With at least 12 games remaining in the season (11 + at least one conference tourney game), Missouri stands, for all intents and purposes, six wins from an NCAA tournament bid. Missouri is at once a young and old team--its two most proven scoring threats and best long-range shooter are seniors, but four freshmen have received extensive playing time this year, and as it stands at the moment, only one of Mizzou's five starters is a senior. I thought this would be a good time to look at what the future holds for Mizzou basketball, beyond this increasingly enjoyable ride through the 2008-09 season.
Today, we look at 2008-09; tomorrow we look at the future.
We don't know how this season will end--whether Mizzou will maintain strong momentum or begin to falter or slump, whether they will charge into the NCAAs or miss out yet again (a less-scarred fanbase would just be assuming a tourney berth at this point)--but we have a pretty good idea of this team's strengths and weaknesses. If they continue to play well, we know why. If they falter, we probably know why too.
What are Mizzou's strengths?
Mizzou is currently 2nd in the country in steals per game with 11.3. They are causing 19.9 turnovers per game, and in my "Ball Control Index" figure ((Assists + Steals)/Turnovers) that I measure on a game-to-game basis, Mizzou is dwarfing its opponent, 2.78 to 0.89. This is the key to Mike Anderson's system, and with a batch of mostly his players, he is finally implementing this style of play like he wants to see it.
Currently every single one of Mizzou's regulars is averaging at least 0.04 steals per minute (1 steal per 25 minutes). J.T. Tiller is leading Mizzou with 0.09 per minute (including 7 against Texas Tech), followed by DeMarre Carroll with 0.07 and Marcus Denmon with 0.06, but for the most part everybody is getting into the act. The system (more than one individual player) is forcing the turnovers, and that is a highly encouraging sign.
When you're creating that many turnovers, you're also creating a lot of easy scoring opportunities. Therefore it's not a complete surprise to learn that Mizzou is also #2 in the country at both assists (19.7/gm) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.54).
Here's an amazing stat: of Mizzou's regulars, only one has committed more turnovers than assists--Leo Lyons. (And even Leo is managing 0.09 assists per minute, which, for perspective, is what Keon Lawrence averaged in his time in a Mizzou uniform.) For comparison, last year's Mizzou team had three regulars who fit that description; in 2006-07, six.
And while we're looking at previous years of data, I should point out that in 2007-08, Mizzou had four guys who averaged at least 0.09 assists per minute, one guy who averaged at least 0.14. In 2006-07, it was two at 0.09 and two at 0.14. In 2005-06, two at 0.09 (including James Douglas, who didn't play) and one at 0.14. This year, including Michael Anderson Jr., eight Tigers are averaging 0.09 assists per minute (Miguel Paul 0.15, Zaire Taylor 0.14, J.T. Tiller 0.14, Justin Safford 0.11, Marcus Denmon 0.10, Leo Lyons 0.09, Kim English 0.09, Michael Anderson Jr. 0.09), and three are averaging at least 0.14. There is very little precedent for these types of assist totals at Mizzou.
And of the eight guys I just mentioned, only Lyons is a senior.
Opponents are currently shooting 29.8% from 3-point range against Missouri. This was once a significant weakness for Mizzou. In 2007-08, opponents only shot 30.9%, but in 2006-07, it was 37.9%.
Mizzou is forcing harder shots overall too, as evidenced by their opponents' 1.17 points per shot. In 2007-08, that figure was 1.27. In 2006-07, 1.29. Only once since Norm Stewart retired have Mizzou opponents shot that poorly (2002-03), and it only happened once (1998-99) in Norm's last seven seasons.
Okay, this isn't necessarily a strength persay--their season 36.8% shooting is only good for #72 in the country--but they are shooting 39.8% in conference play, which, if accomplished on a season-long basis, would be good for #12 in the country. Marcus Denmon has begun to find his range after a Rickey Paulding-esque cold start to his freshman year, and Matt Lawrence isn't shooting as many 3's when he's cold; both of these have resulted in a pretty solid percentage. We have yet to see if this is a trend or just a hot spurt, but it's worth paying attention to over the rest of the season.
At one time or another in 2008-09, at least six different players have taken on the scoring load--Carroll, Lyons, Taylor, Tiller, Lawrence and Denmon have all led the team in scoring at one point or another. Plus, with improvement from Keith Ramsey and Kim English, you never really know where Mizzou's scoring is going to come from. You look at the stats and assume you need to clamp down on Carroll first, and maybe that's true, but over-adjustment towards Carroll opens up the floor for a lot of other Tigers.
There is no more evident stat than Assists Per Minute when it comes to how well the team is playing as a whole, and as mentioned above, Mizzou has almost never distributed the ball as well as it is right now.
Plus...I mean, how likable is this team? The guys on the roster actually seem to enjoy playing together and being around each other. You've got a freshman (English) who almost literally lives at the gym, spending numerous nights at Mizzou Arena so he can get in extra practice time and sucking some of the other freshmen into doing the same. You've got a bunch of "team" players who have no problem scoring 2 points in a game if is leads to a Mizzou victory. Really, only one player (Lyons) can be referred to as anything less than a 100% good influence on the team chemistry as a whole, and he's been energized and positive since his 1-game suspension.
Despite what I just referred to as multiple scoring threats and great team play, Mizzou still has two 6'8 (or higher) scoring threats--Carroll and Lyons--averaging more than 14 PPG for the season. Combined with halfcourt sets that are spreading the court and producing more open layups, this team is producing more in the paint now than they have since Arthur Johnson and Travon Bryant were playing in Mizzou uniforms (and even then Tra spent a lot of his time wandering the perimeter). They can still get pushed around by big, physical post defenders, but against teams without great size (and there are few big teams on the schedule), this is a major advantage for Mizzou.
What are Mizzou's weaknesses?
Free Throw Shooting
Mizzou is currently #263 in the country in free throw percentage at 65.3%. Ouch. In some games this is not a huge problem (they shot almost 80% against Texas Tech), but on the road it is a liability (they were 17-for-30 against Oklahoma State--one of the reasons OSU was able to stay in the game). Mizzou has two players who have shot more than 40 FTs on the season--Lyons (70.3%) and Carroll (64.2%). Neither are terrible at the free throw line (though neither are great either), but the main problem is that Mizzou's other bigs are atrocious at FTs, and Mizzou's guards are only good, not great. Keith Ramsey (29.6%!) and Justin Safford (44.4%) are complete late-game liabilities, while only one Tiger (Marcus Denmon at 84.0%) averages over 80%. Matt Lawrence (78.9%) never goes to the line, and JT Tiller (79.5%) is good but got the yips against OSU a bit.
When you get to college, you pretty much are what you are from the free throw line--coaching can help, but only so much. With the exception of Denmon, none of Anderson's recruits have been that great from the charity stripe, and while that is not high on the list of overall team concerns (it's important, but obviously not as much as good defense, good shooting, ball handling, etc.), it could very well bite you a couple times over the course of a season--just as (the most obvious example) Memphis. They made the national finals because they were so good at so many other things, but they lost the title game because of clutch FT shooting (or the lack thereof).
Natural Scoring Ability
I've talked about this one before. Mizzou relies a lot on fast break points and passing. Against sturdy, disruptive defensive teams like Nebraska or Illinois, they have struggled to find open shots...or the shots they have created haven't gone in. Take away layups, and there is really only one proven natural scorer--a guy who is capable of scoring in a lot of different ways: Leo Lyons. Marcus Denmon and Kimmie English both have quite a bit of potential in this regard, but their scoring touch comes and goes. Against a team that doesn't let them break out and run, Mizzou significantly struggles to put the ball in the basket. What they have going for them this year is, they're simply much better at inflicting their style on opponents.
Let's face it: this is the main reason people who aren't sold on Mizzou, aren't sold on Mizzou. Against Illinois, Mizzou was making their first appearance back in the Top 25 in quite a few seasons, and after a 5-7 minute span where Illinois could literally do no wrong--getting bounces, swishing desperation, end-of-shot-clock heaves, etc.--Mizzou just fell apart. It was one bad performance, and it was enough for Andy Katz to label them one of the biggest disappointments in the Big 12. Granted, it was insane to judge them that much off of one game, but it was Mizzou's first trek back into the spotlight since probably 2003-04, and with some help from the Illini, they peed all over themselves.
I mentioned then (and again after the OSU game) that the last step to learning how to win was learning how to win when everything is going against you. Sucking it up and making plays anyway takes a lot of skill and a lot of confidence. Against Illinois and (in the last four minutes) Oklahoma State, the skill may have been there, but the confidence and ability to stay with it were nonexistent. But here's the good news: once young players start learning how to win, it's pretty hard to unlearn.
(I have no proof of that whatsoever...just my own personal belief. It sounds good, doesn't it?)
Yes, Mizzou has two solid interior scorers, and yes, Mizzou is getting to the rim quite well overall. But at least a couple times a year, you're going to just need to bang with a physical opponent, and Mizzou is not built for that, nor will they ever be consistently built for that under Mike Anderson. Anderson's identity is based on speed and pressure, and that could win him a ton of games at Mizzou, but there could always be matchup problems against teams built a certain way.
(In other words, he might be able to get away with this style in the Big 12, but it would be a lot harder in, say, the Big East.)
Right now, Missouri has three guys listed at 225 pounds or higher, and two of them graduate after 2008-09.
Due to the lack of size, rebounding can sometimes be a problem against bigger teams, and while Mizzou's season averages have been pretty good, there have been lapses.
That's right, it makes both lists. Until the last two games anyway, Mizzou has had the tendency to sometimes settle too much for the 3-point shot, which was a problem when nobody on the team was consistently making them. DeMarre Carroll has earned his Junkyard Dog nickname, but he's not necessarily a true post-up threat. Only Leo Lyons fits that bill. Decent post defense can sometimes force Mizzou to get confused in halfcourt sets and settle for outside shots they're sometimes not very good at making. The last handful of games have seen improvement in the number of bad 3's taken (or maybe they're just making more of them, so it seems acceptable), but this team has at least one more cold streak in them, and we'll see what happens to the overall offensive flow when that happens.
Distribution of Minutes
There is no doubt that we're all still paranoid, still guarded, about this team's chances. Yeah, they're looking great right now, but...it's been a long time since a Mizzou team was consistently good enough to make the NCAA Tournament (and even those teams weren't consistently consistently good). As I mentioned before, six more wins should get the job done with little doubt left over (picture Lou Brown with a giant Rachel Phelps puzzle). If they win six more in the regular season to get to 10-6 in conference, they're in. If they only win five more but manage to win their first-round Big 12 tournament game and acquit themselves decently in the second, their overall resume is probably strong enough to get them in, though Selection Sunday might be a hair more nerve-wracking in this scenario.
Let's look at the remaining schedule, in order of most winnable game to least winnable.
Kansas State (2/25)
@ Colorado (2/21)
@ Kansas State (1/28)
@ Iowa State (2/7)
@ Texas A&M (3/7)
@ Texas (2/4)
@ Kansas (3/1)
The main thing that worries me here is that there are more remaining road games than home games. Four of the six road games on this list are quite winnable, but Mizzou does have to win at least one, and more comfortably three, to keep their good resume intact. They did just win at Gallagher-Iba, though, so my paranoia has been tamped down at least a smidge in this regard.
This is a relatively young team, one that is probably due at least one (hopefully small) slump down the stretch, but without prolonged troubles, six wins are very doable with this remaining slate.
So after this long discussion, tomorrow we'll look at how this team's strengths and weaknesses will shift when next season starts.