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A weak SEC offers Missouri an opportunity

After steady improvement, the conference is on pace for its worst offensive season in two decades — and that’s good news for the defensive-minded Tigers.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Illinois Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday afternoon, Missouri put on a masterclass in defense against Illinois. Jeremiah Tilmon and Reed Nikko leaned on Kofi Cockburn on the block. Mitchell Smith’s length and agility frustrated Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and its backcourt switched seamlessly to enough to stifle any guard not named Ayo Dosunmu.

The Tigers’ 63-56 victory was vintage Cuonzo Martin.

Eleven games into the season, it might also be Tigers’ best blueprint if it hopes to return to the NCAA tournament when March rolls around.

By now, you’re aware the Tigers’ offense has regressed in a season that many thought would bring progression. Mizzou’s only shooting 27.1 percent from the 3-point line, a drop-off personified by sophomore Torrence Watson’s continued struggles. The Tigers also continue to struggle with turnovers, ranking 337th in the country for un-forced giveaways. And if the season ended today, MU’s offensive rating, which sits at 102.9, would be its second-worst of the KenPom era.

Ironically, the Tigers aren’t an outlier in the SEC.

Instead, their struggles have proven universal in a conference that’s enduring a harder reset. And while that comes with frustration, the Tigers’ goals are still attainable.

NCAA Basketball: Lehigh at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

How big of a step back has the SEC taken?

Before you digest the tables in this piece, now is an opportune moment to define the metrics we’re using to take the measure of the SEC.

  • Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (AdjO): Estimate of points scored per 100 possession a team would have against an average D-I defense.
  • Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (AdjD): Estimate of points allowed per 100 possession a team would have against the average D-I offense.
  • Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM): The margin between a team’s offensive and defensive efficiency against an average D1 opponent.

Take Missouri, for example. After a win over Illinois, the Tigers’ offense averaged 102.8 points per 100 possessions against an average DI opponent and only allowed 89.3 — producing an efficiency margin of 13.57.

What does that tell us? It’s simple: MU’s offense is close to the NCAA median, while its borderline elite defensively. KenPom then ranks teams based on their efficiency margin, meaning MU’s was 52nd-best nationally.

Using these metrics, we can evaluate the strength of each SEC team — and the conference as a whole — from season to season. I’ve gone ahead and compiled those numbers below. Take a look.

(Note: These numbers are from games completed through Dec. 21)

SEC Efficiency | 2013-2020

Year AdjO AdjD AdjEM
Year AdjO AdjD AdjEM
2013 105.91 97.21 8.71
2014 109.98 98.81 11.14
2015 109.75 97.56 12.18
2016 110.29 99.02 11.27
2017 110.35 97.31 13.19
2018 112.38 98 14.38
2019 112.09 97.33 14.77
2020 105.46 93.16 12.28

Starting in 2015, SEC programs began making concerted efforts to improve the conference’s basketball product. Using oodles of money generated by football, schools invested in better coaches and upgraded their facilities, which led to improved recruiting and, naturally, better on-court results. Over three seasons, the trajectory of the league steadily climbed, peaking with its best efficiency margin (14.64) since 2007.

So what did the SEC do upon becoming the picture of stability?

Well, four schools fired their coaches, while contenders saw veteran rotations hollowed out by graduation and the NBA draft. And if you read Sam Snelling’s granular SEC previews, you would know the only certainty this season is fluidity in the middle of the standings.

In other words, the SEC was due for a reset. The only question was hard it might be for all the programs involved. The answer: Its teams are 15.4 percent worse. That’s how much the conference’s adjusted efficiency margin has declined, which effectively puts the SEC in the same place it was five years ago.

SEC Efficiency Margin | How does 2020 compare to 2019?

Team 2019 AdjEM 2020 AdjEM %Change KenPom
Team 2019 AdjEM 2020 AdjEM %Change KenPom
Auburn 25 19.84 -20.64 15
Kentucky 27.57 19.62 -40.52 17
Florida 18.3 17.39 -4.97 25
Tennessee 26.24 17.12 -34.66 27
Arkansas 12.92 15.75 21.9 37
LSU 20.22 14.73 -27.15 42
Missouri 9.78 13.57 38.75 52
Mississippi State 20.04 13.27 -33.78 53
Alabama 10.68 11.61 8.71 67
Ole Miss 13.98 9.63 -31.12 78
Georgia 4.13 9.18 98.44 85
South Carolina 9.55 6.35 -33.51 102
Texas A&M 7.49 1.63 -78.24 133
Vanderbilt 0.81 2.37 192.59 143

As you can tell, nine SEC schools have seen their adjusted efficiency decline this season. What do seven of them have in common? They were all playing in the NCAA tournament last season. Among that group, the average efficiency rating (15.94) has slumped by 26.3 percent.

We’ve been conditioned to expect Kentucky to reload each season. Still, outside of Lexington, it wasn’t entirely clear how departures would impact Tennessee, Auburn, Mississippi State, and Florida.

At Rock M, we thought the Volunteers might be able to survive the exit of Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander III. Coach Rick Barnes could count on experienced guards in Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden, expand roles for John Fulkerson and Yves Pons, and plug in a blue-chip freshman Josiah-Jordan James.

While we wouldn’t bet against UT’s culture, the Vols have seen their efficiency fall off by 34.7 percent. And on Saturday, Turner announced he was undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.

Meanwhile, Auburn, a team that we were less bullish about, has steadily climbed into the top 15 of KenPom’s index. So far, the reserves from a Final Four team have acquitted themselves well in larger roles.

And of the five teams that have seen their efficiency margins improve, three — Missouri, Arkansas and Alabama — boasted some of the SEC’s best roster continuity. As for Georgia, the Bulldogs and coach Tom Crean imported a future NBA lottery pick in Anthony Edwards as part of a top-10 recruiting class. While the rest of UGA’s freshmen need seasoning, they’re ahead of last year’s roster, which was populated by Mark Fox holdovers.

In the offseason, our hypothesis was simple — all the upheaval would shrink the gap between teams. On the eve of conference play, that seems to be playing out like we thought.

So far, an average of 1.4 points per 100 possessions is what separates each SEC team, which has shrunk from 2.1 points in 2019. Last season, first-place Kentucky’s adjusted efficiency was 13.59 points better than seventh-place Ole Miss. After Saturday, that same margin is all that stood between Auburn and South Carolina, which is 12th in the league for adjusted efficiency.

Deducing the cause of the SEC’s parity isn’t all that complex, either.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Butler Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

What’s wrong with offenses in the SEC?

Remember how Florida won the offseason?

Point guard Andrew Nembhard had his pro stock evaluated and opted for a return to Gainesville. The Gators returned an optimal floor-spacer in Noah Locke and athletic combo forward Keyontae Johnson. On the recruiting trail, coach Mike White returned with a haul — a pair of McDonald’s All-American guards — Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann — and a top-50 talent in Omar Payne.

No one doubted the Gators were amply stocked on the perimeter, but transfers and graduation left its frontcourt in a state of flux. Typically, guard play has been enough to power Florida under White. All they needed was an elite piece in the paint that could elevate them to a bonafide contender nationally.

Well, they acquired that asset when Kerry Blackshear Jr., arguably the top transfer on the market, picked the Gators.

Not only was Blackshear an efficient scorer after catching the ball on the block, but he was adept at finding cutters and spot-up shooters. That’s all before you consider the rim protection and rebounding he could offer.

At last, the reasoning went, White had the full arsenal of offensive weapons to couple with an elite defense. So how are things going two months into the season?

Try this: Florida is on track for its lowest offensive rating over the last two decades.

And the Gators aren’t alone, either.

Through Saturday, the average offensive rating across the SEC stood at 105.5 — or the worst of the KenPom era. Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Tennessee are all on course for their least efficient seasons in eons. The plague has even reached Lexington, where Kentucky is trending toward the worst offensive rating since they ran Billy Gillispie out of town.

SEC Offensive Efficiency | How does 2020 compare to 2019?

Team 2019 AdjO 2020 AdjO %Change KenPom
Team 2019 AdjO 2020 AdjO %Change KenPom
Auburn 120.9 109.3 -9.09 15
Kentucky 117.6 108.5 -7.74 17
Florida 110.5 106.9 -3.26 25
Tennessee 122.7 106.4 -13.28 27
Arkansas 110.1 103.7 -5.81 37
LSU 117.7 110.2 -6.37 42
Missouri 107 102.8 -3.93 52
Mississippi State 117.7 110 -6.54 53
Alabama 108.2 106.5 -1.57 67
Ole Miss 113.2 105.7 -6.63 78
Georgia 106.1 106.3 0.19 85
South Carolina 108.1 101.4 -6.2 102
Texas A&M 107.2 95.5 -10.91 133
Vanderbilt 102.2 103.2 0.98 143

A 5.9 percent dip in efficiency stands in starker contrast to the last two seasons, which were among the SEC’s best in recent memory. Only two teams — Georgia and Vanderbilt — have improved offensively, and those efficiency gains are modest at best. Meanwhile, hiring offensive-minded coaches at Arkansas and Alabama hasn’t produced early gains.

What’s driving the decline?

One culprit appears to be a dip in 3-point shooting.

Since the SEC expanded, programs have knocked down 34.2 percent of their attempts from long range, but that’s slid to 30.8 percent this season. Half of the conference ranked below 250th nationally in 3-point shooting, including four — South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Texas A&M — sitting 300th or worse.

A natural explanation should be moving the 3-point line back to the FIBA distance. Back in 2009, which is the last time the NCAA pushed the line back, shooting percentages did decline across the SEC — by roughly 1 percentage point. That’s a far cry from the 5.9-percentage-point drop we’ve seen through 11 games.

That rationale also takes a hit when you look at 3-point shooting from other high-major conferences.

What’s the impact of the new 3-point line?

Conference 2019 3FG% 2020 3FG% Change
Conference 2019 3FG% 2020 3FG% Change
ACC 33.5 33.1 -0.4
Big 12 34.2 33.1 -1.1
Big East 35.1 34.1 -1
Big Ten 33.8 32.7 -1.1
Pac 12 34.1 34.7 0.6
SEC 36.7 30.8 -5.9
Synergy Sports

The conference’s high-volume shooters, though, haven’t been hampered by the line, either. Among the top-15 returners, the average 3-point shooting is 33.9 percent — only 2.1 percentage points below last season. For nine of them, in fact, the 17-inch strip between the old line and the one new one hasn’t kept them from knocking in jumpers at a comparable clip.

Again, attrition is more of a plausible explanation.

Former reserves such as Danjel Purifoy, Darius Days, Jordan Bowden mand Desi Sills have seen their workload increase. Each is hoisting up twice as many 3-pointers per game as they did last season — and each watched their accuracy slide by at least 12.5 percentage points. As for the crop of freshman, Edwards (29.3%), Jaden Shackelford (26.4%) and Dylan Disu (28.4%) should probably tweak their shot selection.

When you replace good shooters with mediocre ones, the results tend to be poor. Who knew, right?

The other problem plaguing SEC teams: poor ball-handling.

Last season, SEC teams only gave the ball away on 18.9 percent of their possessions — a rate that’s climbed to 19.9 percent in 2019-2020. And six teams who needed to replace their starting point guard are coughing the ball up one out of every five times they run their offense.

The opportunity of cost, though, of a lost possession manifests itself differently.

At Missouri, they put even more pressure on an offense that’s already hindered by inefficient perimeter shooting. Coach Cuonzo Martin’s squad is fifth in the SEC in terms of 3-point shooting volume, but only makes 27.1 percent of their attempts. Assuming MU shot the ball better, the extra value of a 3-pointer would help replace the possessions they giveaway. Instead, that’s not happening.

To a certain degree, the same story is playing out Alabama and Texas A&M.

The story is different for a program like LSU, which ranks second nationally in 2-point shooting and can offset putrid jump-shooting by hammering the offensive glass. Without Tremont Waters running the point, the Tigers’ turnover rate increased to 20.6 percent this season — acting as an unnecessary drag on an attack that’s 22nd nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency.

And when we take a look at Tennessee, the absence of Jordan Bone is equally acute. The Volunteers’ turnover rate has risen by 3.5 percent points to 19.3. Given the fact Rick Barnes’ team is also struggling to shoot the ball from deep (29.4 3FG%), an offense that’s just 199th in effective-field-goal percentage is caught in a nasty feedback loop.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Utah Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

At least SEC teams are playing stout defense

We’ll have to see what happens once we hit the middle of conference play, but SEC programs are at least defending at a high-level. Part of that is likely owed to the general dip in efficiency across the sport. However, the conference still had five teams among the top 25 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency after Saturday.

Compared to last season, defensive efficiency has improved by roughly 4.3 percent across the league.

SEC Defensive Efficiency | How does 2020 compare to 2019?

Team 2019 AdjD 2020 AdjD %Change KenPom
Team 2019 AdjD 2020 AdjD %Change KenPom
Auburn 95.9 89.5 6.26 15
Kentucky 90.1 88.9 1.33 17
Florida 92.2 89.5 2.92 25
Tennessee 96.5 89.3 7.46 27
Arkansas 97.2 88 9.47 37
LSU 97.5 95.4 2.15 42
Missouri 97.2 89.3 8.13 52
Mississippi State 97.6 96.7 0.922 53
Alabama 97.5 94.8 2.77 67
Ole Miss 99.2 96 3.23 78
Georgia 102 97.1 4.8 85
South Carolina 98.6 95.1 3.55 102
Texas A&M 99.7 93.9 5.82 133
Vanderbilt 101.4 100.8 0.59 143

Considering the SEC the historically doesn’t play at a brisk pace, it’s easy to envision what looms in January: games between inconsistent offenses that unfold a grinding tempo. And given how tightly bunched the conference appears to be, victories will hinge on which teams can generate enough 2-point offense and create extra possessions by winning the rebound war.

In other words: get ready for Murderball.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Illinois Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

What does this mean for Mizzou?

In any other season, the Tigers’ rickety offense might prove to be a liability. Fortunately, the rest of the SEC is equally anemic when it comes to that end of the floor.

Consider this for a moment: after losing to Charleston Southern, the Tigers were still ninth in the SEC for adjusted efficiency margin.

Yes, losing to a team ranked 313th in KenPom wasn’t enough to kick MU into the abyss. After beating Illinois, MU found itself at seventh in the conference for adjusted efficiency. Sure, they sit nine spots lower in KenPom, but in practical terms, they’re in the same place we saw them before a Big South opponent walked out of Columbia with a victory.

Since then, the Tigers inched back up to seventh in the SEC for adjusted efficiency. They’re projected conference record has never fallen below .500. And in the past month, coach Cuonzo Martin’s crew notched a pair of potential Quadrant 1 wins — and might have three if not for a botched switch in the waning seconds against Xavier.

What’s unfolding in the SEC is part of a larger trend in college hoops, where efficiency is down across the board. As a result, it makes middle-of-the-road programs from high-major leagues susceptible to variance. And if you’re especially weak offensively — like Mizzou — you’re at risk when a terrible 3-point shooting team knocks down 40 percent of its attempts.

And it’s still a team that could find itself elbowing its way onto the bubble come March.

Given Martin’s reputation, the early returns, and the overall state of the SEC, I’d feel safe betting on MU to remain a top-flight defensive unit. The Tigers, which rank 40th defensive rebounding rate, also do a stellar job limiting teams to one shot each time down the floor. Any SEC game that settles into a tilt played in the half-court is one where MU should give itself a chance.

So, what about the offense?

Barring a breakout from Watson or Dru Smith, it’s time to embrace reality and dispel the idea that poor shooting was just an early-season funk. To reach 35 percent from 3-point range this season, MU would likely need to shoot a 39 percent clip the rest of the way. Who is confident that will happen?

A more realistic goal would be to connect on 33-percent of their attempts during SEC play, which is roughly the average across high-major conferences. Connecting on two more of those shots each out would lift MU’s scoring average to 71.1 points — and boost its offensive efficiency to 1.067 points per possession.

Paring down turnovers would also be ideal. Again, let’s set a modest goal: 19.5. That’s the median turnover percentage in Division I, and it would yield MU another two possessions. At 1.067 PPP, that’s another 2.1 points they could add to their tally, further elevating their scoring mark to 73.2 points.

Simply playing a cleaner brand of offense could help MU to a 108.6 offensive rating. In recent years, that would only be good enough for 10th in the SEC. This season, though, it would get them closer to fifth. Paired with an elite defense, their efficiency margin in these hypothetical would grow to 19.3 — adequate to be a factor in a down year for the conference.

When the year began, we were optimistic that Mizzou’s continuity would be a catalyst for an improved attack. Unfortunately, it hasn’t played out as expected. Now, the Tigers share the same goal as the rest of their SEC peers: be less mediocre than the field.