COLUMBIA, Mo. — Sure, Missouri had enough talent and depth to clobber the likes of Southern Indiana, Houston Christian and Penn, but the true test for rookie coach Dennis Gates and his crew of 20-something roster vagabonds would come during a five-game stretch over 26 days. Between Dec. 10 and Jan. 4, the Tigers would face the likes of national champion Kansas, followed by high-major heavyweights Illinois, Kentucky and Arkansas, plus a neutral-site game against sneaky competent UCF.
Two wins out of five probably would have satisfied most Mizzou fans.
But now it’s officially time to raise expectations for Gates and his Tigers.
In front of a sold-out Mizzou Arena, Wednesday’s 89-75 shellacking of No. 19 Kentucky, the Southeastern Conference preseason favorite, was Mizzou’s third straight win since its 28-point loss to Kansas — and the second straight emphatic victory over a nationally ranked foe. Following last Thursday’s 93-71 Braggin’ Rights annihilation of Illinois, the Tigers (12-1, 1-0 SEC) have beaten ranked opponents in consecutive games for the first time since the 2009 NCAA Tournament. Mizzou hasn’t toppled ranked foes in back-to-back regular season games since the start of the 2001-02 season.
That year, Gates was a senior guard at Cal while star player Kobe Brown was barely out of diapers.
But here they are more than 20 years later guiding the Tigers back to relevance and, perhaps, prominence. With three months left in the regular season, Mizzou matched last season’s win total with Wednesday’s victory.
“Look, Missouri would have beat a whole lot of teams the way they played tonight,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And they beat us pretty good.”
So good, Mizzou’s 89 points were the most allowed by Kentucky in an SEC game under Calipari, now in his 14th season at UK.
Just like the Illinois game, Brown had his fingerprints all over this win with his game-high 30 points, becoming just the ninth Mizzou player in the last 50 years to score 30 in consecutive games. But on a night when Missouri started fast and finished strong, they needed a spark off the bench to keep the Cats at bay.
That came from backup guard Sean East II, who scored all 12 of his points in the first half, seven coming in a row during a critical 68-second blur.
Ten minutes into the first half, East’s layup and free throw snapped a string of eight scoreless possessions for the Tigers. He followed with a floater in transition, plus a couple free throws for his seven straight points, giving MU its biggest lead at that point, 24-13. Before the intermission, he added a 3-pointer from the wing and a layup through traffic, staking Mizzou to a 42-30 halftime lead.
“Sean was a beast,” Gates said, sitting alongside East and Brown.
As brilliant as Brown’s been lately — against Illinois and Kentucky, he scored 61 points on just 33 shots, including 7 of 12 from 3-point range — East’s first half epitomizes Gates’ collection of misfit parts, newcomers mostly from mid-major conference programs who have come together in this roster experiment to create an instant success story. On any given night, any of them is capable of stuffing the box score.
For a stretch Wednesday, that was East, 23, last year’s national junior college player of the year who’s on his fourth college roster. On this team, he’s embraced a backup role and found ways to impact games with his offense.
“We’re all pretty much dogs,” East said. “We grind every day. … It's just in us, and it's been built in us since we got here. We’ve just been playing our hearts out and getting lost in the fight.”
Gates called the first game after Christmas the toughest on the schedule, regardless of opponent, because "when you get back to your families, now you hear how bad your head coach is from your uncle or cousins or why you're not playing."
"So," he added, "we meet those things head-on."
That's why Gates came away so impressed with East on Wednesday. He hasn't started this season. His minutes can be sporadic. He only played six in the second half. But his scoring surge in the first half was invaluable.
“Sean gives me so much grace, and you’ve got to have that,” Gates said. “I'm saying this because he scores seven … straight points, and I couldn't find a gap to put him in (the game) in the second half. But he coached his behind off, and he gave me suggestions. He's patient with me. And when you have guys like that, who are gratified by the success of the team over the success of the individual selves, it’s outstanding. And it's a part of his character.”
“It's about us,” Gates added. “Not I.”
Just like last Dec. 22 in St. Louis, Mizzou erupted out of the locker room, surging to a 17-7 lead through the first six minutes. The Tigers hit five straight shots in the opening minutes and three of their first four 3-pointers.
Also like the Illinois game, the Tigers floated between their man and zone defense and stifled Calipari’s ball-handlers with pressure in the backcourt. Kentucky (8-4, 0-1) came into Wednesday’s game ranked No. 8 nationally in 3-point shooting, making 39.9%. But the Cats missed nine of their first 10 shots from behind the 3-point arc and finished 8 of 23 from deep.
Instead, it was the Tigers making huge 3s. Eight minutes into the second half, D’Moi Hodge lifted the Tigers out of a shooting funk with a transition 3-pointer, extending MU’s lead to 61-47. With 5:25 left, Brown missed a 3 from the wing but drew a foul from Kentucky All-American Oscar Tshiebwe, the big man’s third, and sank all three of his free throws for an 81-61 lead.
Tshiebwe, the reigning national player of the year, led UK with 23 points and 18 rebounds, but the Tigers minimized the damage from UK’s other scoring threats. Star freshman Cason Wallace scored 19 but got off to a sluggish start.
Mizzou was the more physical team from tip-off to final buzzer and routinely yanked the ball loose from Kentucky’s players, finishing with nine steals. Freshman Aidan Shaw, sporting a new hairstyle, barely got off the bench last Thursday against Illinois but played a big role in Mizzou’s dominant first half. Midway through the half, Shaw went after a defensive rebound against Tshiebwe and wrestled with the All-American for the ball all the way over to Mizzou’s bench, where the officials called a jump ball. UK had the possession arrow, but Shaw’s toughness against the country’s best rebounder won over the crowd and set the tone for the rest of the night.
“They have played physical most of the year,” Calipari said. “They're gonna bump and grind. They’re older. We had a couple guys that when the game got physical, they couldn't be in there.”
Nobody’s questioning Brown’s toughness these days. He became Mizzou’s first player since Thomas Gardner in 2005-06 to score 30 points in two straight games and joined the likes of all-time greats Anthony Peeler, Doug Smith, Derrick Chievous and Willie Smith to pull off the 30-30 back-to-back.
“He was difficult last year for us to stop,” Calipari said. “And what he's added is now you’ve got to space out on him because he can make 3s.”
Speaking of Calipari, the Tigers’ newfound success against ranked teams came full circle Wednesday: The last time Mizzou beat two straight ranked opponents — during the 2009 run to the Elite Eight — the opposing coaches were Marquette’s Buzz Williams … and Memphis’ Calipari.
This time, the dean of the SEC, came away thoroughly impressed with Mizzou's first-year counterpart.
"You gotta give (Missouri) credit," he said. "That was what they did to us."