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What the Hell Happened in 2009?

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As a peace offering for the sneak attack I pulled yesterday -- throwing 2003-04 at you without fair warning -- I figured the least I could do was give Mizzou's happy 2008-09 surge the same Ken Pomeroy treatment.

While 2003-04 was a bit of a mystery -- how does a team with so little turnover, regress so much in one season? -- 2008-09 is, for all intents and purposes, much, much easier to understand.  The new blood was better -- both in terms of talent and fit -- than the old blood, and in Mike Anderson's third season, he finally had a team that reflected his image.  Throw in a dash of depth and two sprinkles of senior leadership, et voila ... Elite Eight team.

To understand how much change Mike Anderson had to implement, however, let's first look back at Quin Snyder's last team, the 2005-06 squad.  This was a team that...

  • ...played at a tempo well below-average (205th in Adj. Tempo).
  • ...didn't force turnovers (149th) and REALLY didn't come up with any steals (258th).
  • ...didn't play physical defense (67th in FTA/FGA) or, really, good defense (249th in Effective FG%, 294th in Def. Rebounding, 272nd in 2PT% Allowed, 290th in Block%).

Trying to piece together a Fastest 40 Minutes style with the pieces left in Columbia was clearly going to be a challenge.  Plus, there was very little experience or veteran leadership on Anderson's 2006-07 squad.  The two most heavy-usage players from 2005-06 -- Thomas Gardner and Jimmy McKinney -- were gone.  We were all excited about the prospects of Marshall Brown in the Mike Anderson system, but beyond Brown the major contributors appeared to be Leo Lyons (horribly inefficient in 2005-06) and Jason Horton (a solid passer/thief who, like Jason Conley in yesterday's write-up, was getting burned badly if he wasn't making the steal).  Big Kalen Grimes would make a decent impact as well.

To fill the void in both leadership and talent, Anderson brought in a prolific guard who, let's face it, seemed custom-made for the Fastest 40 Minutes.  Stefhon Hannah would rank in the nation's Top 30 in Steal% in 2006-07, and he was a relatively efficient shooter considering how much he shot.  Mizzou would not make the postseason in Anderson's first season, but he was seemingly able to craft a solid identity out of Snyder's leftovers and newcomers like Hannah, Keon Lawrence, Darryl Butterfield, J.T. Tiller and the immortal Vaidotas Volkus.  Mizzou started 11-2 on their way to a solid 18-12 season.

Heading into 2007-08, with a ton of senior leaders, things were looking up.  Vanderbilt transfer DeMarre Carroll entered the mix, as did Justin Safford, but Anderson was still working mostly with Snyder leftovers and the five-man recruiting class he had patched together quickly upon his arrival.  Plus, Grimes was kicked off the team after a stupid incident involving the butt of a shotgun in St. Louis.  A tough non-conference schedule that featured seven games versus KenPom Top 75 teams did more damage -- Mizzou entered conference play at just 10-5 and, after upsetting Texas at Mizzou Arena, lost three in a row to fall to 11-8.  What was becoming a season of stagnation became something different after AthenaGate.  Anderson's senior "leaders" (Hannah, Brown, Butterfield and Horton, plus Leo Lyons) were suspended after the well-publicized Athena incident, and Hannah was eventually kicked off the team.  Anderson showed class and leadership in basically turning his team over to younger players ... but the wins were rare.  Mizzou limped to a 3-7 finish and, at 16-16, missed out on a postseason bid for the third straight year.

The 2008-09 season began with what I will call unenthusiastic optimism.  Gone were Hannah, K. Lawrence (transferred to Seton Hall), Horton, Brown, Butterfield, etc.  Anderson finally got to bring in a full class of players he had been able to scout and recruit over an extended period of time, and when mixed with Lyons, Carroll (who had struggled with injuries in 2007-08), Lawrence, Tiller and Safford, he finally had a team with which he could fully unleash his vision.  We at Rock M Nation were cautiously hopeful, but with so much blood it was hard to be too hopeful.  And in terms of enthusiasm ... well, our season preview consisted of just two parts (Part One, Part Two).  Let's face it, anything less than ten parts is almost a sign of disinterest for us, no?  (And I'm only slightly exaggerating.)

But ... read Part One.  Michael Atchison described what we were about to see with startling prescience.

While watching Mike Anderson make his first remarks as coach – "My goal is to win the national championship," he said.  "I can get it done here" – I had an eye on the roster and a bad feeling in my gut.  One of the great recruiting tools for any new coach is the honeymoon period of hope, when he can sell talented kids on what he did at his old school and what he’ll do at his new one.  But hope isn’t worth jack without vacant scholarships, and between probation-imposed reductions and a roster full of underclassmen, Mike Anderson had precious few.

So he muddled along for two years with disgruntled Snyder holdovers and stop-gap juco players with varying levels of talent, low levels of engagement, and undesirable assist-to-misdemeanor ratios.  Anderson bears part of them blame here – some of his junior college recruits were the worst offenders – but it’s clear that he inherited a poisoned program.

Now, though, is a new day.  Only Matt Lawrence and Leo Lyons remain from the former regime (they each played one year under Snyder), but both have been remade as players in the years since.  And, finally, Anderson has remade his roster, stocking it with the kind of high-energy, ball-hawking athletes that brought him success at Alabama-Birmingham.  While he still lacks the blue chip talent to take the Tigers over the top, he finally has the pieces in place to fully implement his style of play, the possession-churning, turnover-causing spread defense.

There are seven newcomers on this team, and each fits a position in the Anderson plan.  Forget point guard, shooting guard, etc.  The new crew includes a waterbug distributor (Miguel Paul), a long-limbed disruptor (Zaire Taylor), two stop-and-pop zone extenders (Marcus Denmon and Kim English), a pair of pogo-stick slasher/rebounders (Keith Ramsey and Laurence Bowers), and an immovable-object paint patroller (Steve Moore).  This group doesn’t give Anderson much experience, but it does give him lots of options.

Still, the present depends primarily on two returning seniors.  While veterans Matt Lawrence and J.T. Tiller steady the squad and add to the perimeter permutations, and Justin Safford is another big body to throw into the hopper, the team will go as far as the frontcourt duo of Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll can carry it.  Through two exhibitions, Lyons has killed opponents softly, while Carroll has produced with more panache.  Through two exhibition games, they’ve combined to average 29 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.  They’ll have to continue down that road (with even better rebounding numbers) for Missouri to meet its goals.

That pretty much describes 2008-09, no?

Offense

2006-08 Offense vs 2008-09 Offense,
According to KenPom Rankings

2006-07 2007-08 2006-08
Avg
2008-09 Advantage
Efficiency 56 41 48.5 8 2008-09
Effective FG% 64 137 100.5 47 2008-09
Turnover % 105 19 62.0 6 2008-09
Off. Reb. % 243 219 231.0 116 2008-09 Big
FTA/FGA 277 297 287.0 172 2008-09 Big
3PT% 65 238 151.5 113 2008-09
2PT% 80 73 76.5 28 2008-09
FT% 174 169 171.5 233 2006-08
Block% 25 106 65.5 15 2008-09
Steal% 175 25 100.0 59 2008-09
3PA/FGA 119 229 174.0 214
A/FGM 163 111 137.0 31

A ton of turnover in personnel?  No problem.  With an almost entirely new backcourt and two seniors in the post, Mizzou's offense improved across the board.  Fewer turnovers, better 2-point shooting, much better 3-point shooting, fewer blocked shots, more field goals created by assists ... and most importantly, an incredible improvement in offensive rebounding and trips to the line.  Mizzou was fast, physical, and relatively smart with the ball.

From an identity standpoint, Mizzou passed more and turned the ball over less.

  • 2006-07: 49% Pass, 33% Shoot, 10% Fouled, 8% TO
  • 2007-08: 51% Pass, 33% Shoot, 9% Fouled, 7% TO
  • 2008-09: 54% Pass, 31% Shoot, 9% Fouled, 6% TO

What was the trick?  Nothing magical.  First, the returning players just played better.  J.T. Tiller played to his strengths -- he shot less, passed more and slashed more.  Matt Lawrence was a little more selective in his shots.  DeMarre Carroll passed more and turned the ball over less.  Leo Lyons ... well, Leo was mostly the same.  But that's alright.  In all, with better chemistry and more confidence in the teammates around them, Mizzou's returnees were all able to play roles more suited to their strengths.  Meanwhile, the newcomers were as good or better than the players they replaced.

Player 2007-08
Usage
2008-09
Usage
2007-08
Floor%
2008-09
Floor%
Leo Lyons 27% 30% 48% 41%
Stefhon Hannah 27% 41%
DeMarre Carroll 24% 26% 43% 46%
Keon Lawrence 21% 38%
J.T. Tiller 20% 18% 40% 43%
Matt Lawrence 17% 18% 32% 41%
Zaire Taylor 13% 43%
Jason Horton 11% 42%
Marshall Brown 20% 36%
Kim English 24% 34%
Marcus Denmon 19% 36%
Laurence Bowers 21% 46%
Darryl Butterfield 17% 34%
Justin Safford 17% 17% 32% 42%
Miguel Paul 18% 34%
Keith Ramsey 12% 46%

Zaire Taylor's Usage and Floor% were almost identical to that of Jason Horton, but a) he was much more suited to the up-tempo style, and b) his defense was infinitely better.  Laurence Bowers was a more efficient Marshall Brown, Ramsey a more efficient Butterfield (and a much better defender to boot).  And with English, Denmon and Paul, Missouri had guard depth they had not previously possessed.

It's hard to analyze the Missouri offense too much further than that, really.  FT% aside, Mizzou's O was just plain better across the board.  They were deeper in the frontcourt, deeper in the backcourt, more efficient, better shooters, better rebounders ... just better.  Advanced stats don't tell us anything new -- they just verify what we already witnessed with our own eyes.

Defense

2006-08 Defense vs 2008-09 Defense,
According to KenPom Rankings

2006-07
2007-08 2006-08
Avg
2008-09 Advantage
Efficiency 73
70
71.5
13
2008-09
Effective FG% 161
115
138.0
53
2008-09
Turnover % 12
65
38.5
10
2008-09
Off. Reb. % 224
274
239.0
248
Push
FTA/FGA 268
293
280.5
253
2008-09
3PT% 294
18
156.0
16
2008-09 Big
2PT% 97
228
162.5
114
2008-09
FT% 178
270
224.0
86
2008-09 Big
Block% 188
217
202.5
125
2008-09
Steal% 9
76
42.5
3
2008-09
3PA/FGA 130
63
96.5
75

A/FGM 109
33
71.0
68

Like the offense, the defense got better in basically every category.  They forced worse shots, they forced a much higher rate of turnovers (with a much higher rate of steals), they blocked more shots, they fouled a bit less, they refused to let you get an open look from 3-point range.  If you weren't a good passing team, you had almost no shot against Missouri.  Mizzou's more offensively-based players (Lyons, Lawrence) got better on defense, and again, Mizzou just had a level of depth and athleticism that they had not previously possessed.

The biggest defensive improvement came in the backcourt, and it's not hard to see why.

Possessions Per Game, Mizzou Guards
Player 2007-08 2008-09
Keon Lawrence 52.2
Stefhon Hannah 50.6
Matt Lawrence 46.3 37.2
Jason Horton 39.7
J.T. Tiller 34.0 44.3
Zaire Taylor 47.1
Marcus Denmon 29.9
Kim English 25.7
Miguel Paul 20.4

Basically, J.T. Tiller took about 10 possessions per game from Matt Lawrence (Goose had improved, but clearly Tiller was still an infinitely better defender), and the 90 possessions that were going to Keon Lawrence and Jason Horton, were now going to Taylor, Denmon, English and Paul.  Better depth and better defenders.

---

Whereas advanced stats painted a really interesting picture of the 2003-04 team, explaining 2008-09 is much, much easier.  What the hell happened?  Missouri got bigger, faster, and deeper, and their senior leaders actually led.  Mizzou won 34 games in Mike Anderson's first two seasons, then won 31 in Year Three.  They won more games than any Mizzou team ever had, they advanced in the NCAA Tournament as far as any Mizzou team ever had, and most importantly, they won back the hearts of the Missouri fanbase.  As I've said many times, it was potentially the most rewarding fan experience I've ever been a part of, and though it was surprising, as Atch's write-up suggested, the more hopeful among us could see it coming.  The 2003-04 season (and the corresponding 2004 season in football) are often referenced by Missouri fans as reasons for caution, fear of expectations, and occasional "same old Mizzou" negativity.  But the 2008-09 season was proof that hope pays off eventually, and even if it takes a while, it's worth it.