The three game home stand was not the flawless stretch of victories that Missouri hoped it would be.
The Tigers began by falling to Jackson State after relinquishing a late lead and allowing JSU to hit a game-winning shot as the clock dwindled. Then, SC State opened up a 16-point advantage in the first half before Mizzou rallied with a handful of dominant runs to pull away. Dennis Gates was noticeably upset following the game against the Bulldogs, a rare occurrence for a generally even-keeled individual.
On Saturday, Loyola (MD) withstood an early onslaught from Mizzou to remain competitive throughout the game. The Tigers managed to hold the Greyhounds at arm’s length throughout, but the performance was anything but perfect from the home side.
This stretch came after Missouri handled SIUE in the opener, fell to Memphis after cooling off in the second half and then miraculously battled back from a 20-point deficit to take down Minnesota on the road. Every game for Mizzou has appeared to have its own separate storyline, and it’s tough to figure out just how this team is going to come out and play on a given night.
“Ultimately we have to get more consistency, and when we become consistent as players, then we can become a consistent rotation,” Gates said. “The only consistence I see right now is Anthony Robinson II being able to cement himself as a guy that impacts the game off the bench.”
The victory over Loyola (MD) may be a sign of positive things to come. After struggling to win the battle for 50/50 balls, the Tigers forced 18 turnovers (14 of which were steals), and turned those into 28 points. Robinson was key in that regard, leading the team with five steals. The perimeter ball pressure from Mizzou was suffocating, and it disrupted a lot of what the Greyhounds attempted to do on offense.
Gates also wanted to see a higher level of intensity and effort out of his group, specifically in the opening minutes, and he got it. Mizzou managed to jump out to a 31-9 advantage against Loyola, a refreshing sight after the way the SC State game began.
Slowly but surely, the rotation also appears to be working itself out. Robinson, through his pesky defense and fluid offensive play has emerged as one of the first players off the bench amongst a group of veterans. Jesus Carralero Martin has slid to the back of the rotation after starting in the first two games. Curt Lewis has begun to earn more minutes, while John Tonje is playing less. Jordan Butler, Trent Pierce and Connor Vanover have consistently played 5-10 minutes per game, with Gates still relying upon Noah Carter and Aidan Shaw to play the five in his small-ball lineup.
Tamar Bates and Caleb Grill appear to be mainstay wings in the rotation, with Sean East II and Nick Honor consistently earning the most minutes on the team (to no surprise). I wouldn’t be shocked to see each of the veteran ball-handlers record a couple of games where they don’t come off the floor this season, especially in conference play when their experience will be invaluable.
While the results have varied, it’s safe to say that this 2023-24 Missouri team is incredibly similar to last year’s squad in terms of play style. It’s a group that features 4-5 players that can shoot at any given time, relies on forcing turnovers and plays at a frantic pace on both ends. Some of the personnel may have changed from last season, but Gates’ philosophy of high-volume shooting (specifically from behind the arc) has not, nor has his affinity for a shiny assist-to-turnover ratio. Thus far, Mizzou has not met many of his statistical goals, and thus the product on the court has not been to his liking, either. A 10-10 assist-to-turnover ratio against Loyola, for instance, is far from what Gates wants to see.
“With only 10 assists, it should have been much more,” Gates said. “But I’m proud of our guys with 28 points off of turnovers, although we still didn’t convert at a rate that I thought we should have.”
But, one must take into account the timeline of a college basketball team, specifically one with as many new faces as Mizzou. Much like last season, the Tigers are playing what will likely be their worst basketball right now. The rotation is still a work-in-progress, new players are attempting to build chemistry with returners and other newcomers and everybody is still trying to carve out a role for themselves on this team.
Thus, it may not be until late December or even January until this team truly figures things out. Hell, the 2022-23 squad really didn’t hit its stride until the middle of SEC play.
And that is perfectly fine. The great thing about playing in a prestigious league like the SEC is that opportunities to improve one’s résumé are always abound. Right now, the key for Missouri is to continue on an upward trajectory in terms of meshing as a team while treading water just enough to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
“We have endured more in terms of game experience than we did last season during this time,” Gates said. “So, you can’t compare this year to last. Each team has different characteristics, personalities, and time it takes to bond.”
The floor for this 2023-24 team may be lower than last year’s squad, but I would argue that the ceiling is just as high.
Side Note: Noah Carter wanted to make sure that all of Mizzou nation knows that he is thankful for their presence. He closed the press conference by going through a list of things he is thankful for, specifically God, the fans, his coach, his team, and surprisingly, the media.