What If...Kelly Thames Didn't Tear Up His Knee?

Originally posted at Mizzou Sanity in March 2007.  I'm realizing that just because I posted these things on a previous website doesn't mean anybody's actually read them.

On September 26, 1994, Kelly Thames tore his Posterior Cruciate Ligament while doing conditioning drills. It always seems to happen that way, doesn’t it? The worst injuries occur while athletes are doing the most mundane things. A friend of mine tore her ACL in high school twice, both times while jogging up court after a basket.

Upon hearing the news, Mizzou fans were, shall we say, slightly distraught.

To Randy Carter, the question, `Where were you when you heard about Kelly Thames?' is right up there with `Where were you when JFK was shot?'

"I was standing in my mother-in-law's front yard, picking up my kids at about 8 p.m. Tuesday," Carter said of hearing about the season-ending injury to Thames, who was one of two returning starters for the Missouri basketball team.

"Someone asked if I had heard the news. It had been on the 6 o'clock news in St. Louis. They told me what happened. I just felt sick."

...

Thames tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Monday while sprinting during conditioning exercises in the practice gym at the Hearnes Center. The school announced Tuesday that Thames would redshirt his sophomore season.

Teammates called the loss big, and Carter said the atmosphere of fans in St. Louis was "let's put on black armbands and mourn for awhile."

Yup, slightly distraught.

The Dow Jones industrial average dipped sharply yesterday as investors reacted to the announcement that Missouri forward Kelly Thames would miss the upcoming college basketball season with a knee injury.

Meanwhile, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan ordered an investigation into the Monday incident, in which Thames apparently slipped while pivoting to run another leg of a sprint drill.

In Washington ...

OK, OK. Thames' injury didn't rock the financial markets, and there's no investigation. But his misfortune resonated across the state and the Big Eight.

...

This is not the same Missouri team without Thames. The Tigers don't have anybody who can lace up Thames' hightops, let alone fill them. And that's no knock on the rest of the team. A good number of the nation's top college programs don't have a player as talented and versatile as Thames.

Talent remains with the Tigers, but seven of the other 13 players are newcomers. The season's non-conference portion already figured to be a grand chemistry experiment with the most significant and stable element being Thames.

Just imagine if message boards had existed in 1994.

Up until the moment he slipped while running basically a suicide drill, Kelly Thames was, without a doubt, considered the future of the Mizzou program. He was a 6’7, 205-lb. hybrid, an athletic small forward with a power forward’s rebounding skills. He gave the 1993-94 team, one with approximately 29 seniors on it, a big jolt of youth, energy and athleticism—even on one of the most experienced teams in Mizzou history, he was a starter the moment he stepped onto campus (he missed one start that year because he was late for practice...that was it).

What I will try to do with this post is try to figure out how good Kelly Thames (and Mizzou) could have been if he hadn’t slipped on the Hearnes Center floor on September 26, 1994. It’s easy to start mythologizing his abilities and blame our lack of national titles on a slippery spot on a wood floor, and we all know what happened in late-March 1995 without Thames on the court (ahem, Tyus Edney), but what’s a realistic interpretation of what we could have expected from him if bad luck hadn’t bitten Mizzou on the ass once again?

Background

As you’re reading on a daily basis on this site, thanks to the 1993-94 Redux posts, Kelly Thames was a strong contributor from Day One. In his freshman season, Thames averaged 12.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.7 turnovers, 0.6 steals, and 0.5 blocks a game, shooting 51.4% from the field and 72.9% from the free throw line. Thames averaged 12.98 Net Equivalent Points (NEP) per game, third highest on the team behind seniors Melvin Booker (20.91) and Jevon Crudup (14.68).

(As you’ll see if you follow the NEP link above, NEP is a fantastic tool that looks a player’s overall contribution, positive and negative—from points to missed shots to blocks to turnovers to offensive rebounds—and determines how much their overall statistics factored toward a team’s success, much more indicative of a player’s contribution than PPG/RPG/APG.)

It’s pretty evident that Thames’ numbers were quite good for a freshman, but let’s compare him to other Tiger freshmen of yore.

  • Kelly Thames (1993-94) – 12.98 NEP/game, 0.44 NEP/minute
  • Melvin Booker (1990-91) – 9.65 NEP/game, 0.34 NEP/minute
  • Anthony Peeler (1988-89) – 11.38 NEP/game, 0.51 NEP/minute
  • Doug Smith (1987-88) – 14.31 NEP/game, 0.54 NEP/minute
  • Derrick Chievous (1984-85) – 12.84 NEP/game, 0.40 NEP/minute

So of this group of Tiger legends, his freshman year was #2 behind Smith for per game average and #3 behind Smith and Peeler per minute. Not bad. What did the others contribute their sophomore seasons?

  • Melvin Booker (1991-92) – 14.74 NEP/game, 0.44 NEP/minute
  • Anthony Peeler (1989-90) – 24.43 NEP/game, 0.73 NEP/minute
  • Doug Smith (1988-89) – 22.79 NEP/game, 0.77 NEP/minute
  • Derrick Chievous (1985-86) – 20.11 NEP/game, 0.63 NEP/minute

What was Kelly Thames’ output after knee surgery?

  • Kelly Thames (1995-96) – 12.93 NEP/game, 0.44 NEP/minute
  • Kelly Thames (1996-97) – 12.97 NEP/game, 0.44 NEP/minute
  • Kelly Thames (1997-98) – 13.72 NEP/game, 0.42 NEP/minute

It is very rare that a player’s game stays so strangely consistent as Thames’ did over his four (well, five) years at Mizzou. Booker went from 0.34 NEP/minute to 0.44 to 0.51 to 0.60, a consistent improvement each year. Chievous followed a similar slope, going from 0.40 to 0.63 to 0.73 to 0.81, finishing at double where he started. Peeler went from 0.51 to 0.73 to 0.71 to 0.72, three consistent years following a freshman-to-sophomore leap, almost the same as Smith, who went from 0.54 to 0.77 to 0.77 to 0.82.

So, was Kelly Thames a budding superstar whose knee injury put a well-built ceiling on his potential, or did he peak his freshman year, knee injury or no knee injury?

No seriously, I’m asking. I have no idea.

Let’s split the difference. We’ll average out the sophomore (and junior and senior) output (NEP/minute) of the four above players, then average that out with Thames’ actual contribution for the corresponding year. That will produce an actual upward slope from year to year, though not the slope of an absolute NEP machine like Doug Smith. So here’s what we get:

  • Sophomore season (’94-’95) – 0.54 NEP/minute
  • Junior year (’95-’96) – 0.56 NEP/minute
  • Senior year (’96-’97) – 0.58 NEP/minute

Slightly tinkering with all of his averages (and increasing his MPG slightly), here’s what his stat lines look like for his sophomore season with his new NEP/minute average (I’m including his actual output for comparison):

  • Sophomore (alternate reality): 31.9 MPG, 13.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.8 APG, 2.4 TOPG
  • Sophomore (actual reality): 29.1 MPG, 12.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.5 TOPG

As you know, one of my fears with this "What If" thing is looking like I’m saying "Things would have been perfect if not for _____." Well, this minor statistical adjustment is something I think we can all agree is not out of the realm of possibility.

Now, let’s take a look back at the 1994-95 season.

1994-95 Season

After Thames tore his PCL, expectations were lowered for the team, but they quickly started performing as well as anybody thought they would with Thames. Losses to Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma State were the only blemishes in an 18-3 start (7-2 in conference). They beat Purdue in the Great Eight, whooped Illinois by 18, handily won three road games in six days (Washington, SMU, Nebraska), and easily won in Ames and Manhattan as well. They had a good strength of schedule, and after beating OSU in Columbia, they stood at #8 in the RPI. Including the ’93-’94 season, they had won 46 of 53 games. They really weren’t missing Kelly Thames all that much.

But then, after a 94-89 loss to OU, the offense went south. Julian Winfield sprained his ankle running into Monte Hardge (dammit, Monte), Paul O’Liney’s shot betrayed him a bit, and Mizzou lost 4 of 5 to end the regular season. They lost by 3 at home to a mediocre Nebraska team (karma for Piatkowski’s miss at Hearnes the year before, I guess), lost by 19 in Lawrence, and then lost by 5 in Boulder to a brutal Colorado squad. They limped into the Big 8 Tournament at 19-7 and 4th place in conference.

Mizzou still had hopes for a high NCAA tourney seed thanks to a strong RPI (#17) and a respectable record in a tough conference; however the Tigers blew a 10-point halftime lead against Iowa State in the first round of the conference tourney and ended up laying a big fat egg, losing 68-50. They were still expecting a 6-7 seed, but their weak finish dropped them all the way to an 8 seed, and since fellow 8-seed BYU couldn’t play in a Friday/Sunday region because of that whole Mormon thing, Mizzou was sent out West for the third straight NCAA tourney, while BYU went to the nearby Southeast region.

I guess I really don’t have to go into depth about what happened next. Just in the nick of time, Mizzou’s offense started clicking again, and for the first 79:55 of the West regional, they looked like a Sweet 16 team.

And then Tyus Edney raced the length of the court. And Jason Sutherland and Kendrick Moore couldn’t cut him off. And Derek Grimm couldn’t block the layup. But we won’t go there.

So what would a player with Kelly Thames’ stat line have done for the 1994-95 Missouri Tigers? Well, for one thing, it would mean reduced minutes for some players. Here are the players whose minutes probably would have been most directly affected by Thames’ presence:

  • Derek Grimm (Actual MPG: 27.0, Adjusted to 13.5)
  • Corey Tate (18.3 / 8.3)
  • Marlo Finner (8.8 / 4.3)

And to a lesser extent...

  • Julian Winfield (31.9 / 27.9)
  • Sammy Haley (19.8 / 18.8)
  • Simeon Haley (13.6 / 12.5)
  • Scott Combs (4.7 / 2.3)

What does that do for Mizzou’s statistics overall? Well, in a nutshell...

  • +~4 PPG
  • Higher FG%
  • More FT’s, Higher FT%
  • Fewer Rebounds (~1 per game)
  • Higher Assists (1 per game)
  • Roughly the same Turnovers, Steals, and Blocks
  • Fewer Fouls, resulting in fewer FT’s for opponents

So in the end, the offense would benefit by about 4 PPG, and through better defense and fewer fouls, we’ll conservatively say the defense improves by 1 PPG. So a 5-point improvement overall.

And that makes sense, really. Going back to NEP for a moment, Thames’ (adjusted) 0.54 NEP/min dwarfed that of the guys whose minutes he took—Grimm averaged 0.33/min, Tate 0.46, Finner 0.41, Winfield 0.47, Sammy Haley 0.26, Simeon Haley 0.08 (!!), and Combs 0.39. That’s a pretty decent improvement overall, so 5 PPG certainly isn’t out of the question. It could be more if somebody more knowledgeable than I am could make the case that Thames was a significantly better defender than Grimm or Tate—I didn’t come to Mizzou till ’97-’98, so I don’t know.

Anyway, how does a 5-point improvement change Mizzou’s season? Well, being that their first three losses were by 23 (Arkansas), 13 (Kansas), and 15 (@ Oklahoma State), not much in the early going. They’d have started 18-3 either way. However, it would have made a difference down the stretch.

First, they lost by 5 in Norman. Obviously, you can’t have a tie, so for the purposes of this experiment we’ll say tie goes to the team with the higher RPI, and OU wins in OT. So they’re 18-4.

The first result Thames might have changed was the 3-point loss at home to Nebraska. Change a 78-75 loss to a 79-77 win, and Mizzou’s 19-4. They still lose at Kansas (19-5), but the trip to Boulder yields a different result. The 81-76 loss changes to an OT win (20-5). Then, Paul O’Liney’s last-second shot to beat OU in the season finale is unnecessary as the Tigers coast to a 7-point victory and move to 21-5, tied for 2nd in the Big 8 with OSU (I believe OSU wins the tiebreaker because they went 1-1 versus conference champ KU and Mizzou went 0-2).

(The now-win against Nebraska might have had an additional affect, as well—Cardinal Ritter’s Chris Carrawell visited Mizzou during that game and was turned off because Norm was pissed off after the loss and focused on the team instead of on Carrawell. If Mizzou had won, maybe Carrawell would have left with a completely different impression. That’s far too much speculation to take too seriously, but I found it interesting.)

Here are the new Big 8 Tournament pairings:

1 Kansas (22-4) vs 8 Nebraska (16-13)
4 Oklahoma (22-7) vs 5 Iowa State (20-9)
3 Missouri (21-5) vs 6 Colorado (14-12)
2 Oklahoma State (20-9) vs 7 Kansas State (12-14)

Now, here’s where I have to forgo any science or statistical comparison (mostly because I don’t have access to everybody’s stats from 1995) and go with the sports fan’s favorite tool—the Transitive Property, or some variation of it. Instead of comparing results against common opponents, I’ll basically just combine/compare each team’s actual first round (and semi and finals) result to come up with a new result.

Kansas 79, Nebraska 46
Iowa State 65, Oklahoma 64
Missouri 63, Colorado 60
Oklahoma State 79, Kansas State 46

On to the semifinals...

Iowa State 80, Kansas 72 (OT...this actually happened)
Oklahoma State 70, Missouri 62

And the finals...

Oklahoma State 62, Iowa State 53 (this, too, actually happened)

So Missouri picks up 3 games overall and comes into the NCAA tournament with a 22-6 record and RPI of #11. Needless to say, they’re no longer an 8-seed. The teams that actually ended up with RPI slots #10-12 got a 3-seed (Maryland), a 3-seed (Michigan State), and a 4-seed (Oklahoma State), so for the sake of this experiment, we’ll give Mizzou the #4 seed in the West, and for the sake of fate (and laziness), we’ll keep the same 16 teams in that region and just adjust everybody’s seed.

Here are the new West Region matchups:

1 UCLA vs 16 Florida International
8 Cincinnati vs 9 Indiana
5 Utah vs 12 Santa Clara
4 Missouri vs 13 Long Beach State
6 Mississippi State vs 11 Texas
3 Maryland vs 14 Gonzaga
7 Oregon vs 10 Temple
2 UConn vs 15 Chattanooga

Granted, this deprives us of the great Norm vs Bobby Knight first round matchup (and a great post-game rant from Knight), but I’m okay with that. New first round results (after applying the Adjusted Transitive Property...though for Mizzou games I’ll look at common opponents as well...all KINDS of scientific):

UCLA 92, Florida International 56
Cincinnati 71, Indiana 65
Utah 76, Santa Clara 65
Missouri (with Thames adjustment) 73, Long Beach State 61
Texas 79, Mississippi State 74
Maryland 87, Gonzaga 63
Temple 80, Oregon 75
UConn 100, Chattanooga 71

So it’s a comfortable trip to the second round for Mizzou. Speaking of second round...here are Mizzou and Utah’s common opponents

Indiana (Utah won 77-72, Missouri won 69-59)
Chicago State (Utah and Mizzou both creamed them beyond all recognition)

Can’t tell a lot from that. However, in the second round (in real life) Utah got whooped by Mississippi State, while Mizzou got Tyus Edney’ed. Safe to say Mizzou was playing better that Sunday.

UCLA 86, Cincinnati 81
Missouri 78, Utah 69
Maryland 82, Texas 68
UConn 96, Temple 85

So here we are. UCLA vs Missouri. Granted, it took place 5 days after the real UCLA/Missouri game, but I think we can go ahead and make the Kelly Thames adjustment and...

Missouri 78, UCLA 74

The bucket Julian Winfield made to put Mizzou up 1 with 4.8 seconds left? Well, we’ll say that that shot made it a 4-point lead instead. And Joe Walljasper never writes this column. I can live with that.

Now, here’s where we revisionist historians have a field day. Hey, we say, UCLA won a national title that year, so if Mizzou beat UCLA, then...Mizzou could have won the national title too, right? Right? Probably not. Led by Ray Allen, Donny Marshall, and Travis Knight, Big East Champ UConn was one helluva team to play in the Elite Eight. But then, so was UCLA.

Let’s see what common opponents we can dig up:

  • vs Illinois (UConn wins 71-56, Mizzou wins 80-57, Advantage: Mizzou)
  • at Kansas (UConn loses 88-59, Mizzou loses 87-73, Advantage: Mizzou)
  • vs UCLA (UConn loses 102-96, Mizzou wins 78-74, Advantage: Mizzou)

Hmm. That all averages out to...

Missouri 80, UConn 74

Why not? It’s my blog, and that worked out way better than I thought. So let’s go with that. Kelly Thames in 1994-95 = Final Four. It’s now been proven scientifically.

And what happens in the Final Four? Meeting #4 of 1995 with Big Country and OSU. We’re going to take six scores and average them (and I swear I don’t know what will happen here): the three MU/OSU scores, the combined UCLA score, and the combined scores of their two most recent opponents:

  • OSU 84, Mizzou 74 (Meeting #1)
  • Mizzou 85, OSU 78 (Meeting #2)
  • OSU 70, Mizzou 62 (Meeting #3)
  • Mizzou 76, OSU 68 (Mizzou 78, UCLA 74; UCLA 74, OSU 61)
  • Mizzou 76, OSU 76 (Mizzou 87, Oklahoma 80; OSU 72, Oklahoma 64)
  • Mizzou 76, OSU 75 (Kansas 87, Mizzou 73; Kansas 78, OSU 62)

By the slightest of margins, OSU defeats Mizzou 75-74, then bows out to Arkansas in the Finals. Mizzou makes their first Final Four, Arkansas wins their second straight title, and Mizzou is a Preseason Top 10 team in 1995-96 after losing only Paul O’Liney from the Final Four squad.

1995-96 Season

We’ll go through the rest of this a little quicker.

The ’95-’96 season was a disappointing one for Mizzou. Their near-defeat of UCLA, combined with the return of four starters and Kelly Thames (now in the shape of a 225-pound power forward) led to high expectations...expectations which were in no way met in an up and down season. A 7-1 start crumbled to 7-4 in December with consecutive neutral court losses to Illinois, USC, and N.C. State. Mizzou followed that up by winning 5 in a row, then losing 4 of 5 to fall to 13-8. Home wins over Nebraska and Kansas and a road win in Gallagher-Iba (Mizzou’s last win there until a couple weeks ago) put Mizzou in firm NCAA tourney position at 16-8, but a second-straight late-season collapse left Mizzou at 16-13 and out of the NCAA running, with Columbia Tribune writers calling them the Tin Man team (“If they only had a heart...”).

As always, they found their heart in the last ever Big 8 Tournament, upsetting 3-seed OU in overtime and taking 2-seed Iowa State to the wire before falling 57-53. They accepted a bid to the NIT, beat Murray State, and got whooped at Alabama to end an 18-15 campaign. Kendrick Moore then decided to transfer due to lack of playing time and general unhappiness, opening the door to the Dibi Ray Era. A healthy, 0.56 NEP/min. Kelly Thames wouldn’t have made this team a title contender or anything, but would he have been enough to make the NCAA tournament?

As you’ll see, the answer to that question is “probably,” but a go-to guy like Thames wasn’t going to totally stop the negative slide that had already begun, as exemplified by this Scott Cain write-up in the Trib:

The last time Missouri cracked the Sweet 16, it shared the 1994 West Regional with Syracuse, Arizona and Louisville. Refer to your office-pool bracket, and you'll find that each of those teams returned to the 16 this year. Those programs reloaded. Missouri, despite coming off the best season in school history, couldn't build on its success.

In-state recruiting is wheezing.

Kelly Thames and Tate Decker aside, the state's top talent has burned rubber on every highway out over the last three years. Ryan Robertson (Kansas). Derek Hood (Arkansas). Loren Woods (Wake Forest). Chris Carrawell (Duke). Jahidi White (Georgetown). Sunday Adebayo, a Missouri junior college product, (Arkansas).

When a program can't recruit quality players for more than a year or two at a time, it's like the brain going without oxygen. It can't survive. Missouri is losing too many of the top players, and it shows. Look at the roster and try to imagine that nucleus leading MU to prominence.

Stewart, it seems, is a victim of the times.

At one time, a coach could preside over his team with thunder and lightning. Some still do. But fewer and fewer players want to play for a guy who tries to get their attention at 100 decibels while turning the air blue around them, or a guy who plays head games with his players like they were a Sega Genesis cartridge.

Gotta love the Sega reference.

Without a doubt, some of that commentary was just piling on like sports writers tend to do—when something goes wrong, make sure you over-explain it, then make strong judgments based on the over-explanations—but there was no denying that in-state recruiting had deteriorated quickly, and a 1995 Final Four wasn’t going to stem the tide. The recruiting problem obviously hadn’t arisen from the lack of success—it was from something else entirely.

Anyway, we’re going to make a 5-point adjustment to the 1995-96 results as well—3 points due to a more slender Kelly Thames having two healthy knees (Thames’ new stat line: 31.3 MPG, 14.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.8 APG, 2.3 TOPG) and 2 points for the Tyus Edney bitterness and funk that hung over the team all year. And just like in 1994-95, this adjustment changes none of the team’s results until late in the Big 8 schedule. On February 21, Mizzou lost by 5 in Manhattan (tie goes to better RPI, which is Mizzou); on February 24, they lost by 4 at home to Iowa State; and in the March 3 season finale, Mizzou went 9 minutes without scoring, blew a double-digit lead, and lost by 2 to Oklahoma State. Thames would have conceivably left a positive impact on these three games, which would have led to a 19-10 record (9-5 and #2 in the Big 8). They still would have been considered a slight disappointment (considering they really would have been preseason Top 10), but they’d have headed to the Big 8 Tournament having won 6 of 8 instead of riding a 5-game losing streak.

And it’s relatively likely that they’d have won the Big 8 Tourney as well. After taking out 7-seed Nebraska in the first round, they’d have once again matched up with Iowa State. A 4-point loss turns into a 1-point victory, and they move to the Finals against Kansas. In the real 1996, Iowa State beat Kansas by 1...and if Mizzou had just beaten Iowa State by 1...well, there you go. Champs of the final Big 8 Tournament.

So the 22-10 Tigers enter the tournament as a 6-seed, we’ll say in the East Region. (Kansas State snuck into the East Region at 17-11 but probably wouldn’t have made it at 16-12, which is where they’d have been after losing at home to Mizzou, so we’ll put them in the region KSU would have been.) They defeat New Orleans by 11, then get blown out of the water by Darvin Ham and Texas Tech in Round 2.

However, Kendrick Moore still transfers to Providence. And Dibi Ray still transfers to Mizzou.

1996-97 Season

Quite simply, in ’96-’97, Mizzou continued their quick-yet-consistent regression. A 6-2 start (best win: Creighton) was followed by a 6-14 finish as the Tigers rolled to 12-16 and a 6-10 finish in the Big XII’s inaugural season. However, as everybody had come to expect, they beat Nebraska, Texas, and Oklahoma on their way to the Big XII tourney finals, looking like they were going to make one more dramatic tourney championship run. And then the dead-legged Tigers got their butts handed to them, ending the season with a 27-point loss to the buzzsaw that was Kansas.

Using the now-customary 5-point Kelly Thames Adjustment (his new senior line: 34.3 MPG, 17.4 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, 2.1 SPG, and a guaranteed 1st-Team All-Big XII), how much would that affect? Well, they no longer lose to Clemson in the semis of the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico, moving on to the finals where they instead got rolled up by a great Minnesota team. They no longer lose to Arkansas. And in the first half of conference play, they win three more games: Iowa State (68-67), @ Oklahoma State (70-67), and @ Texas A&M (60-59). All of this brings them to 16-12 on the season, 8-8 in the Big XII. Now a 7-seed, they bump off Oklahoma State, Colorado, and Texas before getting nailed by Kansas. A 19-13 record and RPI of ~43 is not enough to get Mizzou into the tourney, ending a long streak of NCAA bids (in years in which they won’t banned from the postseason, anyway). They knock off SW Missouri State and lose to Michigan, unceremoniously ending Thames’ career.

The last few years of Norm Stewart’s likely unfold pretty much the same way—L. Dee Murdock and Danny Allouche still transfer at season’s end, and that year’s recruiting class still consists of Brian Grawer, Johnnie Parker, George Mazyck, John Woods, and a transfer, Michigan’s Albert White—the only difference being that there’s an extra scholarship available for 1997-98. Perhaps the extra success Thames afforded the Tigers makes Mizzou a more attractive option for Peoria’s Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin, or Camdenton’s Jeff Carey, or Baton Rouge’s Shyrone Chatman, or perhaps with all the turnover, they swallow the scholarship for one more season. Either way, chances are Mizzou’s 17-15 NIT season in 1997-98 ends up worse without Thames, and things are pretty much back on track by 1998-99.

Summary

As with my last What If? post, it looks like changing a, shall we way, unfortunate event in Mizzou’s history makes a positive short-term impact on the program but does not change any long-term trajectory. With Kelly Thames in 1994-95, it really is possible that Mizzou has enough juice to make a Final Four push. However, the key to maintaining a program is recruiting, and Thames was not going to affect that. Kids of all talent levels—from Troy Hudson and Travis Ford to Desmond Ferguson and Danny Allouche—were transferring from Mizzou on an almost annual basis, and the Derek Hoods, Jahidi Whites, and Ryan Robertsons of the world just were not choosing Mizzou. There was too much flux and not enough of a talent infusion to avoid the inevitable missteps that plagued the 1995-97 seasons.

Even with a 1995 Final Four in his back pocket, the end was probably near for Norm Stewart. Of course, after reaching a couple of Final Fours, Eddie Sutton was able to, with no questions asked, name his top assistant Sean as his successor. Assuming Norm still retired in 1999, four seasons removed from a Final Four, would he have been able to dictate the hiring of Kim Anderson as his successor? And would that have been a good thing for Mizzou’s long-term success? Maybe that’s another What If? for the future.

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