Taking a slight detour within the Player Preview series, we take a look at the 2022-2023 Mizzou Basketball season through a prospective lens and attempt to set some team expectations.
As Mizzou Basketball is set to embark on the maiden voyage of the Dennis Gates era in Columbia, we turn our attention to what may be. We cast aside what has been, for the moment, and let the mind wander.
Every team since the dawn of time has come together and set goals, a list of criteria and prospective accomplishments they hope to achieve over the course of the season. While it’s rather obvious that neither I, nor the bulk of our readers are in any position to set goals for this team, it may be helpful to chart a path of — ahem — reasonable expectations in year number one. Then when the inevitable end to the season arrives, we have a useful list to refer back to in judging the resume as a whole.
Setting The Stage
At the outset I feel it is worth discussing that Mizzou Basketball could fairly be described as an underachieving program over the last decade. This piece is not meant to dissect the reasons, for which there are many. Rather, a simple acknowledgment of the position of the program is useful. Mizzou is no longer a program that will roll the ball out and win 20 games. If that time ever existed, it’s long since passed. There have been a few good seasons mixed in. However, the overall body of work is left wanting.
Mizzou has found itself in a tough league, one that has quite suddenly devoted resources to building competitive programs that wasn’t seen before. In addition to having a bona fide blue blood amongst its peers, Mizzou is now surrounded by other similar programs dumping truckloads of cash into the sport. For some it has paid off. For others, they’ll continue to do so until it does. No longer can Mizzou be a benefactor of other teams caring less. It’s time to muscle up.
In an effort to do so, Mizzou has remodeled quite literally the entire program. Gone are the four members of the prior coaching staff, despite finishing with two NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons. Gone are all but three of the players from last year’s roster. Two holdover commitments, one scholarship and one walk-on round out the connection between the past and present.
The new faces arrive in abundance. Head Coach Dennis Gates was hired from Cleveland State. His chief associate, Charlton Young, checks in after a lengthy stay at Florida State, where Gates was also once on staff under Leonard Hamilton. Dickey Nutt and Kyle Smithpeters round out the on-court coaching staff. Eight new support staff join them. Ten players with no prior connection to Mizzou in March also have found their way to Columbia. The turnover is complete, and comprehensive. Now comes the tough part.
The new franchise will be tasked with largely starting over. We will eventually see if this new vision is the right one. While it’s certainly true that rebuilds are “easier” now in the sense that the transfer portal allows for veterans to play immediately, that’s mostly founded in theory. After all, newly minted coaching staffs aren’t the only ones that benefit from the portal. Year 1 will give us a glimpse in the process.
The action is imminent. Now is the time to chart the checkpoints of what can make this a successful season. The following list represents the things that I hope we see.
An Improved Handle on Things
An issue that has plagued Mizzou in the recent past has been ball security. A team’s turnover rate is simply a calculation of the number of team turnovers divided by its number of offensive possessions. Instead of looking at raw data for turnovers, e.g., a total turnover number from a given game, the rate allows you to account for the pace at which a team plays and gives an accurate frame of reference. A rate of 15% or lower is considered elite. 17.5% is considered good and ranks approximately top 100 nationally. A rate of 19% is highly mediocre and lands approximately among the top 200 among D-I schools. A rate north of 20%? Problems in river city.
Over the last decade, only three Mizzou teams have managed to crack the 19% threshold. In fact, five Mizzou squads have landed north of 20%. Amazingly, one of those teams managed to find its way into the NCAA Tournament. The other four found themselves a combined 26 games below .500. Simply put, a team coughing up the ball one out of every five trips down the floor is going to find it difficult to win consistently.
There needs to be an improvement on that figure. I don’t expect this team to fall within the “elite” group, as that is ordinarily reserved for teams who have great familiarity with one another, have embraced a system for years and are uncommonly excellent at protecting the rock. It’s a tough group to crack.
However, I believe a fair goal is finishing at an 18% mark or better. That would land Mizzou solidly in the top half of Division I teams and represent a considerable improvement over recent seasons. It’s my suspicion that Mizzou will play an open, up-tempo game which often results in teams taking a few more gambles than deliberate, half court-oriented teams. Dennis Gates’s Cleveland State teams finished with turnover rates of 22.2%, 18.8% and 19.6% during his three seasons. Florida State teams, a program with which Mizzou now has strong ties, ordinarily finished around the 18% mark, though outliers did occur.
Mizzou will have a smaller, more perimeter-oriented team this year. I find this to be a fair goal in year one.
Pull Out All of the Stops
Everyone’s favorite topic: Defense. While it may cause eye rolls from those looking for a higher scoring brand of basketball, one can simply not discount its importance. I recently took a look at what may help Mizzou become a better defense on day 1, should you care to read further: Turnovers: A Plan for the Mizzou Basketball Defense? - Rock M Nation
When I look around the college landscape and I see immediate turnarounds among non-blueblood teams, a common if not universal truth is this: those teams defended. And they do it right away. Whether it be Chris Beard at Texas Tech, or Eric Musselman at Arkansas, or even T.J. Otzelberger at Iowa State a year ago, those groups flat out got after it defensively early in the coach’s tenure. You want a ticket to a quick turnaround and a strong program foundation? Look to that end of the floor. We often speak of a team’s culture. Defensive effort and efficiency are generally foundational aspects of that.
With that said, I will admit that it may be a little unfair to judge the defensive performance too harshly in year one of the Gates era. Should the combination of Gates and lead assistant, Charlton Young, intend to fully embrace the Leonard Hamilton style of defense, that is to say lengthy athletes at every position on the floor causing havoc, this roster may be a bit underequipped.
My reasoning for that statement is simple: Over the last decade, Hamilton’s rosters have been one of the ten tallest teams in Division-I hoops. Three times they measured the tallest. The data point here is the average height across the roster. Height, or more accurately length allows for better ability to deflect passes and to turn away shots. Both of those areas, turnovers generated and shots blocked, are where Seminole teams traditionally excel.
Mizzou’s roster looks…different. If Mizzou’s roster page is to be believed, Mizzou will have two players who stand taller than 6’8” on this year’s team. One is Mabor Majak, who played sparingly at Cleveland State. The other is Mohamed Diarra, a junior college product from Garden City, Kansas.
While Mizzou has quality positional size at perimeter positions, and a physical freak of nature in Aidan Shaw standing 6’8” himself, the interior rim protection and post defense remains one of the biggest questions on the roster. In a system where gambles are taken on the perimeter to generate turnovers, having a shot eraser in the paint to cover those breakdowns is invaluable. Mizzou’s unit projects to be roughly top 100 in height based on past seasons, which means there’s obviously a physical limitation to the equation compared with those Seminole rosters.
There may need to be some adjustments early on from what one might expect to see from Mizzou teams in the future. What those are and how they pan out remains in question. What can be looked at with some degree of accuracy is the overall results. Mizzou as a program has struggled to put together great defensive teams since Mike Anderson left for Arkansas.
I will be looking for something relatively simple. In 20 seasons at Florida State, Leonard Hamilton has produced 18 defensive units that have finished in the top 100 of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. (It should also be noted that he’s produced 13 top 50 units, 8 of which cracked the top 25.) Top 100 is my goal for this team. No matter how it’s done, turnovers generated or otherwise, Mizzou needs to become better on the defensive end of the floor.
Turn The Page…Together
If my calculations are right, Mizzou’s 12 known scholarship players this year have spent time at 16 different college institutions, ranging from junior colleges all the way up to High Major D-I programs. Three players return from Mizzou’s roster a year ago. Two arrive at Mizzou from a junior college. Two followed Coach Dennis Gates from Cleveland State. Three come from Mid-Major programs. One comes from an ACC program. And finally, one is a traditional high school recruit entering his freshman year.
That is a wide array of experience. It’s natural to expect some growing pains early on. There’s probably good reason why Mizzou starts the season with seven home games that fall in the “better not lose this one” category.
But here’s the thing: while roster turnover like this is still extraordinary, roster turnover in general is not anymore. With the advent of the transfer portal allowing for one-time, immediate eligibility for any D-I transfer, being able to get guys on the same page and win ballgames is now an annual requisite.
Sure, there will be teams who do better at player retention and achieve more roster continuity than others, and for more on that, see below. Yet the ability to find talented players with a vast array of backgrounds and get them to all pull in the same general direction is more vital now than ever. This is still a key facet even when you return players. After all, what good is continuity if the chemistry is bad?
There is no one statistic to truly measure this. Sure, improvement over the course of the season could be one, but there’s a host of reasons other than simple roster chemistry that could be the root cause of that. Rather, this is an amorphous “you’ll know it when it happens,” type of thing. To put an objective spin on things, how are individual players improving (or regressing) over the course of a season? Are players finding success in their roles? Are we seeing guys jumping passing lanes, taking charges, slapping butts, hitting the floor and the like the same way in February as in November? Perhaps a butt slap tally is in order?
Control The Flow
Assuming each player on the roster appears in the box score at least once, Mizzou will have had 32 players take the floor in a Tiger uniform the last three years. Only two of them, perhaps three depending on Mabor Majak’s scholarship situation, were walk-ons. For the uninitiated, a team is allowed 13 scholarship players per season. The roster churn in Columbia has been extreme and that will continue in year one with as many as 9-10 new scholarship players.
Perhaps even more alarming, since the 2009 recruiting class that featured Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Laurence Bowers and Steve Moore graduated out in 2013, Mizzou has had six, SIX, high school recruits that have signed with and exhausted their eligibility at Mizzou. That number could technically be whittled to five considering Javon Pickett has transferred to Saint Louis University to use his free COVID season.
Ken Pomeroy has a metric called “minutes continuity.” It is simply a measure of how much of the roster production has carried over within a given roster from the prior season. With #1 being the “most” continuity, Mizzou has ranked: 330th, 6th, 117th, 258th, 196th, 202nd, 229th, 300th, 304th, 341st and 65th dating back to Frank Haith’s first year. Their four NCAA Tournament appearances have featured teams rating 6th, 196th, 341st and 65th.
I haven’t compared these numbers to other programs, but I would wager the only High-Major teams turning over rosters like this are those that rely heavily on one-and-done recruits. Mizzou has had plenty of one-and-done players in Columbia, but not the kind you want. It is virtually impossible for a middle-class program such as Mizzou to undergo those constant transformations and have any level of sustained success. We know this because it’s happened, and the program’s successes have been nothing more than short-term leases.
We know at least three members of the 2022-2023 roster will be gone at the end of the season having exhausted their collegiate eligibility. Four more players have the option of utilizing their free season granted for those who played in the 2020-2021 campaign. We know there’s more turnover coming.
But what I would like to see is two-fold. First, and you make have sensed where I’m going already, less departures at the end of the season. Even if you’re returning seven players, that’s a significant improvement over what we’ve seen in recent years. The transfer portal makes it easier for players to leave and to replace those players on the fly. That’s handy. But does it help long-term stability?
Second, I’d like to see meaningful minutes for the players the program hopes to return next season and sustained development over the course of the season in those players. Although Mizzou has only two underclassmen in a technical sense (Aidan Shaw and Kaleb Brown), there are numerous others who will likely be playing collegiate basketball in the 2023-2024 season. Seeing those players contribute, improve and return would be a sight for sore eyes. Build a foundation where next year’s team can be constructed upon.
Maximize Your Opportunities
Without diving headfirst into a lengthy discussion on analytics, I think most would agree that playing to your roster’s strengths is a good thing, no? At the heart of the “optimization,” discussion, the question is simply, “How do you make the best of what you have?” With the season about to start, the roster you have now is the roster you’ll have in March, best-case scenario.
To elaborate, I’ve observed several teams over recent years that I find to be excellent at doing just that — optimizing their talents. It may not be the sexiest style of play, nor may it fall into what some may think is the way “modern” or “savvy” teams play. When you really dig in, however, you see why they’re successful with it.
A recent example of what I’m referring to are the Wyoming Cowboys. Jeff Linder took over the program prior to the 2020-2021 season. The Cowboys had suffered consecutive 24 loss seasons under their former head coach and rated 325th and 322nd in adjusted offensive efficiency along the way.
Enter Linder. In his first year, the Cowboys finished 14-11 and 68th in offensive efficiency. In his second year, they finished 25-9 and ranked 67th in offensive efficiency. Quite a turnaround, no?
What I found so fascinating is not that they did it, but how they did it. Any person who watched their NCAA Tournament game against Indiana may be wondering, “You’re talking up THAT team?” In the present age of teams “embracing the data,” by having impeccable spacing, only taking three-point attempts and layups, Linder may not fit the mold. But he REALLY embraced the data.
Linder’s best three players were 6’7 Hunter Maldonado, 6’9 Graham Ike and 6’5 Drake Jeffries. They had other players that worked on the boat, but these guys steered the ship. Wyoming finished the season 40th in points per possession nationally. They did so in a very simple way.
They played to their strengths.
They used the most amount of post-up possessions in college basketball by a large margin — 727. Second place was Purdue with 527. Despite that incredibly high usage, they averaged 0.898 points per possession, 95th nationally. Typically, those possessions are worth around 0.810 PPP. A significant overachievement. Their entire offense revolved around post-up possessions out of both Ike and Maldonado, who finished 1st and 15th nationally in post-up attempts individually. Ike posted up 140 times more than second place Kofi Cockburn!
Their second strength was that they had a fair amount of shooting talent. While their post-up primaries were working on the block, they spread the floor and they shot open jump shots. They ranked 75th in the most catch and shoot jumpers taken. What’s more? They ranked 29th in the number of open catch and shoot opportunities taken.
They’d get into those areas creatively, but their goal was simple: Let their primary players feast on post up possessions or alternatively, suck the defense in and make them pay behind the arc. In the end, they pounded away in the half-court, rarely using the transition game, and nearly 70% of their offense came in this manner. Linder won’t likely be using this post-up and space strategy going forward, but it’s what his team excelled at, and he beat it to death.
Bringing this back to Mizzou, I would enjoy seeing this level of creativity at Mizzou. The Tigers 2022-2023 roster projects to be a pretty talented one. One that has a fair amount of collegiate experience to analyze in determining what the players can do offensively and defensively. They have an isolation expert in Isiaih Mosley. They have two proven, if traditionally undersized men adept at scoring on post-ups in Noah Carter and Kobe Brown. They have several players who project well as cutting experts and transition scorers. They even have guards who have shown they can post up!
What I would like to see from this team is their ability to: 1) Identify their strengths, whatever they may be, and 2) Play to them. Repeatedly. Naturally, any time something is done more often, it becomes less effective. But there’s a balance to be struck. When you’re not doing those things you do really well, are you doing it at the expense of something you still do pretty well?
There is no magic number or statistic I’d like to see here. However, RockM’s lineup pieces, post-game analyses and film rooms this season will continually evaluate this topic. Is the new staff squeezing the most production possible out of the talent they’ve assembled?
Don’t Be Old, Be Experienced
For all of Mizzou’s issues related to continuity described previously, one thing it has going for it is the roster having a great deal of experience. Not to be confused, experience is merely the amount of seasons participated in previously, irrespective of the team. Mizzou is well-stocked in that regard.
Of the 12 known scholarship players that comprise this year’s roster, 11 have some level of experience in the college game. 10 have D-I experience on their resume. Nine players have multiple years of D-I experience. 10 players will be considered at least juniors and 8 players would traditionally be considered seniors, with 3 players in their fifth collegiate season. While it’s true that continuity is likely more important than sheer experience, the latter should not be discounted.
I’m wanting to see Mizzou leverage that experience and generate wins. Simple enough.
I hesitate to put too much stock into win totals in any given year. There are too many factors at play to put a concrete number as a barometer and qualify it as a success or failure based on that figure. This is especially true in year one after a coaching change.
However, this roster is built to win some basketball games. It has the talent and the requisite experience to reasonably expect they should be playing meaningful games in March. Technically, every team is playing meaningful basketball until they’re eliminated, what with the auto-bids affixed to league tournament winners. I’m expecting more than that.
When the calendar turns to March of 2023, Mizzou will have completed 29 contests with two regular season games and the SEC Tournament remaining. There needs to be intrigue about whether this team is in the NCAA Tournament, solidly on the bubble or positioning itself for the NIT. Any of those results are palatable. Should the team fall short, it’s not so much a “failure” as it is a missed opportunity.
Despite the inconsistency in the program, three of the last five Mizzou head coaches managed to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. Quin Snyder’s 2000 team won 18 games and earned a 9-seed. Frank Haith’s 2012 team won 30 games before finding themselves a 2-seed. Cuonzo Martin’s 2018 squad won 20 en route to an 8-seed. Even Mike Anderson pulled together a pretty decent first season, all things considered, going 18-12 and 7-9 in conference. Obviously, these results are not necessarily indicative of what’s to come. But they do serve to show that there is some reasonable belief for that expectation.
Mizzou will boast an experienced roster with an All-SEC senior in the fold, multiple all-league incoming transfers and one of the most prodigious collegiate scorers in recent memory. If the points alluded to previously are completed successfully, this one will naturally be checked of the list. I’m sure of that much.
In the age of the transfer portal and NIL compensation for athletes, we never know what the following years will bring. It’s imperative to maximize the moment. Mizzou has a solid opportunity to do that this coming season.