Mizzou’s Dennis Gates is rocking the house in Columbia. And Tigers fans are here for it

Dennis Gates had a question for the media during the postgame press conference, after his Missouri men’s basketball squad beat down Iowa State 78-61 on Saturday in Columbia.

How many Mizzou Arena sellouts did reporters expect heading into his first season as head coach?

The likely honest answer from much of the press corps: Not this many.

“Let’s be honest,” Gates said. “And you can answer that question to yourself, but understand it takes a village, and we’re happy to be a part of the village.”

During the win against Iowa State, the Tigers announced that Saturday’s contest with Texas A&M was already sold out. On Tuesday came news that MU’s March 4 game against Ole Miss is as well. That makes seven sellouts this season for the Tigers at Mizzou Arena.

It wasn’t like this in the beginning.

Gates’ first game as Missouri’s coach, on Nov. 7 against Southern Indiana, was played in front of an announced 10,723 fans. It could’ve been less. In-arena production went haywire that day, with a lighting issue delaying tipoff after the starting lineups were announced.

Against Iowa State, there was none of that. Mizzou’s game-day presentation has grown alongside the team’s success this season, with Truman the Tiger often descending from the rafters on ropes, and fire pillars adding to the ambiance during introductions of the starters.

On Saturday, Truman came down from above with a toy lightsaber and battled a facsimile Darth Vader, who was adorned with a Cyclones logo. The crowd reacted as expected before the team on the court gave them something to really cheer about.

“We sometimes pull up outside of Mizzou Arena late night, the night before a game, and there’s Antlers sleeping outside,” Gates said. “That’s a sign. That’s a sign.

“And an hour and a half before the game, I can hear footsteps, as I sit in my office, of fans rushing in. That’s a sign. It’s a sign when you can hear the crowd roaring, even before a jump ball.”

After several years of half-empty, lethargic showings from both the team and its fans, the revival of Tigers basketball at Mizzou Arena is a welcome change in Columbia. It’s not due to any sort of gimmick, either. The team is actually worth watching.

With the Tigers’ win over Iowa State, plus Wednesday’s victory over LSU, Miszzou is looking at an NCAA Tournament appearance barring an epic collapse.

Just like the shift in atmosphere, it’s a somewhat stunning change.

Unless of course, you’re Gates

“My expectation has not changed, and it’s been more than what the external expectation has always been,” he said. “The internal drive, the internal push that I’ve put on the shoulders of our players, our staff and anyone that touches our program, we first started talking about April 1, April 3 (the Final Four dates) right after the (introductory) press conference.”

For everyone else, this could’ve barely been expected before the season began. MU had just three returning players surrounded by a core of junior-college and mid-major transfers.

Gates emphasized his desire to build a roster based on fit. It’s worked.

He’s also tried to foster a bond between his players and their fans.

“I want our community to understand, if you see these guys out, talk to them,” Gate said. “Talk to them. They’re approachable. And vice versa, I expect my guys to talk to strangers and bridge that gap and break down that barrier from strangers to friends.”

Gates is hoping this positive energy spreads to the rest of the athletic department and university. On social media, he has demonstrated his support for Missouri’s chess team and journalism department.

“I want us to support women’s basketball the same way,” Gates said. “I want us to support football the same way, I want us to support volleyball the same way, because if we all come together and do that, our entire community wins. We win.

“And our logo should be at the top, amongst the nation’s elite, not just in basketball.”

The Tigers will be back in action Saturday, facing Mississippi State on the road. That game is scheduled to start at 5 p.m. and will be aired on the SEC Network.

The Star has partnered with the Columbia Daily Tribune for coverage of Missouri Tigers athletics.