In sports we hear and read a lot about team culture, and chemistry and identity. Another cliche is “playing for each other.” These words and terms are overused to the point of becoming trivial and redundant.

We don’t need to talk about these things as much as we do. Most of the time we know what’s going on just by watching the game. That’s when we can see it … or not see it. You know when a team has the right interpersonal traits. And you don’t need to be John Wooden to see a team that’s messed up with dysfunction.

I’ll use two fancy words here to apply to the respective performances of two college basketball teams that competed against each other in the annual rivalry game at Enterprise Center on a blustery Thursday night.

Missouri – Alchemy. Miraculous power of transmuting something common into something precious.

Illinois – Antipathy. Natural contrariety; incompatibility; repugnancy of qualities; as, oil and water have antipathy.

The latest Bragging Rights game was revealing.

After trailing by two points (12-10) early on. Missouri generated a rush of energy and rhythm to systematically disassemble and demoralize Illinois. The Tigers Illini by as many as 35 points and cruised to a surprisingly easy 93-71 victory.

Missouri was sublime in its unity and shared purpose. I’ll even get hokey and say that the Tigers were full of “team spirit.” Corny, yes. But also true.

Illinois was, well, none of that. This team tends to be icy, aloof, and individualistic. A form of jaundice is setting in, and Brad Underwood is one angry coach.

After his disjointed Illini squad was taken down hard by Penn State in a recent 15-point loss, Underwood was asked about the state of his team’s internal leadership. He cut off the question and made a farting sound into the microphone.

“That’s what I thought of that today,” he said.

After Thursday’s wipeout by Mizzou, Underwood blamed himself for the failure and identified the team’s most glaring shortcoming.

“This group doesn’t have my footprint yet,” Underwood said. “Toughness … toughness.”

The Illini has plenty of talent but lacks experience. Many of the players are new to each other … and it shows. The Illini offense often is the exact opposite of the proverbial well-oiled machine, and extensive scoring droughts are becoming routine. Illinois had been playing pretty well on the defensive end – with impressive metrics at KenPom – but struggled and largely failed to obstruct Missouri.

First-year Missouri coach Dennis Gates is smart, cool, confident and clearly capable of cultivating a smooth blend of his personnel. He’s also empowered his players to make important decisions on the floor instead of looking to him for instruction on every dribble.

Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports described it perfectly on Twitter after Thursday’s blow-out. “So impressed with Dennis Gates’ demeanor and temperament as a power conference head coach,” Rothstein wrote. “Never gets rattled. Always oozes belief. And has quickly built a sense of belief amongst his team.”

Gates has one of the most experienced teams in the nation. Several Mizzou players were teammates for Gates at Cleveland State and have helped install the coach’s belief system after making the move to Columbia.

Missouri isn’t 22 points better than Illinois, which entered the Missouri showdown ranked 19th nationally at KenPom and 16th in the AP poll. Missouri isn’t as good as it looked in thrashing Illinois, and the Illini aren’t as awful as they appeared to be during MU’s annihilation.

The difference?

Gates has made fast work of developing a team at Mizzou and creating a buzz at a program that’s been largely irrelevant for too many years.

Underwood is still searching for a team to materialize at Illinois. He’s flummoxed and frustrated by the process and has taken to criticizing his own coaching. He’s good. He’ll get his Illini going.

The Illini (8-4) have abundant skill that occasionally takes form to defeat name-brand opponents (UCLA, Texas, Syracuse.). But Underwood’s guys haven’t evolved into a true team.

After Mizzou was walloped by superior Kansas (95-67) at home on Dec. 10, the team didn’t splinter. Gates made the best of the rout by using it as a learning exercise. And the embarrassment of that beatdown seemingly has strengthened the Tigers. They responded by winning two in a row – defeating UCF by two points at the buzzer in a tough-minded triumph in Florida, then returning to the home state to whup Illinois.

“I thought our team was connected going into (this game),” Gates said after his first signature win at Mizzou. “I’m proud of our growth.”

The Tigers will have plenty of opportunities to prove there was nothing fluky about the pummeling of Illinois. (Not that it’s realistic or even rational to expect the Tigers to repeat the stunning mastery we witnessed Thursday.) Mizzou opens SEC play at home on Wednesday, when Kentucky comes in.

Missouri heated a frigid night in St. Louis by offering a scorching demonstration of remarkably good basketball.

Here were a few of my favorite things:

Kobe Brown scored 31 points, pulled five rebounds, distributed for eight assists, and pinched four steals. He led the Tigers in points, rebounds, assists and was tied for the team lead in steals. My goodness what a game.

When Brown was on the floor, the Tigers scored at least one point on 71.2 percent of their possessions. Brown finished with an offensive rating of 136.6, which means he’d score nearly 137 points per 100 possessions.

Guard D’Moi Hodge, who moves so well off the ball, scored 20 points on 61.5 percent shooting and had four steals. “I’m proud of Kobe for being able to have a breakout game, which was coming for him,” Gates said. “These two guys (Brown and Hodge) are elite players, they have a future and they will get their name called,” Gates said.

Mizzou had 13 steals, flipping Illinois for 17 turnovers overall and converting the disruptions into 33 points. Illinois scored only 10 points via turnover.

A big reason for MU’s 11-1 record is the ability to gain an edge in the number of offensive possessions by attacking for steals and causing turnovers. The Tigers rank No. 1 nationally in steal rate, swiping the ball on 17 percent of opponent possessions. And the Tigers have turned the opponent over on 26.5 percent of possessions, which ranks fourth in the nation.

Mizzou made 59.3 percent of their shots from the floor including 10 of 20 three-pointers. (Illinois shot 40 percent and made only 7 of 31 threes.)

Mizzou averaged 1.409 points per possession. Simply outstanding.

Mizzou scored on 42 of 66 possessions, an astonishing rate of 63.6 percent.

The Tigers had the lead for a total of 35 minutes and 23 seconds.

And Illinois was favored to win the game by 5.5 points.

I think we all expected a tight game.

Mizzou busted the point spread and the Illini.

What a night.

For now, I’ll leave it at this: Missouri showed us what they’re capable of, and we shouldn’t put limits on their potential for a surprisingly good season. I’m probably overreacting a little here, and that’s OK. But the perception of Missouri basketball improved over 40 minutes of excellence on Thursday. And that’s exciting for a program that has qualified for only two of the last eight NCAA NCAA Tournaments – and hasn’t won a game in the tournament since 2013, when Frank Haith was the coach. Three days before Christmas, Coach Gates and Mizzou gave us many gifts — all wrapped in hope.

Thanks for reading…

And I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

– Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at or the 590 app.

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