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What the Hell Happened in 2004?

Image via the Trib archive

Thanks to the wonders of Ken Pomeroy's archive, we have a detailed take of college basketball and its lovely advanced statistics all the way back to the 2002-03 season.  With no mid-week Missouri game, I thought it was an interesting time to delve into that archive a little bit.  Of all the storylines from the past nine seasons, Mizzou's 2008-09 surge has to be No. 1 ... and their 2003-04 collapse No. 2.  Now that the program has sufficiently rebounded from the downward spiral kick-started by the 2004 collapse, now that the scars have healed, let's take a look back.

We know the general storyline, of course.  Mizzou began 2003-04 ranked very high, and with seemingly good reason. Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson both returned for their senior seasons after playing incredibly well at the end of 2002-03.  Those two and Travon Bryant were going to provide senior leadership while a deep group of youngsters -- blue-chip freshmen Linas Kleiza and Thomas Gardner, prolific VMI transfer Jason Conley, local hero Jimmy McKinney -- took Mizzou to a new level.  There was a bit of a void at point guard following Ricky Clemons' dismissal, but McKinney was expected to slide into that role as a sophomore.  Throw in strong role players like Josh Kroenke and big Kevin Young, and you've got yourself a Top 5 team.

From the beginning, of course, things didn't feel quite right.  First and foremost, the Ricky Clemons fiasco was consistently embarrassing the program -- from his "We're watching Roots!" arrest, to the incredible egg he laid in the postseason, to his dismissal from the program, to the jailhouse phone calls, to his ATV wreck on the MU president's property (when he was supposed to be studying), to the ensuing NCAA investigation.  The investigation itself gave 2003-04 a bit urgency because nobody knew what might be discovered, and if there might be postseason or scholarship limitations starting in 2004-05. (Spoiler alert: there were indeed scholarship limitations incurred.)   We view 2003-04 through that prism -- there was a pall cast on the program, and the things just didn't click.  The effort was spotty, the point guard issues significant, and the team fell into a late-December funk from which they could not quite recover.

We know all of this.  But what can Pomeroy's numbers add to the discussion?


2002-03 Offense vs 2003-04 Offense,
According to KenPom Rankings

2002-03 2003-04 Advantage
Efficiency 26 22 Push
Effective FG% 104 104 Push
Turnover % 92 128 2002-03
Off. Reb. % 55 19 2003-04
FTA/FGA 287 160 2003-04 Big
3PT% 96 124 2002-03
2PT% 123 104 Push
FT% 262 98 2003-04 Big
Block% 94 68 2003-04
Steal% 150 126 2003-04
3PA/FGA 76 122
A/FGM 226 202

At the time, iffy point guard play was considered one of this team's primary faults.  It was frightening enough that Quin Snyder made a panic signing of Randy Pulley, a former SLU point guard who gave "pass-first point guard" a new name.  He was downright petrified of shooting.  (Before Brian Coulter earned "secret savior" status, there was Pulley; a good portion of Tigerboard was completely convinced that he was the secret weapon that was going to push Mizzou to new heights, even though he had barely registered at SLU a couple of years earlier.)  When Pulley ultimately (and inevitably) did not work out, the job officially went to McKinney.

Here's the thing, though -- while McKinney was not much of a point guard (ultimately, his downfall was that he was a tweener, not a good enough of a passer to be a point guard, not a good enough shooter to be a shooting guard), it really did not hinder this offense very much.  Missouri was not much of a pass-and-shoot team -- they were built more around individuals creating opportunities for themselves -- but their offense was still quite good.  In terms of Pomeroy's ratings, Mizzou's offense was actually better in 2003-04.  They were more interior-oriented, which was what we always yearned for in the Arthur Johnson era; they shot fewer threes and made fewer threes, but they attempted many more free throws and crashed the offensive glass with a higher degree of success.

From week to week at RMN, we look at players' general statistical profiles based on %Pass, %Shoot, %Fouled, and %T/O.  Oddly, the profile for each team -- 2002-03 and 2003-04 -- was almost identical: 47% Pass, 34% Shoot, 11% Fouled, 8% TO.  The biggest difference seemed to come in the number of second-chance points -- they grabbed more rebounds, got fouled more, and made a higher percentage of their free throws.

Let's take a look at both the Usage rates and Floor % for the members of each team.  (This comes from my own nerd archive, not the Pomeroy page.)

Player 2002-03
Arthur Johnson 27% 25% 40%
Rickey Paulding 25% 24% 39%
Ricky Clemons 25%

Linas Kleiza
Jason Conley
Travon Bryant 19% 21% 38%
Thomas Gardner
Jimmy McKinney 16% 17% 38%
Najeeb Echols 16%

Jeffrey Ferguson 13%

Josh Kroenke 10% 10% 42%
Kevin Young 10% 11% 40%

Even in 2002-03, McKinney played more of a point guard role than Clemons (he was 64% Pass in 2002-03, Clemons 55%).

I mentioned that the lack of a true point guard didn't seem to hold this offense back as much as we had imagined, but it still might have held them back a bit -- while we are used to seeing players in the "point guard" role averaging 70% or higher in the %Pass category, McKinney only found his way into the mid-60%'s each year (64% in 2003, 62% in 2004).  Both teams had really nice individual creators (Paulding on the slash, Johnson on the post-up, Clemons with the bombs, Kleiza with the bull-in-china-shop routine), but between Wesley Stokes (74% Pass in 2001-02) and Jason Horton (67% in 2004-05, 75% in 2005-06), there was no pure facilitator.  And Randy Pulley (118% Pass .. just kidding) was not the answer.

While the offense might have bogged down at times, they obviously were not the problem.  Even without a pure point guard, and without the 3-point threat Clemons provided, Mizzou was efficient.  (They played at a very slow pace, which makes some of their offensive numbers look worse than they actually were.)  Offense simply wasn't the problem for the 2003-04 team; defense was.


2002-03 Offense vs 2003-04 Offense,
According to KenPom Rankings

2002-03 2003-04 Advantage
Efficiency 35
Effective FG% 33
2002-03 Big
Turnover % 282
Off. Reb. % 130
2002-03 Big
2002-03 Big
2002-03 Big


So Missouri basically lost one player -- Ricky Clemons -- from the 2002-03 squad.  Najeeb Echols and Jeffrey Ferguson also departed, but they were bit players at best; plus, Echols had left in the middle of the 2002-03 season anyway.  How in the world does losing one player create a drop of 68 spots in Pomeroy's efficiency rankings??

Above, I mentioned that point guard issues on offense were likely rather overblown.  Missouri's offense was as good or better with Jimmy McKinney tentatively running the show.  The lack of a great point potentially mattered most on the other side of the court.

Mizzou's team defense just collapsed in 2003-04.  Just as we saw earlier this season, Mizzou's rotations within team defense were particularly terrible.  This is evidenced in two ways: 1) their 3-point defense was god-awful (opponents made 33.3% of 3-pointers in 2002-03, 38.3% in 2003-04), and 2) they were forced to foul much, much more.  Opponents' FTA/FGA rose from 0.31 to 0.39.  Paulding fouled less (0.19 fouls per possession to 0.16), but after Clemons averaged 0.16 fouls per possession against point guards in 2002-03, McKinney averaged 0.27 in 2003-04.  (Plus, Pulley averaged 0.28, Laurie 0.40, Gardner 0.22).  Arthur Johnson and Kevin Young both saw their foul rates increase as well.

This, along with the fact that opponents' free throw percentages improved from 67.2% to 70.2%, paints a pretty vivid picture: Mizzou's defense was much slower on the perimeter, leading both to more open 3-pointers and more free throw attempts from opposing guards.  Easy 3's and free points at the line are how a defense regresses from a decent 1.00 points per possession to a terrible 1.07 with little turnover in personnel, and what turnover did occur ended up making a significant difference.

Possessions Per Game, Mizzou Guards
Player 2002-03 2003-04
Rickey Paulding 58.5 58.1
Ricky Clemons 57.0
Jimmy McKinney 53.6 50.6
Josh Kroenke 29.5 26.7
Jason Conley 30.1
Thomas Gardner 33.1

So Jimmy McKinney presumably took over for Clemons in guarding the other team's point, and Conley and Gardner took over for McKinney.  Gardner would go on to become a rock solid man-to-man defender, but he was not quite ready yet in 2003-04, and Conley was all-or-nothing -- he averaged a very impressive 0.13 steals per possession, but if he didn't get the steal, he was getting burned.

So what the hell happened in 2004?  The perimeter defense, like the program as a whole, was destroyed by Ricky Clemons' nasty departure.  Mizzou was bigger and slower on the outside, playing a more physical brand of basketball that resulted in better rebounding and more fouls drawn ... and more open 3's and free throws for the opponent.  The defense regressed more than the offense improved, and a six-week spell of transition, mediocrity (Mizzou went 5-9 between December 23 and February 7) and atrocious defense cost Mizzou a spot in the NCAA tourney field.  The Tigers almost rallied -- they won six in a row to get to 15-10 and 9-5 in conference -- but they lost three of four to end the regular season and were vanquished to the NIT.  Over the next five years, they would go to the NIT twice and fail to make the postseason altogether three times before the miraculous turnaround of 2009.  In so many ways, Ricky Clemons hurt the Missouri program, but it turns out his tough defense (and, later on, Jason Horton's failure to play like a four-star point guard) may have damaged Mizzou most of all.