Does Mizzou have enough left to finish the race?

The beauty of college basketball is that you can afford some stumbles. It’s truly a marathon and not a sprint. But in the last few weeks of the season, it starts to feel like a sprint. And Missouri stumbled out of the starting blocks on Saturday night.

The Tigers lost to Texas A&M 69-60 in a game that wasn’t particularly competitive. Mizzou led for all of 92 seconds and was within single digits for only a handful of possessions in the second half. Every time you thought the home team’s run was about to start, it stopped.

That’s first a credit to the Aggies. They were an assumed NCAA Tournament team before the season. An 8-5 non-conference slate that featured losses to Murray State and Wofford and a 28-point thrashing by Colorado made most of us forget that. A&M has found its form in league play, sitting 12-2 after the win. Buzz Williams can coach his ass off and he’s proving it again.

We are now at what feels like the first crossroads of the Dennis Gates era. Is Missouri more the team we saw for the first 25 games of his tenure—you know, the one that just seven days ago overcame a four-point deficit in the final seven seconds to win a road game against the sixth-ranked team in the country—or is it the one we’ve seen the last two games, in which Missouri has led for a grand total of 92 seconds and has spent the vast majority of 80 minutes behind by double figures?

The truth, as it always is, is probably somewhere in between.

The Tigers overachieved through the season’s first 25 games. Let’s call it like it is. I spent most of those first three months saying that this team didn’t realize it wasn’t supposed to be this good. Blowing out Illinois and Kentucky in a week? Running Iowa State off the floor? Ridiculous. Hell, if I’d told you in the preseason this team would split with Arkansas, you’d have laughed at me. But they did all of those things. They busted through the ceiling we put on them and they ran their way to 19 wins in 25 games and everybody was asking how the hell they weren’t ranked.

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And then, in the last five days, they’ve come crashing back down to earth.

Getting beat at Auburn was easy to see coming. The (Missouri) Tigers were coming off the high of beating Tennessee on a half court buzzer beater. The (Auburn) Tigers had lost five of six and were in desperation mode. I wasn’t surprised Missouri lost that game and I wasn’t surprised it lost it by a lot (I didn’t really expect 33, but I digress).

Then the Aggies came to town and everybody knew this wasn’t a great matchup for Mizzou. First, A&M is now 12-2 in the SEC and they’ve left behind any memory of that team that stumbled its way through the non-conference season. This is a no doubt NCAA Tournament team and one that will find itself securely in the top 25 come Monday. But on top of that, the Aggies are a plodding, physical team. Missouri is not plodding. It is not physical. It does not do well with teams whose best offensive play is to throw the ball in the general direction of the rim and chase down the offensive rebound. So maybe A&M was just the worst possible team at the worst possible time.

You don’t throw out 25 games because of two games. But you don’t ignore the two either.

The first 25 games showed me that Missouri is an NCAA Tournament team. I think that remains true as long as they win at LSU (yeah, it’s a road game, but South Carolina just won there, so…) and you beat Ole Miss at home and then you either beat Mississippi State on Tuesday night or Georgia next Saturday. Do that and you’re dancing regardless of what happens at the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

The first 25 games also showed me that Missouri is a team that nobody’s really going to want to face in March. It’s very matchup dependent. They need to play a team that either wants to run with them or gets caught up in Missouri’s game and runs with them by accident. They need to take the ball away from their opponent and they need to make shots. When those things happen, the Tigers can beat anybody. They’ve proven it. Coming into Saturday, Missouri had five wins over ranked teams. Only Iowa State had more. Kansas and Kansas State picked up their sixth such wins on Saturday. But the Tigers have still beaten as many good teams as just about anybody. They also, for what it’s worth, haven’t lost to anybody that isn’t good. Texas A&M entered Saturday 31st in the NET, so for now, this is Missouri’s first non-quad-one loss of the season. That could change by tomorrow morning because the Aggies are likely to move up at least a spot into the top 30.

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But the last two games showed that Missouri is vulnerable. If they run up against a tough, physical team that keeps the game in the sixties, they’re probably going to lose. If the outside shots aren’t falling, they’re probably going to lose. If the other team isn’t willing to turn the ball over 15 times, they’re probably going to lose.

We might have gotten a little bit caught up in the joy and the fervor of having meaningful basketball at Mizzou again. We might have overlooked some of the deficiencies. The other teams scout too and they have coaches who make a lot of money and they might be finding better ways to exploit some of the Tigers’ weaknesses. This is still a roster that has holes—including at least one that has been created by reasons that remain unknown with Isaiah Mosley‘s absence—and has to find ways to patch over them.

For now, I’ll still believe more in what I saw over 25 games than what I’ve seen in the last two. I reserve the right to change my mind in 72 hours. Mizzou built up a big lead on the bubble in the first three-quarters of the race. But the stretch run isn’t over. The bubble’s gaining a little ground. The Tigers need to find that late kick to make sure they get to run the race that really matters four weeks from now.

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