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Basketball: A game of confidence

Confidence can be a fickle thing for basketball players, but it is also generally the key to their performance.

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

Does the Missouri basketball team play with confidence?

It’s a simple question with a not so simple answer.

Sometimes they do, such as in the second half against Minnesota, the dominant win over Pittsburgh or the valiant performances at The Phog and Rupp Arena.

On other occasions, though, this team appears to be blinded by the moment and too in its own head to play this game the way Dennis Gates intends it to be played: free-flowing and fast-paced. We’ve seen this throughout SEC play, but also in moments against Jackson State, SC State, Memphis and Seton Hall.

This isn’t a topic I’d normally discuss, as we generally stick to the X’s and O’s, player performances or game trends on the site. But, for this team, I think it’s worth taking some time to discuss the mental state of this group.

First and foremost, the determination and will to win has never faded. The 2023-2024 Missouri Tigers fight their as*** off every time they step on the floor, and they punch above their weight when taking on the strongest of foes.

“We fought. We fought our hearts out,” Gates said. “We tried to fight but we just ran out of gas. Not one time have our guys complained about the circumstances.”

But, when you scan the roster and watch the games, who on the floor appears to be confident enough to create on their own and truly alter the outcome of a game when it comes to crunch time?

Sean East II and Tamar Bates have been those players for much of the season, but they can’t be the only ones to carry the torch every time out.

Nick Honor and Noah Carter, as proven veterans within the Gates system, figured to play with excess confidence and become playmakers for this team this season. Instead, shooting struggles and defensive inconsistencies have pushed them to the backseat of the Toyota Corolla that is Mizzou basketball this season (compared to the Ferrari that it was last year).

Honor may be the most prominent example of this. When you’re running alongside the likes of Kobe Brown and D’Moi Hodge, it’s easy to have confidence in you and your team’s abilities. But, when charged with becoming a leading playmaker without those otherworldly talents, things change. Honor’s numbers in terms of assists, steals and shooting percentage have all gone down this season.

We’ve heard Gates call Honor out for not shooting enough. Something can be said about his stature preventing him from getting a ton of opportunities each game, but at the end of the day, his refusal to shoot may stem from a lack of belief in his ability to be a high-volume scorer.

With East on the floor for much of this season, Honor could step back and play a supporting role. With his backcourt mate missing the past two games, we’ve seen Honor become much more aggressive and creative with his shot-taking, and it’s resulted in some solid offensive showings.

So why can’t that happen every night? Well, I encourage Mizzou fans to think about what changes the most in their day-to-day lives.

The answer: One’s mental state. For Honor, he just doesn’t play with the same level of assertiveness night-in and night-out, but perhaps this recent surge can change that.

Tamar Bates found his confidence towards the end of December and torched SEC defenses throughout January. The scorer’s mindset that earned him a 4-star billing out of high school was on full display for the past month, but after recording eight total turnovers this week and scoring just 11 points on Saturday (his lowest since the Illinois game), one may wonder if him now being the sole focus of the opposition’s scouting report will hurt his future production.

In examining the rest of the roster, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody else who plays with visible conviction on the floor.

Curt Lewis appears to still be finding his footing at this level after moving up from the JUCO ranks. Aidan Shaw, who has been consistently called out for his lack of production on the boards, appears to be struggling to find his place within this program and has seen his minutes dwindle as a result.

Caleb Grill certainly played with some fire and confidence when he was on the floor, but he’s been sidelined since mid-December. It’s been well-documented that his energy was pivotal to this team’s success, but I would argue that the mindset he brought to each game had even more of an impact on the group as whole.

While it’s not necessarily something that should be encouraged, a lack of confidence from the freshmen is to be expected. After all, Jordan Butler, Trent Pierce and Anthony Robinson II are all competing in their first collegiate basketball seasons and are really just trying to get up to speed within the game and earn the trust of this coaching staff.

Jesus Carralero-Martin is a unique case. He’s never afraid to try difficult passes or run the offense, but he also is visibly wary of attempting a shot even when he has a solid opportunity. That hesitancy, regardless of his shooting ability, is something that Mizzou cannot afford to have right now.

If anybody is playing with some confidence right now, it might just be Mabor Majak. The South Sudanese senior challenges everybody at the rim and is not afraid to get physical with some of the strongest bigs in the SEC. He may not have the offensive abilities of most other players, but Majak doesn’t let that hold him back.

“Sometimes young people don’t know what they don’t know,” Gates said. “You have to continue to nudge them every step of the way and let them know in confidence and affirmation that ‘you can do this.’”

I also chose this topic for personal reasons. Not that any readers will care (nor should they), but through my experiences as a slightly above average basketball player, confidence is everything in this sport. Due to there being more talented players on the team or coaches that just didn’t really care about my performance outside of not making any mistakes, I never felt truly confident in my abilities or comfortable on a team growing up. It stunted my growth as a player and prevented me from ever being a true threat on the offensive end, and as I’ve developed I’ve realized I could have done so much more if I wasn’t so focused on not messing up.

Of course, I am by no means aiming to draw any pity here. There were a myriad of other reasons (slight frame, below average ball-handling, lacking athleticism, the list goes on) that supported why I did not turn basketball into anything more than a hobby. I merely include this personal aside to emphasize how important confidence can be in an athlete’s career. One can have all of the ability in the world, but if you don’t have faith in yourself or from your team, then that talent can easily go wasted.

Even Gates himself admitted that having the backing of this university is one of the main reasons that he has remained even-keeled throughout this disappointing season.

“The most important thing is to know that your administration, your president, your alumni and your fans are still there with you every step of the way,” Gates said. “So I appreciate them for that.”

A great team generally has 4-5 players that it can trust in crunch time and have the full faith of the coaching staff, players and fan base. Mizzou has had two of such players this season.

The effort is there. The talent is there. Can this Tiger team start playing without any mental blocks to hold it back?

That will remain the key to picking up an ever-elusive SEC victory.