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NET Gains: Mizzou has met early expectations. Can it exceed them?

The Tigers debuted at No. 34 in the NET rankings after handling a soft opening schedule. The Border War is the first chance at a quality victory — and to show the rebuild is ahead of schedule.

Missouri v Wichita State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

On Monday morning, an NCAA spokesperson dropped a link that wonks like us covet: unveiling this season’s NET rankings.

Several years ago, the NET debuted as the governing body’s defacto version of KenPom, replacing the easily gamed RPI as a tool to select and seed 68 teams in the NCAA tournament bracket. Unfortunately, it’s also notoriously weird — at least early on. Its algorithm, kept under lock and key, doesn’t precisely control for a team’s strength of schedule in weighing out efficiency margin.

Loosely translated: If you blow out a lot of bad teams, you won’t be punished for a toilet-paper-thin slate.

And that brings us to Missouri.

The undefeated Tigers, fresh off a sluggish win over Southeast Missouri State, checked in at No. 34 nationally. That slotting made coach Dennis Gates’ the sixth-best SEC squad in the rankings, which are shown below. And in recent seasons, teams that finished the season in that spot have been seeded between seventh and ninth when March Madness arrived.


So, the selection committee would send MU an invite? It depends. MU’s team sheet isn’t exactly impressive. Members would focus on the tally of Quadrant 1 wins: zero. Or notice that MU’s best wins are an overtime victory at Wichita State and a home rout of SIU-Edwardsville. Six of its wins are in Quadrant 4, the college basketball version of junk bonds.

I don’t think MU is trying to do an end-run around NET. Gates’ approach to building a slate is common: load up on buy games to create continuity among a roster overhaul featuring a ton of mid-major veterans. And given what we knew about the blueprint for its construction, the first nine games have confirmed most of our suspicions. Mizzou’s offense, built around steady-ball handlers and proven rim finishers, has balanced nicely with a pressure-heavy defense that seeks to generate turnovers and juice the tempo. Is that defense leaky? Sure is. But we’ve documented why.

What’s happened is the Tigers have outperformed expectations just enough to create a raw efficiency margin that looks good when the NCAA runs the numbers. But what about other wonky outlets? Let’s see where they rate MU.

  • Erik Haslam: No. 47
  • Ken Pomeroy: No. 47
  • Bart Torvik: No. 52
  • Evan Miyakawa: No. 59

That’s a broad consensus, and it would put MU between eighth and 10th in the SEC pecking order. And what about sentient beings? Like voters in the Associated Press poll? Well, they gave the Tigers a whopping two points in this week’s edition, which places MU the equivalent of 40th in the rankings. So, in other words, they’re also keen to see MU beat someone with a pulse.

The current state of affairs is also helpful. If you look at these ratings as a continuum, the top end has MU earning a solid seeding come March, but the lower bound isn’t bad either. Historically, teams in the territory we see above have been toward the back end of the bubble conversation or earned an NIT bid. And if the season ended today, the Tigers would finish 90 spots ahead of where they were last season. For a rebooting program, that kind of jump is an outlier. Here’s what I wrote last spring:

Making the postseason mandate would be an exceptionally high bar. Just 26 percent of sub-100 teams cleared it the following year, and only 18 teams — or 12.6 percent — rebounded to make the NCAA Tournament. Of that group, four teams were helmed by a coach who had been on the job for five years or more.

There’s a temptation to downplay MU doing what it should against one of the worst schedules assembled by a high-major program. But we shouldn’t entirely discount it, either. This time a year ago, the Tigers were fresh off a 21-point shellacking at Liberty. They’d dropped to 127th in KenPom, and an absolute reaming by Kansas was just about to unfold. Moreover, former coach Cuonzo Martin was bankrupt of political capital, and word was already filtering around that Sean Durugordon and Trevon Brazile might be looking for exit plans.

That makes a trajectory pointed to an NIT bid look much better. It’s also why moving on from Martin was probably the right call. Even if Gates doesn’t mimic what T.J. Otzelberger pulled off at Iowa State, his debut campaign — as it stands — would likely trump Martin’s bid at a do-over.

Starting Saturday, the structural integrity of this quick flip starts two months of stress testing. From here on out, MU will play 18 games that would qualify as Quadrant 1 or 2 victories, and 10 of those tilts will take place away from Columbia. Based on KenPom win probabilities, the Tigers are favorites in just two of them: home games against Iowa State and Mississippi State. Beyond that, the best case is usually a toss-up.

Aside from the attendant loathing and history against Kansas, the Border War is a prime chance for MU to make a bold statement in its first test before a national audience. Snag a victory, and it’s easy to imagine enough pollsters moving the Tigers into the back end of the rankings. But, more importantly, a win against the Jayhawks is recession-proof as a Quad 1 victory.

The Tigers have met our expectations.

This weekend, they can give us a glimpse of potentially exceeding them.