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Categorizing Mizzou basketball’s non-conference slate

The Tigers’ 2023 non-conference schedule was revealed on Friday, and there are plenty of notable matchups on the docket.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri basketball’s 2023 non-conference slate was revealed on Friday, and it’s safe to say that Dennis Gates wants to challenge his team more this season.

After playing only three high-major teams during the 2022 non-conference slate, the Tigers will take on six this time around (Wichita State could be considered of high-major quality as well). Kansas, Illinois, SIU Edwardsville and Wichita State remain on the schedule, but joining them are the likes of Memphis, Minnesota, Seton Hall and Pittsburgh.

Missouri was able to qualify for the 2023 NCAA Tournament despite a lackluster non-conference slate, but the margin for error was incredibly thin throughout the season. The idea is that with tougher games on the slate, the Tigers may suffer more losses but will also garner more respect from the NCAA Committee come Selection Sunday.

To do so, they will have to be victorious in some difficult matchups early in the season. On one hand, this is a veteran team that should not be fazed by any of these early-season tests. On the other, this is also a team that is bringing in plenty of transfers and has to replace some major production from last season.

Let’s take a look at what the schedule looks like and where Mizzou should stand at the end of December.

The Slate

Must-Win Games

  • Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Home, Nov. 6)
  • SIU Edwardsville (Home, Nov. 13)
  • Jackson State (Home, Nov. 19)
  • South Carolina State (Home, Nov. 22)
  • Loyola-Maryland (Home, Nov. 25)
  • Central Arkansas (Home, Dec. 30)

The home slate for the Tigers is fairly light overall, as only two non-conference games at Mizzou Arena fall outside of this category. None of the teams in this list qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season, and the highest-rated team in KenPom was SIU Edwardsville (242).

The Arkansas Pine-Bluff game will serve as a tune-up for the Memphis matchup, as will the SIU-Edwardsville game for the trip to Minnesota. After that, the Tigers get a light three-game slate against Jackson State, SC State and Loyola-MD in late November before things heat up.

Interesting to note that Central Arkansas will be the team’s final game before conference play begins.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Wichita State William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Swing Games

  • Memphis (Home, Nov. 10)
  • Minnesota (Away, Nov. 16)
  • Pittsburgh (Away, Nov. 28)
  • Wichita State (Home, Dec. 3)
  • Seton Hall (Neutral, Kansas City, Dec. 17)
  • Illinois (Neutral, St. Louis, Dec. 22)

Whereas you could say that Mizzou only had three “swing games” in last season’s non-conference slate (Wichita State, UCF, Illinois), they have seven of them in 2023. The slate is certainly tougher, but that also presents plenty more opportunities to pick up Quad 1 or 2 victories against quality competition.

The home date on Nov. 10 will be a great measuring stick for this new-look team against a Memphis squad that is also fielding plenty of transfers looking to mesh together early on. The Minnesota and Pittsburgh games present beatable, albeit tough opponents that will have the benefit of a raucous fan environment behind them at both The Barn and The Zoo respectively. To even just split those matchups would be a major plus and show that the Tigers have overcome some of their road struggles from a season ago.

Wichita State is likely the most winnable game on this list, but the Shockers took Mizzou to the wire in 2022 and are never an easy out. The Seton Hall game in Kansas City will be great for program exposure in the KCMO area and will be a pivotal matchup between two teams that will likely float around the tournament bubble throughout the season.

Of course, there is also the rivalry date with Illinois in St. Louis. Revenge will be on the minds of the Illini after they suffered a 93-71 drubbing at the hands of Gates and Co. last season. A win for either team would likely qualify as a Quad 1 result and provide a major boost to a résumé, much like it did for the Tigers last season.

Upset Potential

  • Kansas (Away, Dec. 9)

And then, there is this game. The Jayhawks walked into Mizzou Arena and humbled the Tigers to a tune of 95-67 last season. With a roster that will feature one of the nation’s best guards in DeJuan Harris, one of the best big-men in Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson, experienced returners KJ Adams Jr. and Kevin McCullar Jr. and four incoming 4-star recruits, kU is poised for another national title run.

It will be a tall, tall order for Mizzou to walk into The Phog and come out with a win, but crazier things have happened in this sport. A win here would bolster the Tiger résumé to new heights and solidify Dennis Gates as a legend at Missouri. Yes, it’d be that big of a deal.

Expectations and Predictions

It’s fairly easy to work this out. The Tigers have to win every game in the must-win category and then win the majority of those swing games. Do that, and Mizzou will be treading water in the NCAA Tournament picture when it enters SEC play. That’s all you can ask for when the best opportunities for quality wins will almost surely come in 2024.

In terms of the numbers, I would say that winning four out of those six swing games is a reasonable goal that would keep the Tigers in the hunt for an NCAA berth. Anything more and they would be operating ahead of the 8-ball going into conference play, anything less and they’d have some ground to make up.

To me, the toughest challenges on that slate lie in traveling to take on Pittsburgh and playing an Illinois squad that will be hell-bent on getting revenge for last season. The Zoo is an incredibly difficult place to play in, and Jeff Capel has another team that is fully capable of making some noise in the NCAA Tournament. Illinois will yet again field a talented roster, but the motivation for them to wipe away the bad taste from last season’s defeat will be a bigger factor in this game. Still, they are swing games for a reason.

Memphis may be an overall more talented team than Mizzou, but with so many transfers among Penny Hardaway’s group, it will take longer than one week for them to mesh effectively. The same could be said for Gates’ Tigers, but he’s exhibited great success in getting his teams to buy in early on, and the friendly confines of Mizzou Arena should push the home team to a win. Minnesota will be a tough out and another great measuring stick, but Mizzou will be a better overall team and should show it. Wichita State and Seton Hall will be physical, grind-it-out style of games, but I believe that this Tiger team will be very well-equipped to handle those kinds of matchups this season.

If we are counting Kansas as a loss, then the ideal and realistic expectation for Missouri’s record through non-conference play is 10-3. That’s the loss to kU, plus likely a road loss to either Minnesota or Pittsburgh, and then either a loss to Illinois or Memphis. That gets Mizzou through non-conference play with four Quad 1 or 2 victories, but even more importantly, no bad losses. The Tigers would not be ranked at 10-3, but their résumé would be in pretty good shape if that’s where they stood come January.

Of course, this will all depend on how quickly the transfers are able to adapt to the Gates system, as well as how this team is able to fill the void of Kobe Brown, a void that will be most prevalent early in the season.