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Raising the bar at Missouri

Dennis Gates has a full plate as he takes over the head coaching job at Mizzou, and that includes changing how skeptics view the program.

Horizon League Men’s Basketball Tournament - Championship Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Dennis Gates stood at the podium and won the press conference.

But going back through the last five coaches, you’d be hard pressed to find much negative to say about the head coach right after their press conference. Quin Snyder, Mike Anderson, Frank Haith, Kim Anderson, and Cuonzo Martin all won the press conference. As hard as it is to reach the podium, it’s easy to win the press conference. At Missouri the process usually works something like this: You get up, talk about your goals for the program, mention Norm, mention championships, talk recruiting, and say something along the lines of ‘Why not Mizzou?’ Oh, and also check the academics box, too.

Dennis Gates did all those things, and did them well. It’s easy to see why he got the job from an engagement and charisma standpoint. His resume is impressive as well. Josh looked at some of his recruiting wins, but taking over a program in July and winning a conference championship is no small thing. By now, you all mostly know the resume and why he was hired.

  • Helped Leonard Hamilton build Florida State into a basketball powerhouse
  • Longtime assistant coach at the High Major level with deep recruiting connections
  • Rebuilt Cleveland State into an NCAA Tournament team and Conference Champion after just one season

That’s the Cliff’s Notes version.

Hiring a coach is a crapshoot. I don’t know how many times I’ve typed that over the years but it feels like a lot. But there’s just no proven method for an Administration finding success on the hardwood outside of picking the guy you think is best for you, and investing in that person. Then hoping for the best. Great hires come from all different backgrounds and all walks of life. The margin between the best coach in College Hoops and the worst coach is pretty narrow. Most everyone at this stage in the game is at least pretty good. The one main difference maker is landing the kinds of players who help you win games.

Norm Stewart’s best teams had his best players. You know their names: Brown, Stipo, Sundvold, Chievous, Smith, Peeler, Booker, Crudup. Quin had Rush, Johnson, Paulding. Mike Anderson had Demarre, Frank had Marcus, Kim, Phil. Cuonzo’s best teams had Jeremiah, Dru, Kash.

What’s next for Dennis Gates is finishing out his staff and then rebuilding the roster. What Gates needs to understand, and I’m sure he does, is the difference between what Missouri was, what it currently is, and what it can be.

What Mizzou was is a top 25-30 job in the country, with a deep and passionate fan base.

What Mizzou is currently is a ways from that. It’s not a bad job, but it’s one without the kind of support it used to have. It’s one that has only made the tournament occasionally, and it’s seen some very low lows. With the highs not being all that high. Fan interest has waned, with a mostly ebb and flow since the team began playing in Mizzou Arena.

But what Mizzou can become is up to Gates and the Administration. The reason so many people say “Why not Mizzou?” is because it’s really true. The margin between the upper tier of the conference and the rest of the league exists, but it’s not a wide gulf. Nobody else in the SEC is going to spend like Kentucky does on Men’s Hoops, but you’re not that far behind Tennessee, Arkansas, and Alabama. If the Administration does its part (and we’ll see once the contract comes out) then all that’s left is up to Gates when it comes to putting together the roster.

While the roster isn’t in great shape, it’s a different ball game these days with how the transfer portal works. You can build a competitive roster out of nothing pretty quickly. And to be clear, while Mizzou’s roster has some issues, it’s got some workable parts.

Last season Iowa State was 2-22; now they’re in the Sweet 16. They added an elite freshman point guard and navigated the portal well. Only two players remain from the rotation a year ago, and the rest were spring additions. By no means am I saying Missouri should be in the Sweet 16 next year (mainly because ISU was also just 8-10 in league play and squeaked into the tournament), but making an NCAA tournament next season isn’t completely out of bounds.

My expectations are a bit more modest. Mostly because I want to see how Gates approaches the roster. But I’m heartened by one thing:

After voting 2 to 1 against Gates on Friday night and Saturday after the news broke, Mizzou fans have more than flipped. At the time I uploaded this it was about 85-15 ‘Yay’.

It seems as though Missouri fans are on board after a little bit of a mild freakout after the news broke. Maybe it was Blake Lovell’s lobbying, or my own posting that turned things around, but more likely it was a chance to sit with the news and learn about the new head coach.

Right now Dennis Gates has the wind at his back. He’s got the backing of his boss, Desiree Reed-Francois, and her boss, Mun Choi. He’s got Choi’s bosses on board, despite some inarticulate language before the meeting this morning. For him, the sky is the limit. But first is the nitty-gritty work of building a competent staff, fixing a roster, and getting into an offseason of development. In the end, maybe he’ll be the one who can answer the question, “Why not Mizzou?”