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Count the ifs: What will it take for Missouri Basketball to live up to the hype?

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Setting expectations for this team is impossible. But if the Tigers clear these marks, look out

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Texas A&M Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been one drawback to Missouri’s increasing hoops hype for 2017-18: it meant I actually noticed when Joe Lunardi posted a mid-August Bracketology update at ESPN. That’s not something I’ve needed to worry about having on my radar of late.

Lunardi’s latest bracket is fascinating, though, for one simple reason: the team with the sixth-best odds of winning the national title, per Vegas, is one of his Last Four In, drawing St. Bonaventure in the play-in game for the right to play 6-seed Northwestern.

You can pretend to be disrespected by this, but it further illuminates the simple fact that we have no idea what to expect or how to create expectations for this team. Vegas tends to know what it’s doing when it creates these odds, and it has Mizzou in the top 10. Lunardi ... I mean, he doesn’t not know what he’s doing, and he basically has Mizzou barely squeezing into the top 44.

Figuring out what to expect is impossible, but knowing what to look for is not. So these disparate expectations have created an extra need for the ifs list. I started that process last week.

Since the Tiger roster has been overhauled both in terms of new bodies and raw talent, and since this whole “from eight wins to national title contender in a single offseason” thing is unprecedented, it’s really difficult to simply say, “For Mizzou to live up to hype, the Tigers have to improve in Categories A and B.” They have to improve in virtually every way.

To set standards, then, let’s create a generic Very Good Team. [...]

Mizzou’s eFG% needs to improve by 8.5% — easily the most drastic required change — and its offensive rebound rate needs to rise by 4.1%. Meanwhile, the Tigers already hit the mark or came close in terms of turnover rate and fouls drawn.

This is good news when you think about what Cuonzo Martin has most directly added with his first recruiting class: scoring ability and size. [...]

On defense, Mizzou needs to limit opponents’ eFG% by an extra 2.1% and needs to cut opponents’ rebound rate by 2.3%; the Tigers need to keep forcing turnovers at their current rate, and more than anything else, they need to figure out how not to foul so damn much.

With these generic needs in mind, here’s my take on an Ifs list for Mizzou hoops in 2017-18.

With these, Mizzou probably makes the NCAA Tournament

1. If Mizzou ranks in the top 150 in tempo

There’s almost no correlation whatsoever between tempo and offensive efficiency — tempo is a commitment to a style, and any style can work with proper talent and coaching. That said, Mizzou still doesn’t have just a ton of natural shooters on this team.

Adding Michael Porter Jr. obviously helps a ton, not to mention Canisius transfer Kassius Robertson and Jontay Porter. (The incoming freshman guards — C.J. Roberts and Blake Harris — could also help. But they’ll also be freshmen.)

Still, this was maybe the worst shooting Mizzou team of all time last year. Changing that might take more than simply adding a couple more shooters. It might also require creating some easy buckets. We know some of the concepts that Cuonzo Martin and Cornell Mann might be adding to the offensive arsenal, but I think it’s going to be important for the Tigers to try to steal some easy buckets through transition.

Martin’s teams have not been tempo-heavy through the years, but it does seem like there’s going to be a bit of an effort to change that. If Mizzou simply ranks among the top half of the country or so in tempo, that could result in a few easy buckets here and there. Good enough for me.

2. If Michael Porter Jr. is Stanley Johnson

Johnson was the No. 3 recruit in the nation in 2014, a 6’7 shooting guard who averaged 13.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game for Arizona in 2014-15. He was the No. 8 pick in the 2015 draft.

Remember how many times we talked about how everybody was punching a weight class too high last year? How Jordan Barnett was a No. 1 when he'd be a heck of a No. 2, how Terrence Phillips was a No. 2 when he'd be a heck of a No. 3, etc.? If MPJ posts Johnson numbers, the Tigers officially have the No. 1 weapon they needed.

3. If Mizzou makes 34.8 percent of its 3-pointers

The Tigers shot 30.8 percent last year, good for a hilariously awful 333rd out of 351 teams. Making just one more for every 25 shots would improve the Tigers to 34.8 percent and get them 175th — basically the 50th percentile. With the increase in size and scoring options, they don’t have to be a phenomenal outside shooting team. But they’ve probably got to be at least average.

4. If Jontay Porter doesn’t simply roam the perimeter

Despite living in a 6’11, 240-pound frame, the younger of the freshman Porters is already probably one of the better outside shooters on the team. Random, scattered comparisons to Sam Perkins in that regard have made me giddy. Perkins was 6’9 and both grabbed 7,666 rebounds and attempted 2,348 3-pointers in his 18-year NBA career, and that 3.3-to-1 ratio shifted to 1.2-to-1 over his final eight seasons. He was also making 38 percent of his 3s in that span. The Big Smooth was a lot of fun to watch.

If Jontay has some Big Smooth in him, that makes me very, very happy. But he’ll still need to be able to bang at times. A height advantage only means so much if you’ve got 6’10 Michael and 6’11 Jontay roaming the perimeter too much. Last year, Russell Woods was Mizzou’s best offensive rebounder, grabbing a 10.2 percent OR%, 227th in the country. If Jontay hits at least nine percent, Mizzou’s probably in business.

With these, Mizzou might make a run in the NCAA Tournament

5. If Michael Porter Jr. is Josh Jackson

Jackson was the No. 1 prospect in the 2016 class, a 6'8 shooting guard who averaged 16.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game for Kansas and made 38 percent of his 3-pointers. He went fourth in the 2017 draft. If Porter is that, Mizzou is very good.

6. If Jeremiah Tilmon avoids foul trouble

We know that freshman Jeremiah Tilmon is a physical specimen and is becoming even more of a physical specimen.

We also know that his teammates have been quite impressed with his skill set and physicality.

“He’s so hard to get off the glass,” forward Jordan Barnett said of Tilmon. “When a rebound goes up, he’s so hard to box out. He’s a bull down there. That’s the biggest thing that’s shocked me, honestly. I didn’t think he’d be that strong.”

But Tilmon’s game isn’t confined to rebounding and defense, Puryear said.

“His footwork around the basket is something I’ve overlooked,” Puryear said. “I didn’t know he had that great of footwork around the basket, but he has great moves and can finish with both hands.”

This is all spectacular news. But he’s still a freshman. And imposing, physical freshmen sometimes have the tendency of getting a little too physical. It wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the world if Tilmon turned out to be a bit of a foul machine. And if he is, then not only is Mizzou probably failing at the whole “foul less” thing, but that could mean a lot of bench time for the guy who might be the most physically strong big man on the team. (Reed Nikko might also qualify for that title. Not sure.) And Tilmon being on the bench probably lowers Mizzou’s ceiling.

7. If Terrence Phillips avoids fouls

CBE Hall Of Fame Classic
Terrence Phillips
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

As thrilling as the influx of size has been, Mizzou still doesn’t have just a ton of depth in the backcourt. You've got Phillips, you've got Robertson, you've got the freshmen (Roberts and Harris), and you've got the veterans (Jordan Geist, Cullen VanLeer). And I guess in some instances, you might have MPJ, too.

MPJ aside, there are almost no proven weapons there. But we know the potential that Phillips possesses. He was by default Missouri's best 3-point shooter last year (he shot 35.6 pecent, and no other Tiger topped 33.3 percent), and he dished at least five assists in 15 games despite playing on a team devoid of shooting.

Phillips wants to lead the nation in assists, and he should at least be able to lead the SEC. But he has to stay on the court to do that, and he was extremely foul-prone last year. In terms of fouls committed per 40 minutes, his 5.0 average was closer to Woods’ (6.0) than, say, Frankie Hughes’ (3.0). He fouled out of nine games and committed four fouls in seven others.

Granted, part of this could be attributed to the simple fact that Mizzou was behind a lot. You don’t foul as much when you aren’t behind and desperately trying to make something happen. But a lot of these fouls also came in the name of theft — his 2.8 percent steal rate ranked in the nation’s top 250 — and that’s a delicate balance.

A team with Phillips is likely to win, or at least break even in, the ball control battle. But he has to be on the court for that to be the case. And the drop-off when he’s not could be dramatic unless a couple of freshmen are ready to contribute major minutes.

8. If Kassius Robertson hits 43% of his 3-pointers

In three seasons at Canisius, Robertson made 213 of his 528 3-point attempts, 40.3 percent. After shooting 38.2 percent as a freshman, he raised that to 40.4 percent, then 41.0.

Canisius v Monmouth
Kassius Robertson (5)
Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images

This was against mostly subpar competition, obviously, but in three years he's also made 38.8 percent of his 3s against KenPom top-100 teams. And that was on a team that didn't distract defenses with MPJ or have as good a passer as Phillips.

Robertson is now playing on a team with genuine weapons; he's also playing against constant power conference-level competition for the first time. If the former means more than the latter, and he's able to take advantage of the open looks that might be coming his way, Missouri's offense is going to be dynamite. Hitting 43 percent might not be out of the question if he’s getting open looks; it would also give Mizzou a top-100 threat from behind the arc.

But if the change in physicality has a detrimental effect and wears on the lanky 180-pounder, then that will put a lot of pressure on Phillips and the Porters to not only create baskets near the basket, but also nail a high percentage of their outside shots.

It's hard to overstate how important Robertson could end up being for this team. Without him, you're looking at major minutes for players who either weren't amazing last year (Geist, VanLeer) or freshmen. But if Kassius proves adept from outside, you're looking at a potential lineup that includes the best passer in the SEC, a 3-point bomber, the best scoring freshman in the country, Jordan Barnett (easily Missouri's best all-around offensive weapon last year), and either Blue Chip Big Man A or Blue Chip Big Man B.

That lineup could be a stunner. But it needs to include said 3-point bomber.

9. If Michael Porter Jr. is Kevin Durant

I mean, it’s on the table. In his lone year at Texas, Durant averaged 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.9 steals, 1.9 blocks, and 1.3 assists per game, made 40.4 percent of his 3s, and won all of the national player-of-the-year awards. Porter has drawn comparisons to the 6’9 Durant, and if he somehow lives up to them ... well, I don’t think you need me to tell you how good Mizzou could be in that instance.