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Who can Cuonzo Martin count on?

With SEC play around the corner, Mizzou’s rotation remains in flux. Is it a warning sign? Or is it part of an approach emphasizing the collective power of the Tigers’ roster?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Xavier Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine this scene: At the under-four timeout, Missouri clings to a four-point lead over No. 17 Kentucky, and the blue-hairs sitting in the lower bowl of Rupp Arena are finally on their feet raising the decibel level. Huddled around Cuonzo Martin, the Tigers listen intently as their coach hands down directives for the closing stretch of a game that’s been an offensive slog.

The horn blares. The Tigers chant, “Together, we attack.” The circle breaks.

What quintet slowly walks back onto the floor? And what is the rationale behind that combination?

In other words, who does Martin trust to tip the balance in MU’s direction?

As cathartic as drumming Chicago State might have been, the 58-point rout — and statistical outlier — didn’t offer us any final clues about the state of the Tigers’ rotation. Outside of a handful of chances to burnish a team sheet for NCAA tournament, non-conference play is a lab. Over 12 games, the larger goal is obvious: identify your best players, tinker with combinations and, ideally, find alchemy with a handful of them.

On the eve of SEC play, Mizzou’s forged a clear identity melded around its defense, which ranks 21st nationally in adjusted efficiency and rebounding. Four Tigers — Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Javon Pickett and Jeremiah Tilmon — also appear to be loadstones for the roster. Sifting through play-by-play data, however, reveals Martin has yet to settle on steady lineups and clear sequence of usage.

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

How quickly are rotations set? It depends.

In Lexington, coach John Calipari has made sculpting a rotation into an art form.

By now, it’s a given that a Wildcats, whose roster is laden with blue-chip freshmen, are going to play a clunky brand of ball. While Calipari’s players are acclimating and trying to build chemistry, he’s trying to discern what stylistic tweaks need to be made, and with that, the roles that need to be assigned.

Outside of 2015, when UK famously shuffled five-man platoons in and out, Calipari has typically kept his rotation tight. In his other nine seasons on the job, Cal’s only deployed reserves for an average of 26.8 percent of game action and never ranked better than 160th nationally, according to KenPom data. By the time the ‘Cats face in-state Louisville, Calipari has sorted and organized his stockpile of future pros.

Sure enough, only seven players played more than 15 minutes in a 78-70 overtime victory over the then-No. 3 Cardinals.

The Wildcats aren’t alone either.

Using KenPom data, we can take a snapshot showing the percentage of minutes each SEC program doles out to its most-used lineup, it’s top-three lineups and bench players over the past five games. Now that every one of them has wrapped up non-conference play, we can use that data to gauge who has settled in and who is still searching for answers.

All Settled? | SEC Lineup Usage - Past 5 Games

School %MIN - Most-Used %MIN - Top-3 %MIN - Bench KenPom
School %MIN - Most-Used %MIN - Top-3 %MIN - Bench KenPom
Kentucky 21.9 45.2 30.8 14
Auburn 19.5 35.7 29.4 15
Florida 24.5 35.2 24.5 24
Arkansas 22.9 44.3 22.1 32
LSU 21.7 38.8 22.4 37
Tennessee 27.5 41.9 22.2 48
Missouri 5.8 15.7 33.6 51
Mississippi State 20 39.2 22.7 54
Alabama 13.4 30.9 29.7 60
Georgia 13.2 31.1 35.5 74
Ole Miss 23.1 41.4 32.7 84
South Carolina 9 21.8 32.4 102
Vanderbilt 10.6 25.5 28.8 131
Texas A&M 18 34.4 35.7 158

While the data is sortable, what stands out is how many of the conference’s contenders have consolidated their minutes. Of six teams, five already have their most-used lineups logging 21.7 percent of minutes each game, and four are using their bench less than 25 percent of the time. And all of them are parceling out at least 35 percent of floor time to their top-three lineups.

Notice which coach is using his top-three rotations the most? Mr. Calipari.

It’s also unsurprising to see that Auburn, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU quickly settled on their respective pecking orders. For Bruce Pearl, it involved expanding roles for reserves on a Final Four team in J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty. And a player like Austin Wiley, who has dealt with injuries and a season-long suspension as part of revelations in a federal pay-for-play probe, finally gets a heavy dose of playing time.

At Florida, Mike White returned sophomores Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson, added three top-50 recruits , and landed the nation’s best grad transfer in Kerry Blackshear Jr. Even at LSU, where Will Wade’s tenure was in doubt for much of the spring, the Tigers kept Skylar Mays, Ja’Vonte Smart, Darius Days, Emmitt Williams and Marlon Taylor from defecting. Toss in Trendon Watford, a five-star combo forward, and Wade’s rotation is slim but chock full of talent.

Attrition ransacked the SEC, but each of these programs recruited well enough and had clear lines of succession for reserves to quickly create continuity. Using HoopLens’ data, which expands our scope to the entirety of non-conference, it’s clear these programs didn’t take long to implement their plans and whittle down rotations.

All Settled? | SEC Lineup Usage - Non-conference

School %POSS - Most-Used %POSS - Top-3 %POSS - Bench KenPom
School %POSS - Most-Used %POSS - Top-3 %POSS - Bench KenPom
Kentucky 7 16.3 30.8 14
Auburn 14.3 24.8 29.4 15
Florida 16.1 27.5 24.5 24
Arkansas 22 35.8 22.1 32
LSU 18.7 37.3 22.4 37
Tennessee 17.9 25.9 22.2 48
Missouri 7.3 14.1 33.6 51
Mississippi State 23.4 37.8 22.7 54
Alabama 8.3 19.2 29.7 60
Georgia 7 18 35.5 74
Ole Miss 11.7 24.3 32.7 84
South Carolina 4.6 10.6 32.4 102
Vanderbilt 13.2 30.5 28.8 131
Texas A&M 6.5 17.1 35.7 158

You can also see how rebuilding and retooling programs are working through their own transition plans. A coaching change naturally creates a patchwork roster: a few proven assets, veteran reserves who didn’t seek new homes and a triaged freshman class of prospects recruited by the former staff or signed in the spring.

Look no further than Vanderbilt for proof.

Jerry Stackhouse inherited Saben Lee and Aaron Nesmith, who is in the midst of a breakout sophomore season, as building blocks. After that? Well, combo guard Maxwell Evans and forward Clevon Brown were the only other upperclassmen around. And freshmen Scotty Pippen Jr. and Dylan Disu have been allowed to play through growing pains.

The Commodores’ bench is short, and Stackhouse’s most-used lineup in recent games only sees 10.5 percent of minutes.

Even a second-year coach can have a roster in flux as they try to weave in players they landed during their first full recruiting cycle.

This is what’s unfolding at Georgia, which brought in a seven-man recruiting class headlined by Anthony Edwards. Naturally, Tom Crean has put the ball in the hands of a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. And behind the preternatural slasher is Rayshaun Hammonds, a combo forward and holdover from Mark Fox’s tenure.

After that duo, the Bulldogs are still trying to sort out how much rope to give a freshman point guard Sahvir Wheeler. Crean also relies on a senior Tyree Crump and is mixing in Northeastern grad transfer Donnell Gresham Jr. Freshmen Toumani Camara and Christian Brown might be cogs in a future contender, but necessity has led them to be part of the mix sooner than expected.

So, Crean is reliant on a one-and-done, two holdovers, a grad-transfer, and developmental freshmen in a complicated spread offense that plays fast. You can see how he’s just now getting a sense of what works.

Alabama and Arkansas run counter to this logic, but those programs didn’t need to be ripped down to the studs. Instead, the athletic directors at those schools opted for coaching changes to maximize the talent on hand (Alabama) or overhaul a culture that might have gone a tad stale (Arkansas) over time.

Skimming those tables also makes it easy to spot a program that doesn’t fall into either camp: Missouri.

Since returning from a disappointing trip to the Hall of Fame Classic, Martin’s preferred lineup has only garnered 5.8 percent of minutes, according to KenPom. And his top-three groupings are only seeing 15.7 percent minutes — last in the SEC.

Yet, the Tigers started the season among the conference’s leaders in returning production. While there was some ambiguity at wing and combo forward, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect Martin and his staff to quickly delineate roles and adeptly match skillsets.

Instead, Mizzou — a team quietly confident of its chances for success — bears a closer resemblance to a program in flux than one in the third year of an established regime. Should that be taken as an ominous sign, or is it part of Martin’s plan?

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

Embracing the collective spirit

If a starting lineup is a rosetta stone, helping us understand a coach’s priorities and intentions, you might be skittish after deciphering Mizzou’s.

Until the drubbing of Chicago State, the Tigers’ starting five sported a minus-4 scoring margin. In losses to Butler, Oklahoma and Charleston Southern, they were outscored by 22 points in a little less than 18 minutes. So ahead of a trip to Temple, Martin recast his preferred quintet — and watched them average 0.59 points per possession over the next three games.

Taking much from the bushwhacking of the Cougars is risky, but Martin’s starters used it to get back into the black. Whether it’s a sign that MU has set aside its sluggish starts or found a long-term solution at the top of its rotation is another matter.

For most of us, figuring out the right concoction of players to open the game would be of paramount importance. But if you take a closer look at how Martin doles out minutes, assessing his management skills requires a slightly different tack. Over the past five seasons, Mizzou’s head man has taken a more collective approach.

Since 2015, SEC coaches have typically relied on their most-used lineup for almost eight minutes a game and play their top-three groups for 15 minutes. Bench players usually see roughly the same amount of action. So while picking a reliable group to start and close games matters, how you apportion the other 25 minutes is equally paramount.

Once Martin headed west to Cal, he slowly moved away from relying on a handful of lineups, increasingly shifting more of the workload to his reserves. Aside from last season, his most-used lineup at the end of the season typically played around 14 percent of minutes each game.

Rotation Management | Cuonzo Martin

Season School %MIN - Most-Used %MIN - Top 3 %MIN - Bench
Season School %MIN - Most-Used %MIN - Top 3 %MIN - Bench
2011-2012 Tennessee 17.3 33.5 34.7
2012-2013 Tennessee 18.2 43.3 25.3
2013-2014 Tennessee 37.1 53.6 24
2014-2015 Cal 13.7 34.4 30.7
2015-2016 Cal 13.9 32 31.5
2016-2017 Cal 13.7 30.8 33.7
2017-2018 Missouri 13.9 33.1 27.8
2018-2019 Missouri 18.1 35.4 36

Last season’s uptick is also easily explainable: once Jontay Porter went down, Martin relied on established pieces in Tilmon, Jordan Geist and Kevin Puryear. Along the way, he slowly integrated freshmen Xavier Pinson, Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson. Finally, losing Mark Smith to an ankle injury led him to further consolidate his lineup.

Under normal circumstances, where catastrophic injuries don’t hobble stars, it seems Martin’s open to the idea of spreading the workaround.

As the offseason played out, Martin also talked openly about growing the rotation to as many as 10 players. That line isn’t uncommon among coaches, many of whom also express a desire to play fast but ultimately opt for a controlled tempo. Finding enough minutes also appeared to be tough.

Few teams in the SEC had as quiet of an offseason or as stable a roster as MU. Presumably, five spots in the rotation were mostly spoken for: Tilmon, Pinson, Pickett, Watson and Mark Smith. Once you accounted for Dru Smith, it seemed only three spots — at most — were left up for grabs. The only intrigue lay in how Martin might use Tray Jackson, Kobe Brown and Mitchell Smith. And Reed Nikko was around for relief in the post.

Penciling in Dru Smith, Mark Smith and Tilmon for starting spots were obvious. Pickett’s cutting ability, nose for rebounds, and steadiness defensively made his selection logical. And Brown’s perimeter-oriented game made sense at combo forward.

So, what was the usage for that starting five?

Try 60 possessions — or 7.3 percent, according to HoopLens.

Most-Used Lineups | Missouri — 2019-2020

D. Smith M. Smith Pickett Brown Tilmon 60 1.17 1.07 0.1
D. Smith Pinson M. Smith Pickett Tilmon 32 1.38 0.7 0.68
D. Smith M. Smith Watson Pickett Tilmon 25 1.04 1.08 -0.04
D. Smith M. Smith Pickett Brown Mi. Smith 25 1.32 0.87 0.45
D. Smith M. Smith Brown Mi. Smith Tilmon 22 0.59 0.55 0.04

Throughout non-conference play, Martin’s top-three lineups were only used for 14.1 percent of Mizzou’s possessions, and only five compiled more than 20 possessions together. As you can tell, the leader is the starting lineup that began the season and ran its course after seven games.

Isolating the remaining lineup also exposes a potential intention behind its construction.

  • Lineup No. 2: Swapping out Brown for Pinson is an easy path to a four-guard setup, putting another ball-handler and creator on the floor
  • Lineup No. 3: Subbing in Watson for Brown adds a second floor-spacer to the mix, supplying more shooting and spreading out the defense to give Tilmon more operating room inside
  • Lineup No. 4: Inserting Mitchell Smith for Tilmon is a solution when opponents deploy a stretch-five who can step out, pick-and-pop or act as a weak-side cutter
  • Lineup No. 5: Mizzou’s latest starting group, sitting Pickett in favor of Mitchell Smith’s length and emerging prowess as a switch defender

In almost every case, the fulcrum of a shift is the combo forward spot. Simply lifting Brown tweaks the utility of the unit without removing crucial cogs. The only question, though, is why hasn’t the workload for some of the expanded? And if it is for some groups, how quickly will we see it in SEC play?

Looking back at the last six seasons, you can see that Martin is slightly behind schedule in settling on the starting point for his rotation.

Roster Management | Cuonzo Martin — Non-Conference

Season School %POSS - Most-Used %POSS - Top-3
Season School %POSS - Most-Used %POSS - Top-3
2014-15 Cal 17.5 31.3
2015-16 Cal 13.9 26
2016-17 Cal 6.7 15.5
2017-18 Missouri 10.4 22.5
2018-19 Missouri 18.8 26.7
2019-20 Missouri 7.3 14.1

How quickly it coalesces is only something Martin and his staff know. The process hinges in part on what they see each day inside the practice gym at Mizzou Arena. The path to minutes starts with consistency in workouts. So far, it looks as if freshmen like Tray Jackson and Mario McKinney Jr. are working to build up enough credit.

The biggest linchpin might be Torrence Watson, who is likely hoping his scintillating breakout on Monday is a harbinger of a consistent shooting stroke. For better or worse, Missouri’s offense is predicated on spacing the floor, knocking down high-efficiency jumpers, and creating operating room for Tilmon down low. An on-target Watson helps MU put defenses in a bind.

To me, part of Mizzou’s tinkering and non-committal status to any rotation stems from the hunt for offensive consistency. For the most part, Mizzou’s defensive efficiency doesn’t swing wildly based on who’s in the game. After Braggin’ Rights, for example, Pickett’s presence on the floor exacted the largest toll defensively — at just 0.07 points per possession. Individually, Brown’s defensive rating was the lowest on the roster at 0.868 PPP allowed, according to Synergy, which still rates out as average.

For his part, Watson also grades out well on the defensive end in Synergy, but posting 0.507 PPP on offensive touches wasn’t cutting it. Now, if Chicago State marks a turn for the better, Martin’s calculus for managing his rotation gets easier.

Watching Mizzou, it’s clear what Martin and his staff want to achieve offensively, and when the Tigers find a rhythm, the rotations they play make sense. What we see on the floor amounts to a final exam. While Martin can try to build lineups that position for success, he ultimately has no control over how they unfold.

For now, Martin is still experimenting with ways to maximize this roster. Three months from now, we’ll know whether it panned out.