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What value comes from Mizzou returning a veteran core?

Coach Cuonzo Martin and the Tigers are running it back next season, but consistency will have to follow continuity.

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

Get old, stay old.

At high-major basketball programs who lack a blue-blood pedigree, four words succinctly sum up an accepted approach to roster building. At Missouri, it’s also the overriding offseason theme for a roster returning nine veterans, including three — Jeremiah Tilmon, Xavier Pinson and Mitchell Smith — who solicited feedback on their professional stock. Once the trio announced they were sticking around, scribes in Columbia, Kansas City and St. Louis pecked out pieces built around the idea that a seasoned core might pull the Tigers up the SEC standings.

Without a doubt, avoiding three more departures ensured coach Cuonzo Martin retains the largest share of any SEC squad production. And if all three had decamped? Well, MU would have fallen to...second.

Top-line statistics, though, wouldn’t quite capture the impact of losing a secondary creator in Pinson. Keep in mind, too, MU’s output came with Tilmon playing a paltry 27.2 percent of minutes and missing 13 games with a foot injury. Had the big man been healthy, the Tigers would have finished the year among the top-100 nationally and top 20 high majors in the continuity of minutes.

But as we’ve mused before, what value does continuity hold for the Tigers? And how long has it been since the program’s been a little grizzled?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

How old are these Tigers?

The typical returner has been committed to MU for more than 1,000 days.

What do we mean by committed? For our purposes, it includes the length of time they were a committed high school prospect. Tacking on that additional time makes for a handy metric, too. Since 2012, when MU moved to the SEC, the earlier a recruit has committed is correlated (r=0.25) with the length of their career donning the black and gold.

Longer in the Tooth | Missouri Returners — 2020-21

Group Count Mean Median Std. Dev. Std. Error
Group Count Mean Median Std. Dev. Std. Error
Returners (2019-20) 9 1,001.56 912 367.1 122.37
Unit = Days

Admittedly, our standard deviation and standard error, which tells us the group’s level of variance, is pretty broad. To a degree, that makes sense. For example, Mitchell Smith, who committed in September 2015, has been in the fold for almost 1,800 days. Contrast that with sophomore Kobe Brown, a former Texas A&M commit who flipped to MU after the firing of Billy Kennedy, has only been committed for 450 days.

The graying of the this season’s returners, which feature seven upperclassmen, truly sinks in when you compare their staying power to those who came before them. (As a side note, Jordan Wilmore, Drew Buggs and Ed Chang are omitted from the sample)

No one’s forgotten the rapid churn rates that defined the tenures of Frank Haith and Kim Anderson. It’s sobering to see the average veteran on this roster log 314 more days — or almost 11 months — with the program.

Staying Power | Missouri Basketball

Group Count Mean Median Std. Dev. Std. Error
Group Count Mean Median Std. Dev. Std. Error
Returners (2019-20) 9 1,001.56 912 367.1 122.37
2012-2019 42 686.98 637 394.18 60.82
Unit = Days

Justifiable critiques exist in Martin’s roster building, and I’ll get to them in due course. Yet, on the whole, he’s stopped the revolving door from rapidly spinning. Assuming we have a college basketball season, Martin’s will quickly clear the admittedly low bar set by his predecessors.

Construction Delays | Continuity by Missouri Coach

Coach Count Mean Median Std. Dev Std. Error Avg. Recruit
Coach Count Mean Median Std. Dev Std. Error Avg. Recruit
Anderson 17 843 691 516.88 125.36 0.8797
Haith 17 738.12 687 345.91 83.9 0.9247
Martin 17 646.35 618 345.59 78.21 0.92575
Total 51 742.49 691 404.53 56.64 0.9086
Source: 247 Sports

No one should be surprised that the outcomes of Anderson’s recruiting are all over the lot. He landed four of the longest-tenured Tigers in Mitchell Smith (1,782 days), Kevin Puryear (1,666), Reed Nikko (1,615) and Cullen VanLeer (1,468) — a group where each player maxed out their ceiling as a reserve. As for Haith, only Ryan Rosburg (1,599) and Wes Clark (1,265) logged more than 1,000 days with the program, although Jakeenan Gant (987) came close. Consider: Seven members of the roster assembled by Martin, led by Tilmon, are among the top 20 players in service time since 2012.

The futility of the Haith and Anderson stemmed from their putrid hit rate with high school prospects. Out of 21 prep players they collectively signed, only threeRosburg, Puryear and Nikko — exhausted their eligibility. Meanwhile, almost 76.2 percent either transferred or got the boot.

Unsurprisingly, the descriptive statistics for transfers who committed to Haith and Anderson out of high school are eerily similar to the one for the past seven seasons.

Churn and Burn | Transfers by High School Signees (2012-2016)

Category Count Mean Median Std. Dev Std. Error
Category Count Mean Median Std. Dev Std. Error
HS Recruits -Transfers 16 640.25 627 246.79 61.69
2012-2019 42 686.98 637 394.18 60.82

With that level of turnover, you’re not merely cycling out the bottom of the roster, either. The average recruiting grade for the 16 prep signees who transferred was roughly 90.54 grade in the 247Sports’ composite index, roughly equivalent to a borderline top-150 ranking. By contrast, the five players who stuck around owned an average grade of 84.92.

Admittedly, Martin’s recruiting has come with some high-profile misses, especially among top-50 talent in the St. Louis metro area. On the whole, though, the average veteran on the 2020-21 roster averaged a 90.29 grade in the composite index, headlined by Tilmon (98.45) and Mark Smith (96.29) and Torrence Watson (94.98).

That’s not to say there haven’t been misfires in scouting.

A pair of ball-handlers, C.J. Roberts and Blake Harris, in Martin’s bulwark of a class didn’t even make it a semester. The staff’s bet on K.J. Santos, a transfer out of UIC with a pockmarked injury history and modest production in the Horizon League, failed to pan out. Finally, upside plays made on the late-qualifying Christian Guess and a sojourning big man Axel Okongo with the program’s final scholarship reaped no return.

Yet caveats come in all most of those cases.

Roberts and Harris were, crudely put, shotgun marriages in Martin’s push to upgrade the pieces around Michael Porter Jr. Neither could genuinely be called a Martin loyalist. Guess and Okongo weren’t expected to contribute immediately, and their exits didn’t leave MU in a lurch. And feel free to nitpick Santos, but the staff can point to Mark Smith, Dru Smith and Kassius Robertson as successful forays into the transfer market.

Scrutiny and skepticism might be the most withering in the case of freshman Tray Jackson, a former top-100 recruit who transferred this spring and landed at Seton Hall. After coming up short on high-end combo forwards, the Tigers flipped the Detroit native from his pledge to Minnesota. Despite Jackson’s athleticism and inside-out game, his minutes yo-yoed, a result of Martin’s reported concerns over Jackson’s conditioning and defensive lapses. While he flashed against Tennessee and Arkansas, Jackson never fully earned Martin’s trust or a secure place in the rotation.

Jackson’s departure alone was disconcerting, but coupled with Mario McKinney Jr.’s mid-year exit, the program’s freshmen class atrophied. Pulling in Hawaii transfer Drew Buggs and JUCO product Ed Chang offset short-term deficits. However, Martin still faces the possibility of half of his scholarship players departing at season’s end.

Yes, this iteration of the Tigers is older. Indeed, it might possess more talent relative to the lean years under Anderson. Unfortunately, that stability might only last a season.

Missouri v Xavier Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

How much does continuity really matter?

When you survey the entirety of the Division I ranks, the trait makes a difference. When Ken Pomeroy added the metric to team profiles, he noted teams who apportioned out playing time in a stable manner tend to perform better, particularly on the offensive end of the floor.

My curiosity is on a narrow sliver of teams: power conference programs that are among the national leaders in minutes continuity.

To sate that interest, I pulled out every high-major program ranked in the top 100 nationally over the past five seasons, creating a sample of 100 teams. Next came mimicking Mr. Pomeroy’s methodology of comparing each team’s offensive efficiency relative to the national average with continuity. In KenPom’s study, which looked at every Division I team between 2008 and 2016, the correlation (R=0.34) was relatively healthy.

Not so much in my case. Take a peek.

The cluster is practically random, and the correlation value (r=0.0016) affirms that this scatterplot could have been painted by Jackson Pollock. Oddly enough, the line of best slopes downward and (very loosely) hinting at the notion that continuity is less helpful at a certain point.

The hint isn’t subtle: For some teams, the consistent distribution of minutes only achieves a modest impact. Over the past five seasons, high-majors who pulled it off were more efficient (+9.6) on the offensive end than the Division I average. They also saw a modest boost of two wins from one season to the next and averaged 22 victories.

Modest Success | Impact of Continuity (2016-2020)

Category Mean Median Std. Dev. Std. Error
Category Mean Median Std. Dev. Std. Error
Minutes Continuity 66.82 65.4 7.18 0.72
Adj. Offensive Eff. 10.01 9.6 4.84 0.49
Improvement (Wins) 1.92 2 4.84 0.49

Skimming the top performers reinforces what we already assume, too: North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan State, Villanova, UCLA, Michigan and so on make up the list. More tellingly, only one school — the 2019 group from Tennessee — touted a minutes continuity (85.3%) above 75 percent. It’s not uncommon for their figures to settle in the mid-60s.

If I lodged an educated guess as to why, it would be that elite programs’ recruiting advantages can counter meticulous roster construction. That’s not a bold assertion, but it’s also the most logical. For other high-major programs, the game remains the same. You try to identify the highest-caliber talent to fit your system, woo it to campus and diligently cultivate it. And you hope for good health and avoiding early departures to the professional ranks fortifies those advantages along the way.

And if it’s not apparent, fortune has not smiled on Martin and Mizzou in some of those areas.

Start with injury luck. Over the past three seasons, the program’s four-highest rated commitments — Michael Porter Jr., Jontay Porter, Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith — missed a combined 97 games. Last season alone, Tilmon and Smith missed 20 games combined. Those absences effectively left Watson, the No. 112 player in his class, as the top prospect on the floor.

In Watson, there’s a natural segue into the next issue hampering the program — inconsistent production. You already know of Watson’s offensive collapse last season, one where he shot 28.1 percent behind the arc and was woefully inefficiency (0.769 PPP) when he did attack the rim. When Tilmon was healthy enough to see the floor, his foul rate (5.3 per 40 minutes) continued to stifle his minutes. Meanwhile, his turnover rate (25.3%) scotched the coaching staff’s plan to run the offense through him on the left block.

Meanwhile, Mark Smith’s shooting stroke abandoned him in games where the Tigers, who ranked 326th nationally in 3-point accuracy, was desperately needed. Against Tier A opponents, who are usually in the top 50 of KenPom, the Edwardsville native connected on just 28.1 percent of his attempts from long.

Martin retooled his half-court offense down the stretch, expanding a Euro-inspired and ball-screen heavy system dubbed Barcelona to put Pinson and Dru Smith in more ball screens. The tweak played to the personnel he had on hand, and it helped that the Tigers faced the likes of Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss and Alabama — all of whom lacked traditional rim protectors along the backline.

Running back the same cast, though, doesn’t necessarily mean a step-wise progression forward. Undoubtedly, the Tigers probably can’t shoot the ball worse this season. But even if jump-shooting improves, the same questions tug at this group.

Can Watson find ways to contribute offensively if spot-ups aren’t dropping? Can Tilmon find a way to stay on the floor? Will Mark Smith be healthy and consistent for the available for the bulk of SEC play? Does moving Pinson to a secondary creator role improve his efficiency and reliability? And even if MU achieves some positive results, how much will it matter in a conference where other programs bring back proven commodities?

Whenever the season does arrive, Martin’s squad will be older and calloused, but it will face the task of maximizing the precious time it has left on its side.