The all too familiar feeling is back. Mizzou Basketball is in the middle of the SEC season and nobody is paying attention to them.
After dropping another SEC game, this time to Mississippi State by an ugly score of 75-51, the wind is officially out of the sails for Mizzou Hoops. Everything has gone wrong for Dennis Gates’ and his squad. The injuries have piled up, the close games losses, the poor shooting luck. And all of it came to a head last night against a Bulldogs team in need of a win to keep their tournament hopes alive. And boy did they.
After a bumpy first half the State defense turned up the heat and Missouri managed just 8 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half. Four of those points came via the free throw line. By that point the lead had ballooned to 20 points and the game was virtually over.
Meanwhile, in Columbia, Missouri is just trying to get to the end of the season. You can see the effort is still there. They fight. They scrap. But the scoring options are few, and it really looked like the usage and minutes reached an apex for Tamar Bates and Nick Honor last night. Playing without Sean East for the second straight game it was evident the legs were wobbly.
A few weeks ago Dennis Gates said it himself, nobody is going to feel sorry for them. Nearly every team in the SEC is fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid, which means they can’t afford to take Missouri lightly. And when the threat of losing to Mizzou has been reduced to “Nick Honor and Tamar Bates go nuts and get help” it’s not hard to set up a game plan to make sure you come away with a win.
Which is, unfortunately, where we are right now.
If you want to feel skeptical about Dennis Gates, I can’t blame you. This is familiar territory. For the better part of the last 10 years it’s been like this. Five seasons have seen the Missouri Tigers finish outside of the top 100 in KenPom.com’s rankings and six seasons have seen the Tigers play on the dreaded Wednesday play-in for the SEC Tournament.
Not every bad season can be chalked up to a host of DNPs, just as not every bad season can be thrust upon a really good league. The SEC has had its own share of ups and downs. But this season is the culmination of all of those things.
With hindsight, the roster construction left something to be desired. But Dennis Gates is still the same coach people fell in love with last year, and he’s got this top 5 class coming in. Next year isn’t a year where Gates is on the hot seat. For one, the Athletic Director who hired him and believes in him is still in the same seat. He’s also recruiting really well. On top of the elite 2024 recruiting class, Gates already has a commitment from elite 2025 point guard Aaron Rowe. And for people whose memories need refreshing, it wasn’t that long ago where we were questioning the direction of the program under Eli Drinkwitz.
We’re in an unprecedented era for college sports. Name, Image, and Likeness rights coupled with the transfer portal has turned everything on its head. Matt Watkins has spent the last three weeks looking in depth at the model Gates is attempting to install at Mizzou.
But nobody knows if it will really work. Maybe it won’t. Winning at a high level is actually really hard. You can look around the sport and see a lot of good coaches who are having crap seasons. The last coach to go 0-18 in the SEC, Bryce Drew, is currently 22-2 and gunning for his third NCAA Tournament at Grand Canyon. Juwan Howard finished his second season at Michigan in the Elite 8 and with a #3 ranking in KenPom. Michigan is now 8-16 and 104th in KenPom. Chris Holtmann, once the darling at Butler is hanging on for dear life at Ohio State. Georgetown’s reboot under Ed Cooley has them 184th in KenPom and 1-11 in league play. Jim Larrañaga was in the Final Four last year, they added elite pieces in the transfer portal and are barely hanging onto .500 in a watered down ACC. These are all good coaches who are having tough seasons.
Maybe the people who say Gates is a fraud are right. I tend to think they’re wrong, but everything is all on the table at this point. I’m not afraid to admit when I was wrong about something. I find Gates to be really smart and inventive, but he’s also a young head coach. He’s in a similar spot that Eli Drinkwitz was in a few years ago, recruiting well but not winning. Football and Basketball are greatly different since one or two players can really turn the tide in Hoops. Last year Gates had the benefit of a 1st round draft pick on his roster. This year he’s missing three starters.
It’s a lost season. But the transfer portal opens in 35 days, and with it a chance to change your fortunes. Mizzou doesn’t need whole sale changes because those are already lined up. The five man recruiting class itself will inject some life. But there’s (a lot of) work to be done.