COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Dennis Gates has only spent one season at Missouri yet has a deep and profound respect for the history of the program.
When he's asked about the success he had turning around the Tigers, and leading them back to the NCAA Tournament, he talks first about his players. Then, Gates talks about the support of athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois, the joy felt by Missouri fans starved for a winner and even the coaches who came before him, from Norm Stewart to Cuonzo Martin.
Gates almost never talks about himself.
But the historian in him also knows this: The Tigers still have never been to a Final Four. And it eats at all those he mentioned.
“Is this year's team a Final Four team? I don't know,” Gates said, "but I guarantee you at some point we're going to act as if that is our destination. We're going to try to make sure everything that we do is for that reason.
“It's not for the stats. Not for anything else," he continued, “but to give us the best possible way to leave a legacy — a legacy that our fans believe in, and a legacy that I truly believe can happen.”
After last season, who could put a ceiling on Gates and the Tigers?
Nine players transferred away from a team that only won 12 games prior to his arrival, so the 43-year-old Gates needed to bring in nine of his own — along with freshman Aidan Shaw — just to fill his roster. Yet the team coalesced so quickly that it was in the Top 25 by the start of January, advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and finished with 25 wins.
"If we keep the momentum going in that direction, the sky’s the limit," Gates said. “I just don’t know when that will happen. Our schedule is hard. It’s difficult this season. There’s going to be ups and downs. I just ask for the consistency that we had last year from our players and from those that touched our program to be there for us during the ups and downs.”
The Tigers had to restock again this past offseason after two players transferred, four graduated and two — D'Moi Hodge and Kobe Brown — signed contracts with NBA teams. Unlike last year, when Gates needed immediate help through the portal, the group he brought in this season is a mix of six transfers and five freshmen.
The Tigers will have perhaps their biggest interior presence ever after the arrival of well-traveled Connor Vanover, the 7-foot-5 center who spent last year at Oral Roberts. Vanover began his career at Cal before spending two seasons at Arkansas and this past season helping the Golden Eagles go 30-5 and reach the NCAA Tournament.
Caleb Grill hopes that a fresh start and lead to a fulfilling conclusion to his college basketball career. He began at Iowa State, transferred to play for T.J. Otzelberger at UNLV, then followed him back to Iowa State for the past two seasons. But the talented sharp-shooter struggled last season to deal to deal with a substantial back injury and the death of a friend, exacerbating some mental health issues that Grill had been dealing with all season. He was dismissed from the program in March.
Grill committed to Missouri on May 1 and brings both a hard-nosed defensive attitude and the ability to score in bunches. He hit seven 3-pointers and scored 31 points in a game against North Carolina last season.
The first name that Gates has been mentioning when talking about the upcoming season has been Kaleb Brown, whose older brother Kobe was such an integral part to last season's turnaround. The younger Brown only appeared in 11 games, and played sparingly in those, yet he chose to remain at Missouri after initially putting his name in the transfer portal.
“It’s easy to transfer in today’s climate. It’s more popular to be a transfer than it is to be a guy that goes through a process,” Gates said. “I’m excited about what he’s done, what he’s able to do. From a basketball standpoint, I’ve seen him make more shots from behind the arc, and having a positive assist-to-turnover ratio in practice and rebounding. I think it’s all slowing down for him.”
Missouri begins the season Nov. 6 against Arkansas-Pine Bluff before a tough game against Memphis four days later. The Tigers also face Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Seton Hall during their non-conference slate before their two most important rivalry games: at top-ranked Kansas on Dec. 9 and against No. 22 Illinois on Dec. 22 in St. Louis.
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