Coaches will tell you that a perfect game does not exist. And realistically they’re right. You can always find something you could have done better. But after a 93-71 win over Illinois on Thursday night, Dennis Gates is going to have to look pretty damn hard. Or so you’d think.
“No, we didn’t play well. I’m serious,” Gates said. “For the full 40 minutes we did not play well…There are small things that you may not see with the naked eye that we did not execute.”
I got it, coach. You’re trying to keep your guys grounded. You’re never as good as your best day or as bad as your worst, you don’t believe your critics or your fans, all that stuff. So I understand what Gates has to say. But to my untrained eye, the Tigers were pretty damn good. Illinois coach Brad Underwood thought so too.
“Tons of credit to Missouri,” Underwood said. “I was horrible as a coach getting these guys prepared. They out toughed us, they outfought us, they took our ball. Kobe (Brown) was no doubt the best player on the floor in this game. Again.”
The Tigers won this one in the first half. They led 51-27 after 20 minutes. They were shooting 58.8%, including making 16 of their final 23 shots. They held Illinois to 31.2%, including a stretch of more than eight minutes without a basket. Missouri made 6-of-13 threes, Illinois 1-of-15. The Tigers scored 19 points off nine Illinois turnovers (yes, that’s more than two points every time Illinois turned it over), the Illini didn’t get a single point off just two Mizzou miscues.
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It was as close to perfect as a half of basketball can be. And then it got even better. At the under 16 timeout of the second half, Missouri led by 30.
Then it got a little better than that. Tre Gomillion dunked twice. Nick Honor went chest to chest with Terrence Shannon. Mizzou led by 35.
Somewhere in those first 28 minutes, Mizzou redefined what it could be.
The NCAA Tournament is no longer a dream, it is a goal. And it is a realistic goal. The Tigers are 11-1. The only loss is to fourth-ranked Kansas. But they just countered it with a 22-point win over a team that came into the game ranked 16th and had already beaten Texas when the Longhorns were ranked No. 2.
Is Illinois struggling right now? Sure. Underwood hasn’t been happy with his team for a couple weeks and they might fall out of the top 25 next week. But that doesn’t matter. This night wasn’t about Illinois. This was about Missouri and a basketball renaissance that is ahead of schedule by a whole hell of a lot right now.
The Tigers had never beaten Illinois by more than 18 points in this matchup. They led by nearly double that at one point and set a new Braggin’ Rights standard for margin of victory. Brown had a career-high in points (31) and assists (8) and tied his career high in steals (4). D’Moi Hodge looked like a player that should have been in the SEC straight out of high school rather than having to take detours to prove himself at the State College of Florida and Cleveland State first. Honor went toe-to-toe and face-to-face with any member of the Illini interested in challenging him.
Missouri is almost certainly not a top 15 team in America. Not night in and night out. But Thursday showed that it can be on the right night. Because this effort might not have beaten Kansas, but it would have been a whole lot more competitive. The ceiling for this group is much higher than we thought it was a few hours ago.
For the first nine games of this season, Mizzou fans had cautious optimism. Sure, they’re better than they were last year, but that’s a low bar. But now? After Thursday night? Now we wonder how good they can be.
They are 3-0 in neutral court games. They have a win over a ranked team. They are the country’s fourth-highest scoring team. They are fourth in effective field goal percentage, third in transition scoring and 15th in assist-to-turnover ratio.
And, don’t look now, but they might actually be capable of playing defense.
Missouri has 11 wins with 20 games guaranteed to go. If the Tigers can win half of them, they’ll almost certainly be in the NCAA Tournament. And it might not take that much.
Is it too early to start counting down towards tournament eligibility? On one hand, of course it is. We are about a third of the way through the season. But for a team that has made just two tournaments in the last nine seasons and hasn’t won a game in the Dance in 4,661 days, hell no it’s not too soon. Put up a cutout of Kim Anderson and rip a piece off with every win, Major League style. Well, on second thought, maybe don’t actually do that.
People are starting to take notice. Missouri jumped to 43rd in KenPom, up 16 spots from where it stood after beating UCF on Saturday and certified right side of the bubble territory. The NET rankings won’t be updated until the morning, but the Tigers’ first Quad 1 win of the season is sure to move them up from 65 there too. Nationally, those who follow basketball took notice.
Again, not that Gates cares.
“I don’t read Twitter like that. I just run our program as a CEO the best way I can,” he said. “I don’t do things for the opinions.
“I’m proud of our growth.”
Gates stressed that this team has to improve. He chided Hodge sitting on one side of him for missing too many free throws. He told Brown he still wasn’t impressed enough with the senior’s leadership. He made it clear that no matter how merry his team might have made Christmas for Mizzou fans, his team isn’t where he wants it to be.
“We haven’t played well yet,” he said. “I’m expecting more.”
More would be great. But even just more of this would be pretty good. Certainly enough to keep us all interested into early March. And that’s something we haven’t been able to say often enough lately.
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