Tigers look to end tourney drought, continue to connect to the past
SACRAMENTO, CA — Sixty-eight teams began the week with a chance to chase college basketball’s ultimate prize. By Friday night, half of them will have been stopped short of the first step.
That step for the Missouri Tigers takes place in Sacramento against Utah State at 10:40 local time on Thursday morning. It is the third game of the tournament’s first full day and by the end of it, the Tigers either will have their first NCAA Tournament win in 13 years or add another year to the clock and hope to end the streak at 14 next March.
There’s not a player on Missouri’s team who has an NCAA Tournament win on his resume. Kobe Brown is the only Tiger who was around two years ago when Mizzou lost to Oklahoma 72-68 in the COVID-bubble tournament in Indianapolis. As a sophomore, Brown had eight points and five rebounds in that game.
That same week, the Clemson Tigers lost to Rutgers 56-50 in the first round of the tournament. Nick Honor played 22 minutes off the bench for Clemson. He missed seven of his eight shots and scored two points without a rebound or an assist.
The rest of the Tigers’ tournament experience comes from Cleveland State’s 87-56 loss to Houston in that same year. D’Moi Hodge scored 11 points and Tre Gomillion six for the Cougars. Ben Sternberg and Mabor Majak each hit a pair of free throws late.
All together on Missouri’s rushed together first year roster under Dennis Gates, they’re obviously hoping to reverse the results from their prior tournament experience.
“We all made it here once,” Brown said. “None of us made it out of the first round. That's our biggest goal is to survive and advance.”
This year has already exceeded all reasonable expectations for the Tigers. They doubled their win total from a year ago, secured their highest conference finish and deepest run in the SEC tournament ever and have already won more games than in any single season since 2011-12. But a win on Thursday? That takes it to a new level.
Brown said he has frequently gotten direct messages from fans this season thanking him for what this team has already done.
“We've accomplished so much this season. To see, like, the difference in Columbia right now is crazy,” Brown said. “That means so much to them, we really want to go out here and get this win for them.
“Surviving in this tournament would be so big for them. For us, too.”
Some sort of streak is certain to end. Missouri hasn’t won a tournament game in 13 years. Utah State hasn’t won one in 22. It’s a clash of two coaches trying to rebuild programs that have some tradition, but haven’t been able to maintain it in recent years.
Ryan Odom is in his second season at the helm in Logan after coming over from Maryland-Baltimore County. He memorably has already been part of an historic upset in the NCAA Tournament. Five years ago Thursday, his UMBC squad became the only 16 seed ever to beat a No. 1 seed in the dance.
Gates is one of eight coaches to lead his new team to the NCAA Tournament. And it truly is a new team. Kobe Brown, Kaleb Brown and Ronnie DeGray are the only players back from last season’s squad. Only Kobe has played in a game since Valentine’s Day. The rest of the roster was imported, whether it was Aidan Shaw from high school or via the transfer portal.
“He checks all the boxes, the X's and O's, the player development, team bonding,” Tre Gomillion said of his coach, first at Cleveland State and now Mizzou. “He genuinely cares. Once he gets his guys to genuinely care, once off the court, I feel like on the court takes care of itself.”
Since the day he took the job—one week short of a year now—Gates has tried to connect this current Tiger team to the greats of the past. His press conferences frequently include listing off every coach the Tigers have had since the mid-1960s. He regularly tweets out tributes to great Tiger players of the past. Rather than downplay the tradition or try to distance himself from it, Gates has embraced his role as the man fans hope will again make Missouri basketball what it once was.
“Respect is instinctual,” he said. “I've respected everything I've done in my life. I've respected those that have come before me, no matter what age I was in, where I'm at, whatever endeavor I'm pursuing.”
He then—again—lists off all of those coaches and talks of picking their brains as he has gone through year one at Mizzou.
“We're all in a profession that has transition written all over it,” Gates said. “You don't have always a script. I'm thankful that the script of me calling them and thanking them and partnering with them, so to speak, saying simply, Thanks for allowing me to walk on the same sidelines as you once did.”
Gates also knows seasons are ultimately judged heavily on the month of March. This team, as Brown said, has already done so much. There are still many who are surprised to see them here. In fact, the Tigers are a two-point underdog to the lower seeded Aggies on Thursday.
“That's how we like it,” Gomillion said. “We wouldn't want it no different.”
The Aggies may wear the label of mid-major team, but it could apply in many ways to the Tigers as well. Gomillion, Hodge, Sternberg and Majak came from Cleveland State. Noah Carter was at Northern Iowa. Sean East played at Bradley and UMASS before going to junior college and Mohammed Diarra came from the juco ranks as well. Even Honor was at Fordham before transferring to Clemson.
“We've all been here before at those levels,” Honor said. “Even though we're at the high major level, we still have the mid-major chip on our shoulder because at the end of the day we're still underrated and slept on around the country. We don't get caught up in that too much. Utah State is a good team. Should be a good game.”
The last four months have been a prelude. Wednesday was for talking. Thursday morning at 10:40, Missouri will take the court looking to take one more step toward connecting to its past.
“Our fan base, they are the tradition that never leaves,” Gates said. "They showed up and supported these young people. I think that momentum allowed us to consistently give a level of effort but also a level of comfort in our home by representing what I thought was a great style that our fans were proud of. Whether they were near, whether they were far, whether they were in different countries, our logo has traveled and our fan base has done a great job of rallying around the success of our team, but also being there to support us.
“Ultimately man, I'm thankful to be here, we have nothing but respect for our opponent. May the best team win."
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