Welcome to Mizzou Arena, Kentucky.
Welcome to the Gates of Hell.
As in the Dennis Gates of Hell.
In a frolicsome, joyous Wednesday night in CoMo, Missouri left visiting Kentucky thunderstruck with an 89-75 thrashing that turned into an unofficial celebration of a new era of basketball under the dynamic first-year coach Gates. The Tigers’ performance was so thoroughly impressive, it inspired ESPN’s Dick Vitale to go on Twitter after the game to call Gates “a rising star.”
It was a high-energy evening for Mizzou: on the court, and in the stands. An arena that’s been as cold as a morgue for way too long is suddenly a madhouse: alive and clamorous with a whirlwind of activity. Missouri’s home venue has gone from a depressingly sterile place to be avoided, to a colorfully festive place to be.
The recent home invasion by perennial national power Kansas didn’t change that. The arena was packed for that one, filled with Mizzou fans that felt passion for hoops again. Missouri absorbed the whacking and used the experience to get stronger.
“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,” Gates told the media after defeating Kentucky. “I thought we had a great atmosphere. Again, our fans did a wonderful job. We just didn’t give them enough (vs. Kansas) and I thought we could see a gap-free game tonight where guys were able to get lost in a fight.”
Yes. The Tigers have won three in a row. They got out of a jam down in Florida, escaping UCF with a 40-foot winning shot at the buzzer. They traveled to downtown St. Louis to give rival Illinois – at the time ranked No. 16 at KenPom – a 22-point flogging. And then came the topper, a 14-point conquest of a Kentucky team that came in as the No. 10 team in the KenPom ratings.
The back-to-back takedowns of the Illini and the Wildcats weren’t a fluky little run of luck by a feisty underdog. Please excuse my salty language, but Missouri kicked ass all over court to overpower Illinois and Kentucky and leave both opponents flabbergasted.
Missouri led Illinois for 35 minutes and 23 seconds during the 40-minute game, then turned it up a notch by leading Kentucky for 38:51. Is that good?
Combining the wins over Illinois and Kentucky, Missouri scored on 60.5 percent of its offensive possessions, made 54.3% of the shots from the floor, hit 44.4% of its three-pointers, scored 35 points on fastbreaks and came up with 22 steals as part of 31 turnovers that led to 47 points.
Kobe Brown disassembled Illinois for 31 points, then followed with 30 against Kentucky. In the two break-out performances Brown hit 60.6 percent of his shots including 7 of 12 from 3-point range. He also gathered 11 rebounds, assisted on 10 basketballs, and snatched six steals. Mizzou outscored the Illini and Wildcats by 37 points with Brown on the floor and hunting for points and big plays at both ends.
Missouri is 12-1 on the season. Missouri has made basketball fun again. The entertainment value is especially meaningful given the rot of the previous eight seasons that produced a woeful .420 winning percentage and an excess of dull, incoherent and largely unwatchable offense that made your eyes burn.
The MU teams coached by Kim Anderson and Cuonzo Martin rarely seemed happy, lacked leadership on the court, and dragged fans and each other into a slog. The precious moments were few. Two of Martin’s teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament but didn’t last more than a game. Mizzou’s last NCAA Tournament game came in 2013.
Mizzou’s 40-Minute Gates of Hell style has the faithful fired up. I don’t know how Gates has cultivated a true team ethos in such a short time, but let’s just go ahead and say that director of athletics Desiree Reed-Francois hired a helluva coach. Gates is just what this program needed. Just look at his eyes and stoic focus during games; the serious knowledge runs deep. I don’t think we’ll see Gates show up at a post-game news conference with a Star Wars lightsaber in hand.
With Gates displaying an impressive instinct for when and how to mix his talent, Missouri has used nine players that have averaged 30% of the overall minutes played – and 10 that have averaged 25.5% of the overall minutes. And all are pleased with the time-share arrangement. This is an unselfish group of players that put the team’s goals ahead of individual ego.
“We’re just, like I always say, a bunch of guys that love each other and just like to play basketball,” Kobe Brown told reporters after Wednesday’s win. “So whenever you have that in a program, it’s big time. It makes things easy.”
Missouri tuckered out Illinois and Kentucky with a sprinting, up-tempo pace on offense. They thrived in transition. This is what we’ve come to expect from a Mizzou attack that ranks 24th in the nation for shortest average time of possession.
On defense MU has pressed and trapped and caused considerable discomfort. The Tigers flustered ILL and KY with an aggressive, quick-twitch defense that forms herds around the ball.
The strategy is sharp. It works. The energy is off the charts. The collective attitude is a coach’s dream. This explains why, per KenPom, the Tigers are No. 2 in the nation in offensive efficiency, No. 2 in effective field goal percentage, 27th in assists made per basket, No. 1 in defensive steal percentage, 6th in defensive turnover percentage, and 40th in bench minutes.
Brown, D’Moi Hodge, DeAndre Gholston, Noah Carter, Sean East and Nick Honor have performed above average this season in the KenPom Offensive Ratings. Brown, Hodge and Honor are each ranked among the top 62 players in the nation in effective field-goal percentage.
And then there is Gates. When Kentucky made a second-half move to reduce MU’s lead to nine points, the coach switched his Tigers into a zone defense. Kentucky sputtered, and Missouri needed less than two minutes of game clock to push the lead to 17.
“He’s done a great job,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of Gates. “What he’s done is he’s put in a formula that this team, this is how they will succeed, the way they’re playing.”
Pardon my overreaction and/or hyperbole, but the decibel level and heated atmosphere inside the Mizzou Arena on Wednesday reminded me of the best of the Norm Stewart days as coach during the Hearnes Center Era.
It’s a long season, and there will be slips and slides for the Tigers. They’ll face an immense road test at Arkansas next Wednesday. But Gates has quickly delivered a team worthy of affection and admiration. The coach and his players have made fans care about Mizzou basketball again. And excited fans are coming back to the arena to enjoy this Gates of Hell basketball.
Thanks for reading …
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 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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