Mizzou Basketball: Will the Tigers respond to adversity in Florida?

I’m going to begin this post about American college basketball by first talking about English soccer. Engage your Ted Lasso brain and bear with me.

I follow Arsenal in the English Premier League, and the Gunners — the EPL’s youngest team with the second youngest manager in 2022-2023 — currently sit top of the table. If they hold out, it’d be the first time they will have won the league since 2003-2004. Times have been tough around AFC, especially for a club with such a storied history. Without getting too specific, I’ll just say they’re owned by the Kroenkes (gag) and spent last season with no competitive European football, the first time that has happened in nearly three decades.

Over the past few seasons, as the club has steadily grown through youth and savvy transfer pickups, one of the key barometers in how analysts have measured their success has been how they respond to adversity. Not how they play the best of the best, not how badly they beat up on the scrubs. No, what tells experts most about a team is how they pick themselves up and move forward.

For instance, the Gunners went into the final three games of this past season in prime position to secure Champions League football, the tournament where the best teams in Europe compete. They responded to the challenge by getting outclassed against their rival Tottenham on the road before no-showing in a second consecutive road game and losing out on their spot to gain Champions League access.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Arsenal this week, and not just because they’re facing Tottenham again this weekend. No, I started thinking about them a lot on Wednesday, after I watched Mizzou get thoroughly worked in College Station by a Texas A&M team that, while pretty good, certainly isn’t “20 points better than Mizzou” good. I thought about how Mizzou’s first season under Dennis Gates felt a bit like a dream. If you excuse the Border War debacle as a brief foray into nightmare territory, everything else feels a little too good to be true, a return to relevance that wasn’t supposed to happen for at least another season. Even in the Arkansas loss, you could see the hallmarks of a good team simply losing to a better team, which could’ve happened on any given night.

Truthfully, Wednesday night’s Aggie-led ass-kicking felt like the first cold bucket of water on this dream season thus far. Buzz Williams scouting report be damned, Mizzou looked like a team that wasn’t ready for the moment. And they were dismantled because of it.

How they respond on Saturday could provide more insight than any other game they’ve played this season.

This isn’t me saying, “Mizzou needs to win to keep his NCAA Tournament hopes alive.” Mizzou would probably be still on the safe side of the bubble even with a loss. But should the Tigers move to 2-3 in conference play, things start to feel a little sweaty. Three of the Tigers’ next four opponents are currently ranked in the top 15, and the fourth game comes on the road… where Mizzou has yet to win in SEC competition.

There’s a lot of opportunity to stack the resume — especially with the Kentucky win feeling more and more like filler than a true token — but there’s also the thinnest of margins. Walk away from that stretch 1-3 and suddenly you’re looking at 3-6 in conference play with a neutral site win over Illinois as maybe your best of the season. Is that good enough for the committee? Depends on how you feel about the strength of the Big Ten, I suppose. But for the first time this season, it’s easy to see where doubt could start creeping into the fanbase and the locker room.

To me, it’s more important that Missouri responds by playing like they have all season. The frenetic pace, the ball control, the clinical shooting — none of it made the trip to College Station. Was that the product of a bad night? Did Buzz Williams publish the book on Mizzou? Are the Tigers’ defensive struggles starting to catch up with them? All of these are questions that could be answered by (a) winning but more importantly (b) responding well. It’s one thing to lose a back-and-forth game with a talented team who also happens to play well. It’s another to get run out of a second consecutive gym looking nothing like the team you’ve been all season long.

So before I turn my thoughts to Sunday’s North London Derby, I’ll first be watching closely to see if Mizzou and Dennis Gates can avoid the same fate that befell my Gunners last year. When adversity struck, they crumpled and lost a potential return to prominence in the process.

I’m cautiously optimistic the same won’t happen to Mizzou. If it does, it’ll be hard to avoid the feeling that I’ve seen this story play out before.

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