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Regression or Collapse: Making sense of Missouri’s recent struggles

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A turbulent week dented the Tigers NCAA tournament stock — a string that might align the program’s potential seed with what predictive metrics expect.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Early this past Saturday afternoon, Missouri could revel in being minted as a protected seed, occupying the No. 4 line during the NCAA’s early reveal show.

The feeling was all too fleeting.

A short time later, the program announced Jeremiah Tilmon would miss that day’s tilt against Arkansas, returning to East St. Lois after a death in his family. Missing its anchor in the middle, MU scrapped and fought but ultimately came up short in overtime against Arkansas. Tilmon’s absence lingered into Tuesday and a road trip to Athens, one that saw Mizzou’s ball-handling and offensive execution careen into a ditch against Georgia.

In six days, the Tigers now find themselves mired in a three-game losing streak, drifting away from a double-bye in the SEC tournament, and starting to scrape the patina of its NCAA tournament résumé.

Suddenly, a trip to South Carolina appears more hazardous than usual. The question is whether it’s merely a matter of poor timing or the early stages of a plummet down the S-Curve. In truth, the landing zone might fall somewhere in between.

What’s certain is the Tigers have dropped off the pace set by eight teams in the chase pack already well behind a pair of elite programs in Gonzaga and Baylor. Owning five Quadrant 1 victories, three of which are over projected top-four seeds, is still a fine place to be. And for a while, that status made it easier to put stock in the Associated Press poll than the less rosy predictive metrics, which have acted as ground sensors tipping us off to tremors.

In the wake the Georgia loss, 30 mock brackets updated on Wednesday pegged Mizzou’s average seed at 6.4, and almost half had the Tigers sitting on the No. 6 line. (We’re waiting on the appraisals of Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm). A come down, for sure. But not doomsday, either.

The task now is reconciling those top-flight wins over Alabama, Tennessee, and Illinois with daring escapes against Bradley and TCU and second-half collapses at Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Georgia. Doing so might also contextualize where the Tigers stand at the moment — and whether there’s reason to think disaster looms.

Where to begin, though? First, let’s take stock of where MU sits right now compared with the company it was keeping last weekend. The most straightforward approach entails evaluating how projected protected seeds have fared in games the NCAA tournament selection committee will value highly: Quad 1 and Quad 2. Calculating each team’s adjusted efficiency margin in those games enables us to compare them side by side and with their overall standing KenPom’s ratings.

Note: These ratings are accurate as of Wednesday afternoon.

Again, the results won’t shock you. A handful of teams — Michigan, Illinois, Alabama, Houston, and Iowa — own efficiency margins that affirm their status near the top of KenPom’s ratings. Ohio State’s won enough close games against Quad 1 opponents to offset some lag. Meanwhile, West Virginia and Texas are playing slightly better against top-tier teams than their overall rating might indicate.

Keep mind the strength of a conference plays role. In the case of the Big Ten or Big 12, it can boost a team’s strength of schedule, influencing how much its raw efficiency margin is adjusted. By contrast, teams in the SEC or ACC might see their margins dented. Then there’s Houston, whose Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 opponents have an average KenPom rating of 72nd. The Cougars’ raw efficiency margin (16.33) is second only to Michigan, reflecting how decisively they’ve handled the best caliber of opponent offered up the AAC.

At the bottom sits Mizzou, whose efficiency margin against Quad 1 and Quad 2 foes is equivalent to the 64th team in KenPom’s ratings. Pulling back the curtain for an early peek at the top-16 seeds can be a helpful exercise, and this year, the insight into the selection committee’s thinking wasn’t hard to understand.

I’ll turn it over to Kentucky athletic director and selection committee chair Mitch Barnhart: “It is who you beat. It is where you beat them. It is about the full body of work. It is about opportunities you are presented with for victories in big games and getting those quality wins.”

So, the more gold-plated wins you have, the better.

Under the current circumstances, that’s probably best practice, too. A COVID pause will look different for every team, and, in some cases, some might be robbed of chances to earn quality wins that burnish their credentials. There’s no fair way to account for the impact it has on each program. Evaluating their body of work at face value is probably the best call.

Sure enough, MU stashed a cache of those wins. The process of obtaining them, however, wasn’t clean cut. But it was also easy to downplay the Tigers’ analytic profile. For one, this isn’t a normal season, one where non-conference data helps seed and calibrate models like KenPom. Before the recent run of bad form, MU’s adjusted efficiency ranking was slotting it between five and seven below where you might expect in the ratings.

Stockpiling those wins also made it easy to explain away anecdotal evidence. A near brush with Bradley was an off night. A blowout by Tennessee could be chalked up to a long layoff. The defeat in Starkville stemmed from two guards going berserk in the mid-range.

Yet, MU was also a beneficiary of good luck.Against Oregon, LJ Figueroa lacked a waiver, while a thumb injury sidelined Will Richardson. Arkansas didn’t have Justin Smith for the programs’ first meeting in Fayetteville. The same went for Tennessee, which showed signs of offensive malaise before Jaden Springer missed a rematch in Knoxville.

As Sam Snelling astutely noted in his statistical appraisal of the Tigers’ third consecutive loss, MU’s approach embraced variance. The question was when the pendulum would swing back. Before the loss at Ole Miss, there had been signs of defensive erosion against Auburn and TCU, but Tilmon’s absence turned slippage into a landslide.

To get an idea of how poorly MU has played, it’s helpful to calculate their adjusted efficiency in losses, compare it to the rest of the top 16, and see where it would slot them in KenPom’s overall ratings. The results, as you can tell, are not great.

Only Virginia’s form has been worse in defeats, and both the Cavaliers and Tigers have a penchant for getting shellacked in losses. The cruel irony is Mizzou’s last two defeats improved their performance. Last Saturday, MU’s efficiency margin in four losses was comparable to the 223rd team in KenPom. Even if Tuesday’s defeat was infuriating, the 10-point margin at the horn didn’t inflect any more damage on the program’s efficiency margin.

Granted, that’s little consolation.

At a minimum, those outcomes are putting quite a bit of strain on three quality victories that have come by 15 points combined. Having so many results decided by slim margins also means you need them to remain durable. Yet Tennessee’s already creeping towards a No. 5 seed, and while there’s still time, Oregon only has two bona fide chances at Quad 1 wins — Colorado, USC and a trip to Stanford — left on its docket. Perhaps Arkansas, which is now up to 21st in KenPom, continues to grow in value.

A bushel of Quad 1 wins, however, remains valuable. Even if they don’t bolster MU’s case for a protected seed in Indianapolis, they’re a mark of distinction coveted among teams fighting for their lives on the bubble. Based on adjusted efficiency alone, MU’s performance in Quad 1 and Quad 2 games strikes an eerie resemblance to peers scrambling for at-large bids such as Indiana, North Carolina and Stanford.

I’ll take a moment to cover myself here: if MU’s bad form sinks them against South Carolina and Texas A&M, then you get panicky. For now, I’d hold off.

Deflating as the past week might have been, MU’s still squarely in the field, while Bart Torvik forecasts the Tigers to ultimately wind up as a No. 9 seed. If Tilmon’s back in the fold this weekend, the stabilzation process could get underway but restoring MU to place more in line with what metrics expect. Using Torvik’s database of résumés provides a handy benchmark and affirms that the Tigers are still solidly an at-large team.

Still, the 30-minute broadcast can also warp expectations. In years past, we relied on bracketologists, the RPI and past precedent to divine a program’s potential place in the pecking order. Now? We get confirmation ahead of the regular season’s closing stretch about whether a team is solidly in the mix for a protected seed — knowledge that changes the context of late-season outcomes.

Pretend it’s Selection Sunday. You flip on CBS and see Mizzou pop up as a No. 7 seed. Given that the Tigers were picked to finish 10th in the SEC and absent from preseason brackets, that would make this season a success, right? But how does knowing MU was on track for a top-four seed change your assessment?

To a casual fan, I doubt it matters. But I do think it’s a question worth pondering briefly.

For the better part of the last decade, MU’s be irrelevant during the one month the general public turns its attention to a niche sport. Freshmen in Columbia were second-graders the last time the Tigers won an NCAA tournament game. Earning a protected seed would have been an added boost for a program trying to restore its credibility.

The accommodations might not be as posh, but for now, the itinerary remains valid.