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Is Missouri playing better?

TLDR: maybe, but only a little. Keep reading anyway.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last five games Missouri is 3-2 with wins over Arkansas, Auburn, and Ole Miss, as well as two close road losses to Arkansas and LSU. Prior to this recent run Missouri dropped eight of 10 contests. Winning breeds more excitement, which is good... I encourage it. But in the same way losing seems to build weird narratives, so does winning.

Narratives can be wrong though. And in these cases, they mostly are. Maybe the road losses to Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M, and West Virginia gave us a more negative view of the initial 10-game stretch.

So is Missouri playing better than they were earlier in the year?

Let’s start by taking a look at their best game scores. If you remember this piece from a few weeks ago, we broke down how Mizzou played really well at times and equally awful other times. Let’s update the look:

  • 90+: 7-0 (Incarnate Word, NKU, SIU, Illinois, Chicago State, Florida, Auburn)
  • 80-89: 3-1 (Wofford, Temple, Arkansas (H), LSU)
  • 70-79: 2-2 (Morehead State, Xavier, Ole Miss (H), Arkansas (A))
  • 60-69: 0-1 (Kentucky)
  • 50-59: 1-1 (Alabama, Georgia)
  • 40-49: 0-3 (Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia)
  • 30-39: 0-2 (Butler, Texas A&M (H))
  • 20-29: 0-0
  • 10-19: 0-2 (South Carolina, Texas A&M (A))
  • 0-9: 0-2 (Charleston Southern, Miss State)

I bolded the five most recent games. So Missouri’s played 27 games and they’ve scored 70 or higher and their record in those games is 12-3, with eight of those games being against high major opponents. Because you know you want to, let’s get granular.

Here is the raw lineup data per

Games 1-22 vs 23-27

Category Offense Defense Offense Defense
Category Offense Defense Offense Defense
Points Per Pos 0.95 0.92 1.08 1.06
Possessions 1518 1521 355 358
Four Factors
eFG% 47 45.9 50.2 47.9
Turnover% 21 21.8 18.3 15.9
Off Reb% 29.7 29.1 33.9 27
FTA/FGA 0.333 0.425 0.472 0.638
Shooting Breakdown
2FG% 47.9 46.7 51.9 51.1
3FG% 30.5 29.8 31.2 27.2
FT% 77.4 73.2 76.7 74.6
3FGA/FGA 0.429 0.393 0.33 0.306


I think if you’re going to extract anything from these numbers, offense makes you think your team is playing better. There was a 0.03 difference in points per possession over the first 1500 possessions, and that’s actually decreased to 0.02 points per possession over the last 350. Missouri is scoring the ball nearly 0.13 points per possession more (or 13 points per 100), which is a vast improvement.

Maybe we need to further separate the segments of the season. Missouri was okay early in the year. With Jeremiah Tilmon out, they began to struggle a bit more on defense, a little on offense, but they held it together until the trip to Mississippi State. Things spun out of control with five road games out of seven, and aside from a 15 minute sustained comeback against Georgia at home, Missouri was awful. We endured this ugly stretch and it played out like this...

Presented in chart form with the first 15 games of the year (when Missouri was largely a top 60 team) to the next seven games (when the bottom fell out) to the last five (when they finally started to win again).

Games 1-15 vs 16-22 vs 23-27

Category Offense Defense Offense Defense Offense Defense
Category Offense Defense Offense Defense Offense Defense
Points Per Pos 1.00 0.86 0.84 1.04 1.08 1.06
Possessions 1028 1030 490 491 355 358
Four Factors
eFG% 50.4 43.3 39.3 51.2 50.2 47.9
Turnover% 20.6 22.9 21.8 19.6 18.3 15.9
Off Reb% 30.8 25.7 27.5 36.6 33.9 27
FTA/FGA 0.314 0.399 0.373 0.476 0.472 0.638
Shooting Breakdown
2FG% 51.7 43.3 38.4 53.4 51.9 51.1
3FG% 32.4 28.9 26.9 31.8 31.2 27.2
FT% 73.5 76.1 84.9 68.5 76.7 74.6
3FGA/FGA 0.411 0.395 0.469 0.389 0.33 0.306

As we can see, things weren’t as bad in the early going as we thought. They got real bad, and it was an extended badness, which I think changed our perception when they finally started winning again.

Perhaps... the early stats are skewed by playing multiple games against non-High Major opponents, you say?

You’d be right! Running up the score against Chicago State and Incarnate Word, even over the course of 140 or so possessions can give you an expected boost. So how about a chart with the same game breakdown but without the mid and low major opponents? Here are all contests against High Major opponents (I included Temple since the AAC is close behind in quality to the SEC).

Games 1-15 vs 16-22 vs 23-27

Category Offense Defense Offense Defense Offense Defense
Category Offense Defense Offense Defense Offense Defense
Points Per Pos 0.91 0.93 0.84 1.04 1.08 1.06
Possessions 561 566 490 491 355 358
Four Factors
eFG% 48.6 47.1 39.3 51.2 50.2 47.9
Turnover% 20.7 22.1 21.8 19.6 18.3 15.9
Off Reb% 26 28.7 27.5 36.6 33.9 27
FTA/FGA 0.322 0.449 0.373 0.476 0.472 0.638
Shooting Breakdown
2FG% 47.1 49.4 38.4 53.4 51.9 51.1
3FG% 33.9 29.1 26.9 31.8 31.2 27.2
FT% 69.6 78.7 84.9 68.5 76.7 74.6
3FGA/FGA 0.386 0.404 0.469 0.389 0.33 0.306

So, maybe it’s me, but I keep looking at these numbers and I’m looking at the loss of Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith, two really good defenders, and seeing the slumping of the defense and thinking it has to be related.

Smith was lost during the Georgia game, so basically in the midst of the Tigers’ big slump. His impact was only a portion of the bad stretch, but Tilmon has been out (basically) since the start of conference play.

Missouri against high majors with Tilmon on the floor:

  • -0.07 on offense, -0.13 on defense in points per possession.

But the OFFENSE!

It’s true. The main improvement has been offensively. Mizzou has benefitted from a booming offense in a time when their defense has been struggling. Over the last five games, Mizzou has played 355 offensive possessions and averaged 1.08 points per possession during that span.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

For one, the starting lineup has changed, with Cuonzo Martin including both Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith in the lineup. “Two point guards, that’s it right? Surely that’s the key to the offensive success!” you say...

Hey, not so fast. So here’s where it’s interesting... I thought originally when I started this piece, it would be the case that the two point guard lineup would be the solution... however:

  • Mizzou offense with Pinson and Dru on the floor together? 1.05 ppp (239 total)
  • Mizzou offense OTHER lineups (meaning any lineup without those two on the floor)? 1.15 ppp (116 total)

Just what I thought, only the opposite. The two point guard lineups do well, and considering how bad Mizzou’s offense was for most of the season, 1.05 is more than acceptable (don’t pay attention to the 1.08 ppp on defense). But the offense has undoubtedly been better when either Pinson or Smith are running the show individually.

When Dru Smith is not on the floor and Pinson is — just 39 possessions — the output is 1.31 points per possession. There are 70 possessions where Dru Smith has been on and Pinson has been off, the output lands at just 1.03 ppp.

(We can continue our Tray Jackson appreciation, his offensive points per possession when he’s on the floor is 1.27)

So it’s Pinson, then?

A little bit.

Over five games, Pinson has scored 108 points on 64 shots. Plus, he’s gotten to the free throw line 40 times and made 82.5% of those. In the previous 14 games against high major teams, Pinson scored 119 points on 120 shots. So Pinson basically equalled his output in five games versus the previous 15, all while taking half the shots, so that is going to help your offensive production.

Missouri also benefitted from playing Arkansas without Isaiah Joe, and Auburn without Isaac Okoro. Both teams playing without their best defender is like Missouri playing without Tilmon. Plus facing Ole Miss and LSU, two of the weaker defensive teams in the league. Currently LSU is 13th in the league in defense, betting they can outscore you most nights. Mizzou took advantage of the changing of the schedule and hit it when Pinson decided to become a 20 point a night kind of guard.

If Pinson can sustain his aggressiveness and accuracy, and Tilmon and Smith can find their way back into the lineup, it’s possible Mizzou rediscovered some level of defensive prowess. That combination might be able to give the Tigers a boost in these last four regular season games.