Four months into Dennis Gates tenure as the new men’s basketball head coach at the University of Missouri, he seems to be passing every test.
He convinced four-star Blue Valley High recruit Aidan Shaw to recommit to the Tigers. Added Missouri State scorer Isiaih Mosley as one of six transfers. And then he landed a top-100 talent in four-star forward Trent Pierce as the first big prize of MU’s 2023 recruiting class.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Gates was known for landing big-time recruits as an assistant coach under Leonard Hamilton at Florida State. He’s set a similarly high bar with the Tigers, reaching out to and offering many top recruits that Mizzou predecessor Cuonzo Martin might not have given a second look.
Offseason wins, however, will mean nothing when the Tigers step foot on the court. Missouri fans who’ve experienced just two NCAA Tournaments in the past nine years might not have much patience for Gates to get back to March Madness — nor should they, considering the quick turnaround he engineered at Cleveland State.
So what is Gates’ reputation as an X’s-and-O’s coach? Can he get his newly constructed roster to produce? An analysis of his 2019-22 seasons at Cleveland State offers some clues.
Finding the right offense
When Gates took over at Cleveland State in 2019, he faced a formidable challenge: The Vikings had ranked 340th of 358 teams in offensive rating the previous season, according to KenPom.
Gates was hired at the end of July, late in the offseason. He nevertheless led Cleveland State to slight improvement in his first year: The Vikings improved to 329th in the above metric.
More concerning was the way in which his offense struggled. The shooting talent just wasn’t there. The Vikings ranked a dismal 347th in effective field-goal percentage, 353rd in three-point shots attempted.
Missed threes led to, and coincided with, clogged paint and poor spacing. For Gates’ motion offense, which emphasizes off-ball movement and pick-and-rolls, the opponents’ lack of respect for the three wasn’t exactly ideal.
Take two games against conference rival Youngstown State this past January. In the first, Cleveland State beat the Penguins in overtime but shot just 5 of 22 from three-point range.
In the rematch two weeks later, Youngstown State said off Cleveland State’s shooters. On one play in particular, forward Torrey Patton passed up an open three in transition and had to convert a tough and-one finish around a multitude of defenders in the paint.
It’s tough to score that way. The Vikings missed their first six three-point attempts and scored just nine points in the first 8 minutes, 43 seconds of the game.
At that point, Gates made a four-man substitution to put some better shooters onto the court. The Vikings drained their next three three-pointers not only by making shots, but also by getting better shots: The sets Cleveland State ran with that new personnel on the floor were much crisper with better shooters out there.
On one play, the Vikings’ initial set to double-screen a moving off-ball shooter was defended well, but then the defense lagged a step behind on the secondary action. When Cleveland State forward Chris Greene set up for a three, the defender bit on the pump-fake and Greene calmly splashed in the shot.
That may be the key for Gates’ offense at MU: In his three seasons at Cleveland State, the Vikings were never so much as an average three-point shooting team and always shot a below-average number of threes. But they got to the free-throw line and pulled down offensive rebounds at an above-average rate.
By the time his state ended in Cleveland, Gates had managed to bring up the team’s offensive rating (from 329th to 206th in 2020-21 and 167th in 2021-22) by getting higher-quality shots through more ball movement. The Vikings ranked 16th in assist rate last season; their creativity on offense and increased comfort within Gates’ system were apparent.
Taking risks on defense
If one word describes Gates’ defense at Cleveland State, it’s aggressive.
The Vikings rarely let an opposing point guard dribble slowly up the court. Even when Cleveland State went to a 2-3 zone, Gates often played a more aggressive tandem version.
Gates Seldom had his big men sit back in drop coverage against the pick and roll. Instead, Cleveland State would have the player defending the pick and roll switch, double the ball-handler or go up to the level of the screen to occupy the ball-handler and then scramble back — a soft show-and-recover strategy.
That aggression often left the rest of the defense scrambling, dealing with 4-on-3 situations or rotating to pick up an open man. The right personnel — Gates’ Florida State teams were known for their long, rangy wings — forced a lot of turnovers in this scheme.
But aggressive help-defense also handed opponents some open looks from distance. Cleveland State forced the most turnovers in the country last season but also gave up the largest percentage of threes in Gates’ three seasons with the Vikings.
It was feast or famine. In a November 2021 game against Ohio, Gates sent double-teams at the Bobcats’ second-leading scorer, Ben Vander Plas. On one play, Vander Plas was able to quickly swing it out, and Ohio took advantage for an open three.
On another play, Vander Plas’ pass out of a double-team was knocked away for an easy transition opportunity.
Smart teams with point guards capable of exploiting Gates’ aggressive defense fared well against Cleveland State. The year before, Ohio went on a record-breaking 40-0 run against Cleveland State. And while that run might’ve been an outlier that said more about the Vikings’ offense than their defense, the same aggressive style was exploited when the Vikings played Houston in the NCAA Tournament that season.
the no 2-seeded Cougars scored two quick buckets off pick-and-rolls, prompting Gates to switch to a zone.
Each of those plays featured mistakes from defenders — missing a rotation, over-rotating or just losing a one-on-one battle. In Gates’ aggressive scheme, opportunities to slip up are not uncommon.
Despite the system’s flaws, Gates’ defense was his calling card at Cleveland State. The offense showed more gradual improvement during his three seasons there, but the defense was almost immediately better.
Even the last season, when the Vikings seemed to regress in defensive efficiency, they were still the third-best team in the Horizon League. They’d ranked second the previous season, so perhaps the conference on the whole was just scoring more.
So, what to expect at Mizzou?
Trying to figure out what the new-look Tigers team will be when the season kicks off in November might be an impossible, considering the number of newcomers on MU’s roster. But the level of talent that Gates will coach in Columbia arguably exceeds anything he had at Cleveland State.
Joe Nega of the Cleveland Plain dealer covered Gates and his teams as a Cleveland State beat reporter. He told The Star the “hounding, relentless” defense that Gates employed at Cleveland State might be altered in the Southeastern Conference. But an emphasis on forcing turnovers with ball pressure will remain in play.
Cleveland State’s guards rebounded well on the offensive glass, Nega said. Tre Gomillion, who followed Gates from Cleveland State to Mizzou, ranked 72nd among 603 similarly sized players in offensive rebounding rate, according to Bart Torvik, a rankings site akin to KenPom.
When it comes to the rest of the MU offense, Nega said, it all depends on how well Gates’ new players fit into his system.
“It might be a year or two before he gets the guys that he needs or is looking for to fit what he’s trying to do,” Nega said. “But once you get the right personnel in the right spots, his offense is solid, really scrappy.”
With the right players — and transfer Isiaih Mosley, who scored 20.4 points per game for Missouri State, could definitely be one — Gates’ offense should eventually come around. The veteran coach has proven he can improve an offense, even if he’s inheriting a team ranked 354th of 358 in three-point shooting percentage.