Commentary: The time is now; Mizzou hoops is fun again
You might want to go ahead and get your tickets now, Mizzou fans. There’s about to be a run. What we’ve got here is a legitimately fun basketball team. And a legitimately good one to boot.
Seventeen days ago, the Tigers played their first big game. And let’s be honest, they looked completely unprepared for the moment nearly from the jump in a 95-67 loss to Kansas.
Memo: This team is scared of nothing now.
That's the main takeaway from a 89-75 win over Kentucky. The Tigers will lose some games. They are far from perfect. But they’ll back down from absolutely nothing.
Was that a lesson learned in the Kansas game or is it who they are?
“It's only a loss if you allow things afterward to not be corrected. It's only a loss if you don't learn from the situation,” head coach Dennis Gates said Wednesday in reflection. “I thought we had a great atmosphere. Again, our fans did a wonderful job. We just didn't give them enough and I thought we could see a gap free game tonight where guys were able to get lost in a fight.”
I'm not sure it was much of a fight. But whatever fight there was, Missouri was ready.
Since that loss to Kansas, the Tigers have beaten UCF on a 40-footer at the buzzer, humiliated Illinois in St. Louis and stood toe-to-toe with a Kentucky that might not be vintage Kentucky, but still boasts the national player of the year, the best point guard in the SEC and three extra value meals worth of prep all-Americans.
But here is Kobe Brown, just two weeks removed from Missouri fans asking why he always disappeared in big games, playing like the 1/18th pole SEC Player of the Year, draining threes—and posing after he does so—and bullying his way down around the trees for 30 points and six rebounds.
Over there is D’Moi Hodge, who does not use the words “bad” and “shot” in the same sentence and if he ever had a shred of conscience on a basketball court, left it at one of his stops between the British Virgin Islands and State College of Florida and Cleveland State and Columbia. He was 6-for-12 from the floor for 15 points including a dagger three that halted a potential Kentucky run around the 14-minute mark of the second half.
Out there is point guard Nick Honor, the smallest man on the court. He takes only three shots and misses them all. But he grabs perhaps the biggest offensive rebound of the game leading to a Kobe Brown three and spends the rest of the night throwing passes to dudes nobody else sees.
Here is Tre Gomillion, a guy who spent three years averaging 9.6 points a game at Cleveland State and looks as likely to be offering you advice on which model Harley Davidson you should buy as dunking in an SEC basketball game, doing the latter while playing the role of heart and soul of this team.
Perhaps the most emblematic play, the sign that this Missouri team truly doesn’t care who you are or how good you are supposed to be, came from a freshman who didn’t score.
With 5:53 to go in the first half and Mizzou leading 27-16, defending national player of the year Oscar Tschiebwe grabbed an offensive rebound. This was not unremarkable as Tschiebwe finished with 19 boards, nine of them on the offensive end.
But Tiger freshman Aidan Shaw came flying in, wrapped both hands around the ball and refused to let go. Tschiebwe wrestled and Shaw hung on. The whistle blew and Shaw hung on. The duo spun toward the Mizzou bench and Shaw hung on. Eventually, the wiry freshman came out with the ball even though the possession arrow had long ago dictated it would belong to Kentucky. A standing ovation from the sellout crowd for Shaw immediately turned into a chorus of 15,000 boos for the possession arrow.
“We expect it from him,” Sean East said. “I don’t know about you guys, but we don’t want him to back down.”
The message was sent: Missouri wasn’t backing down. Not even the youngest player on the roster against the most storied program in college basketball.
"Our biggest opponent is ourselves," Gates said. "We don’t focus on the other team as much."
The Tigers are here to fight for 40 minutes. They may not always win the fight, but they’re going to send you home bloodied and exhausted if they lose.
“Missouri would have beat a whole lot of teams the way they played tonight and they beat us pretty good,” Kentucky boss John Calipari said. “That was what they did to us.”
Gates told us this is what he wanted. Early in the year he said he’d pull a player for not shooting. He wanted aggression for 40 minutes. It just wasn’t realistic--at least for me--to expect it to happen so quickly.
“We all pretty much dogs,” East said. “We’ve been here for about six months, in the gym, on football fields. It’s in us and it’s been built in us since we got here.”
Don’t sit and wait for more proof. This team has given it to you. They have beaten back-to-back ranked teams by a combined 36 points. They trailed for a total of 101 seconds in those games. They are a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. And bottom line, they’re just fun as hell to watch.
Don’t make them earn your heart. Give it over with both hands.
Outside of a blip here and there, you’ve been begging for this type of basketball for close to a decade. Maybe your dreams will go unfulfilled. Maybe your heart gets broken. But buying in is what makes it fun. Without the risk of being rejected, you can’t feel the joy of being accepted.
Buy in. It’s time. Missouri has earned that.