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Five questions faced Mizzou, and the early answers are mixed

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Dru Smith has lived up to the hype, an injury hobbled a key contributor, sophomores are slumping, and any outcome is on the table for the Tigers.

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

Once Missouri boards a charter flight home tonight from Mississippi State, they will have made the turn toward the latter half of the regular season.

However, the final destination is unknown.

Slugging out a tough road win in Starkville won’t change the itinerary, but it would effectively offset dropping a winnable home game last week to Tennessee. And while the NET rankings are still sorting themselves out, picking off the Bulldogs could evolve into a Quadrant I win come March — another dapple of whiteout to erase the blemish of losing to a Big South foe. Finally, it would boost tepid optimism that returned after MU finished walloping Florida in a snowstorm on Saturday.

During the preseason, we pushed the idea that the Tigers had enough continuity and balance across the roster to return to the NCAA tournament. Yet that rationale depended on coach Cuonzo Martin answering a handful of questions. Now, it makes sense to take stock of where MU stands and how far it has to go as it closes in on the home stretch.

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

1. Will Dru Smith be as good as advertised?

For more than a year, word about the Evansville transfer’s play inside a practice gym was something roughly akin to buzz about a record on Pitchfork.

To everyone’s relief, the hype proved true.

Now, Smith hasn’t replicated the absurdly efficient metrics he posted in the Missouri Valley Conference, but there’s no doubt about how well his game has translated to the SEC and the high-major level. Smith finds a plethora of ways to impact the game: crafty drives finished with shoulder fakes, creating deflections as the ball reverses and making the right read playing out of pick-and-rolls.

Through Saturday, Smith is averaging 0.971 points per possession in the half-court, which ranks eighth out of 25 high-usage players in the SEC, according to Synergy data. Meanwhile, his 31.3 assist rate is sixth in the conference, just behind Andrew Nembhard, per KenPom. Finally, he’s the leader in steal rate, creating extra possessions while remaining a pestering presence — his 0.655 PPP allowed is sixth in the SEC — for the Tigers’ gapping scheme.

Once Smith worms into the paint, whether it’s turning the corner on a pick-and-roll or driving against a closeout, the shots he creates are worth 1.19 points. As we saw against Florida, Smith scored 12 of his game-high 22 points in the paint, often out of actions designed to get him slithering into the lane.

The Tigers don’t have a ton of reliable outlets for offensive production, but Smith is one of them. If Missouri’s offense shifts its emphasis to Smith creating off the bounce and pushing the ball off turnovers, his importance will only grow. What he did on Saturday in a rout of Florida could be a template.

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

2. Is this the year injury luck leaves Mizzou unscathed?

No, and it’s maddening.

Jeremiah Tilmon’s junior season has been a throwback no one wanted. His turnover rate has ticked back up, and his foul rate — 5.9 of them per 40 minutes — hasn’t budged. Foes have also tweaked their post defense to deploy softer double teams and diversified the direction from which it arrives.

Yet Tilmon still produces 1.25 points per shot and still draws enough attention to warp a defense. Losing Tilmon to a fractured foot not only saps the scoring column but takes a ball-mover and rim protector off the floor.

Throwing the ball to Mitchell Smith or Reed Nikko doesn’t elicit the same worry. Against Tennessee, we saw the worst-case scenario: opponents extend their defense, closing down space and denying unguarded 3-pointers. On top of that, MU’s guards aren’t exactly known for their ability to catch, rip and go.

However, Mizzou tweaked its tactics five days later.

First, they ratcheted up on-ball pressure, created deflections and triggered transition chances. Offensively, the Tigers’ tempo didn’t perk up, but they made pick-and-rolls and other ball-screens earlier in possessions, letting Smith, Xavier Pinson and Javon Pickett play downhill. Under Mike White, the Gators’ rely on their lead guard to apply heavy doses of pressure, while his teammates play tight to make it hard to swing the ball. If you can get into gaps, it help defenders have a lot of ground to cover and can leave floor-spacers with breathing room.

How viable will that approach be moving forward? It’s contingent on MU making open jumpers.

Tilmon’s absence might be more acute on the defensive end, where MU will have to slow down big man tandems for Mississippi State (Reggie Perry and Abdul Ado) or West Virginia (Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe). A mob mentality, which we saw against Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn and Florida’s Kerry Blackshear Jr., is one approach. But it can also run up the foul count and put teams on the line.

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

3. Can Torrence Watson’s momentum carry over?

It turns out it can’t.

Watson’s shooting stroke has wandered off into the wilderness. Once you take out his strafing Chicago State, the Whitfield product’s catch-and-shoot jumpers have only yielded 0.71 PPS. Entering Saturday, that was roughly 35 percent below the median for shooters from high-major teams with 50 or more attempts.

For all of MU’s branding as Big Guard U, the sophomore rarely puts the ball on the floor or exploits gaps as a cutter. Jumpers will always be his bread and butter, but the lack of diversity in his shot selection is still jarring. And while it’s been a brutal year for the top-50 wing prospects from the 2018 class, Watson’s struggles stand out.

First, let’s use 247Sports position rankings and KenPom to compare Watson’s season with similarly rated recruits. Out of 10 prospects, his offensive rating entering Saturday was third-worst (87.2), and his decline in efficiency (-15.8) was trumped only by Maryland’s Serrel Smith.

(Note: The data is from games played through Saturday. I’ve also omitted players who redshirted, transferred or declared for the NBA draft.)

Sophomore Slump | Torrence Watson — Position Ranking

Player Pos. Rank School FR ORTG SO ORTG Change %MIN
Player Pos. Rank School FR ORTG SO ORTG Change %MIN
Elias Valtonen 24 Arizona State 98.1 91.8 (14) -6.3 35.8
Eric Hunter 29 Purdue 93.8 104.9 11.1 77.9
Jeenathan Williams 25 Buffalo 94.1 100.1 6 66.2
Bryce Hamilton 28 UNLV 97.1 95.4 -1.7 55.9
Montez Mathis 26 Rutgers 89.1 87.7 -1.4 55.7
Torrence Watson 22 Missouri 103 87.2 -15.8 41.5
Bryce Willis 27 Stanford 85.1 83.8 -1.3 73.6
Serrel Smith 30 Maryland 100.2 77.3 -22.9 17.5
247Sports, KenPom

Among peers playing comparable minutes, Watson’s offensive rating brings up the rear, according to KenPom data. And again, only one player — Providence wing A.J. Reeves — has endured a steeper efficiency drop than Watson.

Sophomore Slump | Torrence Watson — Percentage of Minutes

Player Pos. Rank School FR ORTG SO ORTG Change %MIN
Player Pos. Rank School FR ORTG SO ORTG Change %MIN
Elias Valtonen 24 Arizona State 98.1 91.8 (14) -6.3 35.8
Alan Griffin 41 Illinois 87.3 131.4 44.1 42.5
Jules Bernard 10 UCLA 103.1 99.8 -3.3 38.2
Greg Williams 31 St. John's 98.4 93.5 -4.9 44.6
Torrence Watson 22 Missouri 103 87.2 -15.8 41.5
Malik Riddle 38 Morehead State 94 87 -7 38.4
A.J. Reeves 9 Providence 107 84.9 -22.1 46.3
247Sports, KenPom

Watson’s become a reliable defender and has steadily grown more active on the glass, especially tracking misses outside his immediate area. Yet that replicates what Pickett already offers, and he also uses timely cuts and putbacks to provide a steadier supply of scoring.

The song is the same for Watson: minutes are in short supply if his shooting stroke isn’t productive. Maybe Pickett has been bumping against his ceiling for a while, but it’s still higher than his teammate’s floor.

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

4. Can Xavier Pinson efficiently run the offense?

The point guard’s game has always tantalized. His vision is outstanding, and every so often, he’ll make a play that leaves your jaw unhinged. However, metrics tell us that Pinson is, well, pretty much the same.

Halfway through his sophomore campaign, Pinson’s seen a modest reduction in his turnover rate, but that’s weighted against a decline in 3-point accuracy. As for his assist rate, it’s up only slightly. Finally, his most efficient possessions come in isolation and outside the flow of MU’s half-court offense.

When we compare Pinson’s performance to similarly rated lead guard prospects in his class, it’s evident he hasn’t drastically outplayed his recruiting ranking. That’s not meant to be a criticism. Instead, it should serve as context for evaluating the Chicagoan’s role, which ideally is a reliable reserve guard and secondary ball-handler.

Sophomore Slump | Xavier Pinson — Position Ranking

Player Rank School FR ORTG SO ORTG Change %MIN
Player Rank School FR ORTG SO ORTG Change %MIN
Xavier Pinson 42 Missouri 95.9 95.5 -0.4 52.9
Sharone Wright 47 Wake Forest 92.4 94.2 1.8 21.6
Xavier Castenada 45 USF 84.7 93.5 8.8 63
Desi Sills 44 Arkansas 97.8 91 -6.8 74.8
Israel barnes 50 Weber State 89.1 87.4 -1.7 32.9
247Sports, KenPom

For a better idea of Pinson’s progress, take a look at how his efficiency stacks up against peers logging similar minutes. Among that group of eight, Pinson’s offensive rating (95.5) change in efficiency (-0.4) each rank seventh. There’s plenty of regular season left in front of him, but it’s not outlandish to ask whether the guard’s progress stagnated.

Sophomore Slump | Xavier Pinson — Percentage of Minutes

Player Pos. Rank School FR ORTG SO ORTG Change %MIN
Player Pos. Rank School FR ORTG SO ORTG Change %MIN
David DeJulius 19 Michigan 48.6 111 62.4 55.1
Kendric Davis 25 SMU* 94.3 122.4 28.1 60.6
Ronald Segu 39 Buffalo 89.5 111.9 22.4 58.5
Alex Lomax 27 Memphis 91.9 111 19.1 59.5
Xavier Castenada 45 USF 84.7 93.5 8.8 63
Isaac Likekele 26 Oklahoma State 98.1 105.9 7.8 55.2
Xavier Pinson 42 Missouri 95.9 95.5 -0.4 52.9
Tyler Harris 21 Memphis 101.3 96.5 -4.8 52.7
247Sports, KenPom

Certainly, it’s disappointing to see Pinson playing at a level similar to a year ago. That’s tempered somewhat by the knowledge that Dru Smith is the captain in the cockpit trying to keep the offense level. And if you see Pinson’s role as a catalyzer — the role he played against Florida or in a Braggin’ Rights win — then there’s little reason to worry.

Pinson will still have flashes, but as time goes on, will those be outliers instead of hints at a breakout?

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

5. Do the Tigers have an answer at combo forward?

Let me hedge on this question: They might have one in Kobe Brown.

What might tip the scales is the freshman’s shot selection, which so far has often relied too heavily on settling for jumpers. Before you accuse me of piling on a young player, let’s do a little math.

Ideally, a 3-pointer equates to 1.1 points per shot and roughly equivalent to a shot taken close to the rim. Data also tells us that corner 3s — where the distance is shortest — tend to be the highest-value shot aside from a dunk. With Brown, however, the spot on the floor matters little, because he’s only averaging 0.62 PPS when launching from distance.

It’s A Longshot | Kobe Brown — 3-Point Shooting

Location FGA FG% PPS
Location FGA FG% PPS
Right Corner 8 12.5 0.375
Right Wing 11 27.3 0.818
Top 7 14.3 0.428
Left Wing 12 25 0.75
Left Corner 1 0 0
Total 39 20.5 0.615
Synergy Sports

Consider, too, that only a third of the jumpers were wide-open looks, meaning the freshman is averaging 0.52 PPS with a hand in his face. Even if Brown’s skill set tilts toward the perimeter, there’s not a compelling case for catch-and-shoot jumpers as an optimal shot choice. Standing in the corner makes sense in terms of spacing the floor, but any scouting report might give his defender approval to pinch in closer to the paint.

That number looks worse once you calculate that Brown is averaging 1.28 PPS on shots taken inside eight feet. Factoring transition possessions into the mix further boosts the value to 1.41 PPS, according to Synergy Data. Yet he’s taken two fewer shots (37) at point-blank range than he has from behind the arc.

It’s Not A Longshot | Kobe Brown — Everything Else

Play Type FGA FG% PPS
Play Type FGA FG% PPS
Putback 11 63.6 1.273
Cut 6 66.7 1.333
Isolation 5 40 0.8
Spot-Up 2 50 1
Post-Up 2 50 1
PNR - Ball-Handler 1 100 2
Off-Screen 1 0 0
Total 28 57.1 1.28
Synergy Sports

Abandoning jumpers isn’t realistic or practical, because some of those will come within the flow of the offense. Yet Mizzou’s not lacking for floor-spacers. What Martin’s offense needs are players who can be dynamic, whether the ball is in their hands or not.

Parsing Brown’s shot chart points out to a young player who can be that commodity. Let’s say MU makes Dru Smith-operated pick-and-rolls a focal point of its attack, having a savvy cutter finding gaps when the defense rotates is a boon. At the defensive end, Brown’s steal rate, which ranks second in the SEC, can be a source for easy buckets. And when defenses don’t box him out, his nose for rebounds can capitalize on second possessions.

Practically speaking, Brown is also the most viable option at this juncture in the season. Mitchell Smith has evolved into a versatile switch defender, but the threat he poses offensively comes and goes. And even though we’ve advocated for Tray Jackson to see more minutes, Martin makes it sound like the top-80 recruit is still proving himself as a reliable screener and defender.

What should we make of all this?

Grant Mizzou this much, they fit the zeitgeist of the season.

They’re geared toward defense, struggle at times to shoot consistently, capable of beating a top-30 opponent, or prone to an upset by struggling low-major. As for their NCAA tournament resume, it’s a work in progress. Are they a potential player in the SEC race? That depends on the day.

Just as you think you have a read on its personality, MU makes you reconsider your appraisal.

In late December, the Tigers seemingly turned a corner with a Braggin’ Rights win — and looked anemic offensively in their first two SEC contests. Then came Saturday’s shellacking of Florida. Tonight, they’re in Starkville against a Mississippi State squad that’s average shooting the ball, prone to turnovers and, for all its size, can be outworked on the backboards. The Bulldogs also have an elite big man, some microwave scorers in the backcourt, and a coach who doesn’t mind games that become grappling matches.

And outside of three games against the likes of Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, the win probability for Mizzou’s remaining matchups will probably drift into toss-up territory.

So, is it safe to crumple up and toss away the best-case scenario?

You know, the one where every member of the roster becomes a little more efficient offensively. The one where sprinkling in Dru Smith would shore up ball-handling and athletic freshmen would fit the profile of what Martin coveted at combo forward. Maybe MU wouldn’t have a dominant core, but its balance would allow the Tigers to pass the baton from game to game. If circumstances broke their way, maybe they could vault up the SEC standings.

Given how fluid the conference appears to be, I don’t want to rule out any possibility. Yet the pragmatist in me thinks adjusting expectations is called for. Seeing a nucleus form and elbowing your way into the bubble conversation are realistic — at least to me.

What’s not hard to detect is a slight gnashing of teeth of a perpetually skittish and fatalistic element of the fanbase about the long-term prospects for the Martin regime.

The Porter Experiment fizzled. Then came a deflating end to a 2020 recruiting cycle ripe with possibility. Those events only exerted more pressure on Martin to show tangible progress in his third season, to demonstrate that player development could offset raw talent. Fifteen games into that campaign, you have fodder to make a variety of cases for a fundamental question: Where is this program headed?

Let’s be clear, Martin’s job isn’t in jeopardy. Contractually, he’s safe through 2021, and the structure of his $6 million buyout probably serves as additional insurance — barring a complete collapse. And given Martin’s track-record, you can typically bank on winning around 20 games and finishing .500 in conference play.

That’s a stable foundation for most high-major programs.

But the bet athletic director Jim Sterk made — and one given purchase with fans — was that Columbia would serve as a petri dish for Martin to evolve and grow. To the credit of those parties, there was a keen understanding that circumstances outside of Martin’s control undercut an optimal start to his tenure.

The expectation of earning an NCAA tournament bid isn’t outlandish. Renovation projections aren’t free of kinks, so long as they don’t throw off the construction schedule. Seeing Mizzou’s appear on Selection Sunday would make seem more like hiccups and not worrying symptoms of some larger problem.

Yet it’s fair to ask whether Martin’s slightly increased his burn rate on his political capital. That’s sustained and replenished by winning games. Few fans would carp about the Tigers’ style if they’d topped Xavier, blown out Charleston Southern, and held serve against Tennessee. Missing out on Cam’Ron Fletcher and Caleb Love would leave welts, but they wouldn’t ache as much if Watson shot 38 percent from behind the arc. Methods only get called into question when the problems they’re supposed to solve linger on.

Given that the players and coaches on MU’s bench are unlikely to change, we’ll see how whether answers come swiftly or if those issues fester under Martin’s watch.