players to watch out for. Let’s get into it.


NCAA Basketball: Boise State at Colorado State Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Projected Lineup

PG: Nick Honor (Grad Student, 5-foot-10, 200 lbs.)

Averaged 7.9 points, 1.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game last season. High-IQ game manager who can get it done on both ends of the floor, specifically in perimeter shooting and hounding ball handlers.

Dennis Gates did mention that he anticipates putting Honor and fellow PG Sean East II on the floor together more often this season. Gates said he watched the film from last year and that the two positively influenced this team on both ends when playing together, and that there are plenty of benefits to having two ball-handlers on the floor at the same time.

SG: Caleb Grill (Grad Student, 6-foot-3, 215 lbs.)

Averaged 9.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game at Iowa State last season. 3-and-D player that can get hot at a moment’s notice from behind the arc.

“First and foremost, I’m a winner. I’m here to win as many games as possible,” Grill said during Media Day.

SF: John Tonje (Grad Student, 6-foot-5, 220 lbs.)

Averaged 14.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.3 assist per game at Colorado State last season. Versatile defender that can be an effective slasher on the offensive end with his lengthy frame.

PF: Noah Carter (Grad Student, 6-foot-6, 235 lbs.)

Averaged 9.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists per game last season. Explosive finisher around the rim with a solid 3-point shot. Will be relied upon to step up on both ends with the departures of Brown and Diarra.

C: Connor Vanover (Grad Student, 7-foot-5, 230 lbs.)

Averaged 12.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 0.8 assists at Oral Roberts last season. Incredible size makes him a top-tier rim protector that can alter how an opposing team attacks. Also has a decent stroke from behind the arc.

“Defensively I can be an anchor/rim-protector inside and then offensively I can space the floor and be an inside-out big,” Vanover said during media days.

Main Bench Rotation: Aidan Shaw (SF, Sophomore, 6-foot-8, 205 lbs.), Sean East II (PG, Grad Student, 6-foot-3, 180 lbs.), Tamar Bates (SG/SF, Junior, 6-foot-5, 195 lbs.), Kaleb Brown (SF/PF, Junior, 6-foot-7, 245 lbs.), Curt Lewis (G, Junior, 6-foot-5, 215 lbs.), Jesus Carralero Martin (SF/PF, Senior, 6-foot-7, 225 lbs.)

*Yes, this is a starting five made up entirely of graduate students. They have played A LOT of basketball in their time, much like last season’s squad. I’m sensing a theme of what kind of transfer Gates likes to target...


NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Quarterfinals - Missouri vs Tennessee Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

November

Unlike last season in which Mizzou did not play a major opponent until Wichita State on Nov. 29, the Tigers will be tested early on. Arkansas Pine-Bluff will be a tune-up game before Memphis comes to town on Nov. 10 for an ever-important swing game with NCAA Tournament implications written all over it. Then, Mizzou hosts SIU Edwardsville for the second straight season before heading to The Barn to take on Minnesota in what will surely be a hostile environment.

Gates and Co. can likely take a deep breath against Jackson State, South Carolina State and Loyola-Maryland after the road trip, but November concludes with the ACC/SEC Challenge. As part of the event, Mizzou will travel to The Zoo to take on a Pittsburgh team that has its sights set on a second straight tourney appearance. Another key swing game, the Pitt-Mizzou matchup will be a major résumé booster for whomever the winner is.

Going 2-1 in those three pivotal November games is a must if the Tigers want to keep pace in the NCAA Tournament hunt.

Projected November Record: 7-1

December

Things continue to heat up in December, as Mizzou opens the month by hosting a pesky Wichita State team and former Tiger Ronnie DeGray III. Then, the Border War returns to The Phog as the Tigers will look to pull off a miraculous upset after being embarrassed on their home floor in 2022.

After eight days off, Gates and Co. will remain around the border to take on Seton Hall in Kansas City, yet another pivotal contest between two potential NCAA Tournament bubble teams. Then, Mizzou will make the cross-state journey to St. Louis to take on Illinois for Braggin’ Rights before returning home to close non-conference play against Central Arkansas.

The Kansas game will be a tall order, but winning both of those neutral site contests would be a major momentum booster as the Tigers enter conference play.

Projected December Record: 4-1

January

With January comes conference play, and while the slate is not necessarily front-loaded, the beginning is not a cakewalk, either. The Tigers will open up with Georgia at home before traveling to Rupp to take on a Kentucky team that will be hell-bent on exacting revenge for Mizzou’s 89-75 offensive explosion in December of last season.

The Tigers then host South Carolina for their first of two meetings in the month of January, followed by a road date with an Alabama team that figures to finish towards the top of the SEC yet again despite its NBA roster attrition. A final stretch of Florida (home), Texas A&M (road), South Carolina (road) and Arkansas (home) will reveal a lot about if this team can tread water in the conference this season. In all likelihood, Mizzou will enter those final four games at a 2-2 crossroads in conference play.

Projected January Record: 5-3

February

The Tigers begin February in the glorious city of Nashville for their lone meeting with the Commodores before hosting Texas A&M and Mississippi State in an important home stand. A road trip to Oxford, home date with Tennessee and then a road trip to take on both Arkansas and Florida closes out the month.

That final stretch of the Vols, Razorbacks and Gators may be the most pivotal part of the schedule for Mizzou. All three of those contests will be winnable games against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams, and with how March is set up, it may be the last chance this team has to truly impress the committee.

Projected February Record: 4-3

March

Much like last season, March presents a fairly light slate. Ole Miss comes to COMO to start the month, and the ensuing home game against Auburn should carry plenty of tournament implications. A trip to Baton Rouge wraps up the regular season schedule for Mizzou.

Projected March Record: 3-0


NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Key Players To Watch

Nick Honor

The former Clemson Tiger stepped in and became a steadying presence at point guard for Mizzou last season, something the Tigers had lacked in previous years. Honor has seen nearly everything there is to see on a basketball court, and his ability to run the quick-tempo Gates offense while also being one of the peskiest perimeter defenders in the country makes Honor an invaluable asset to this team. In order to move his way up NBA Draft boards, Honor will have to maintain his 40% shooting clip from the floor while taking more shots and being the primary ball-handler on this team.

“Nick has to shoot the ball more. He’s a very unselfish player, but his shooting percentage is one of the best that we have returning,” Dennis Gates said following Mizzou Madness.

Honor will make everything go for this group in 2023-2024. This team will only go as far as its point guard takes it.

Noah Carter

Mr. Carter had quite an up-and-down season last year. He dropped 28 points in an early-season win over Penn and seemed poised to be one of the primary scorers on the roster. However, his volume of shots and percentage from behind the arc dipped in the middle of the season before he picked it up with seven double-digit scoring efforts in the team’s final eight games.

A former Northern Iowa Panther, Carter has the tools and athleticism to be a force on the offensive end. With Vanover transferring in, no longer will Carter tend to be guarded by the opposing team’s center, allowing him to take better advantage of his bulky frame. Still, his bread-and-butter will be popping out to the perimeter and either letting it fly or beating defenders off the dribble. He’s expected to step up and become one of the primary scorers on this roster in 2023-24, but Carter will need to improve upon a 32.2% clip from behind the arc to do so.

“I’ve actually been really enjoying being a leader and being there for the younger guys. I want to be that big brother that, if they have any questions, they can just some ask me because I’m here to help them,” Carter said following Mizzou Madness on Oct. 7.

Of course, we are sure to see plenty more highlight-reel dunks from Carter as well.

Aidan Shaw

The prized jewel of Gates’ 2022 recruiting class, Shaw experienced all of the ups-and-downs of life as a freshman at the D-I level. He had plenty of great highlights, such as his array of high-flying dunk packages that he brought to Mizzou Arena. But, there were also the times in which he sparingly played and was openly challenged by Gates to put up more of a fight on the boards.

Now, with a season under his belt, the bouncy sophomore is expected to take a major step forward on both ends of the floor. His length and athleticism allows him to be a stout defender, but he needs to become more versatile on the offensive end at all three levels. On top of that, Gates is right in saying that Shaw should reel in 6-7 rebounds per game with his frame and jumping ability.

“He needs to take a jump, and we expect him to take a jump. No one can touch his athleticism, he just has to show that in his stats, rebounds, blocks per minute, making an all-defensive team, etc,” Gates said of Shaw following Mizzou Madness.

He’s a wild card, but Shaw can be an X-Factor on this team if he continues on an upward trajectory.

Caleb Grill

One of two transfers I will feature on this list, Grill figures to slide in and somewhat replicate the role that Hodge played last season. I say somewhat because these are two fairly different players that have minor differences in their games, although they are both 3-and-D guys at heart.

Grill exploded on to the scene last season with a 31-point performance in a win over then-No. 1 North Carolina, but after missing some time due to off-court issues, Grill opted for a fresh start in Columbia.

With how Gates runs his offense, he needs to have at least 2-3 marksmen to rely upon. Grill can be one of them, as he shot at a 36.8% clip from 3-point land last season and has shown that he can be a true microwave player. On top of that, Grill averaged 1.2 steals per game in 2022-23, meaning that he can fill the disruptive defensive role that Hodge played last season.

At the end of the day, the shoes Hodge leaves are much too big for any player to truly fill. I mean, the guy set the single-season program record for steals. But, Grill can carve out a niche and become a Tiger legend in his own right if he can be a consistent shooter that applies pressure on the other end.

He also plays with some noticeable passion, which Tiger fans will certainly love to see.

John Tonje

He’s not the most talked about transfer of this offseason, but Tonje may be the most important. The former Colorado State Ram is an 1,000 point scorer that shot personal bests in field goal percentage (47.3%) and 3-point percentage (38.9%) last season.

Tonje is a true two-way player who can score at every level and can guard nearly every player on the floor. He’s just the type of versatile wing that Gates loves, as he can likely defend 1-4 on the court with little concern. Expect Tonje to quickly become one of this team’s lockdown defenders, as he and Grill could both be that “All-Conference defender” that Gates strives to have each season.

“This type of defense is what I want to be a part of,” Tonje said during media days. “That’s one thing that can take my game to the next level.”

If he can provide a similar boost offensively to what he did last season, then Tonje will have a starting role on this team throughout the year.


Drop your predictions for the 2023-24 season in the comments below!