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How Sean East helps pick up Mizzou’s tempo

The Tigers’ point guard has started the season as one of the nation’s leading facilitators in transition.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Wichita State William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Seconds into the clip, a phrase turns over in your brain: Oh, no.

Standing underneath Missouri’s rim, Sean East II cocked back his arm and launched. The intended recipient of his full-court missile isn’t even in the frame. Its trajectory carries it past half-court and over a trio of SIU-Edwardsville Cougars, making transition defense futile. And it drops into D’Moi Hodge’s hands as it reaches the elbow.

Two steps later, he gently lays the ball in.

For most point guards, that decision might result in a turnover and a quick signal from the coach for a substitute. Not for East. Sometimes, he might uncork three of those bombs per game, making it appear like MU is working through a route tree instead of running the break.

If it’s not clear already, this iteration of the Tigers doesn’t just play with a pep in their step. Instead, they redline every gauge on the dashboard. Going into Saturday’s Border War, coach Dennis Gates’ crew ranks fourth nationally in adjusted tempo and eighth in average possession length. They’re also fourth in Division I for transition possessions.

Aside from Hodge, few Tigers embody the approach better than East. By almost every metric, he’s among the best transition passers in the country, and lineup data tells us the Tigers perk up when he’s on the floor. And over the last three games, the JUCO import has helped backfill production the Tigers might have expected from Isiaih Mosley.

More importantly, East has slotted in comfortably as a combo guard and is a running partner to lead guard Nick Honor. East embraces playing off the ball and picking his spots during those stretches. Once Honor takes a breather, MU becomes less reliant on its base offense, asserts itself more in early-clock situations, and feasts on turnovers.

Coming into the season, we knew East’s dynamism could be an asset – if he bought into lowering his usage. To say it’s gone well would undersell his impact.

Through nine games, East has tallied one more assist in transition (16) than he has against a set defense, tying him with N.C. State’s Terquavion Smith. His 2.67 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks 13th among high-usage transition players. East dishes the ball 37.2 percent of the time when running the break, per Synergy tracking data. Only Saint Louis vet Yuri Collins does it more often.

Essentially, MU has one of the best high-speed orchestrators in the country – one logging just 21 minutes per game.

Lineup data also makes the distinction clear. Look at MU’s operating speed with its starters on the floor.

Pace of Play | Starters | Missouri | 2022-23

Player Poss On Pace Off Pace Diff
Player Poss On Pace Off Pace Diff
D'Moi Hodge 432 72.07 72.17 -0.1
Nick Honor 428 71.36 73.54 -2.18
Kobe Brown 378 71.27 73.27 -2
DeAndre Gholston 310 72.2 72.02 0.18
Noah Carter 353 71.48 72.85 -1.37
Source: Pivot Analysis

You’ll see that Gates’ opening quintet plays one possession slower per game, per Pivot Analysis. While that lineup will run if given a chance, it often relies on MU’s base offense – whether in pinch-post touches or punch plays – to find the beat. But as the first media timeout approaches, Gates’ substation pattern gradually accelerates the tempo.

It begins with Tre Gomillion, who often replaces DeAndre Gholston. East is usually next to check-in, taking over the lead guard spot. From there, Gates is flexible. Until recently, he would insert freshman Aidan Shaw for Kobe Brown. Or he might have Mosley spell Hodge.

Regardless, here’s what happens once the second unit punches its timecard.

Pace of Play | Reserves | Missouri | 2022-23

Player Poss On Pace Off Pace Diff
Player Poss On Pace Off Pace Diff
Sean East 362 72.91 71.14 1.77
Tre Gomillion 351 72.49 71.67 0.82
Isiaih Mosley 231 74.38 70.93 3.45
Aidan Shaw 206 69.9 73.16 -3.26
Ronnie DeGray 69 73.3 71.97 1.33
Source: Pivot Analysis

If not for Shaw, MU’s bench players taking the floor would mean the Tigers’ pace ticks up by about three possessions per game. East’s presence alone ups the pace by almost two possessions. Over the past six outings, he’s gradually improved his efficiency, posting 1.06 PPP, per Synergy. On Sunday, East’s run of good form culminated with 21 points against SEMO, which he amassed with his most-efficient performance (1.400 PPP) of the season.

He’s done so while splitting between the point and combo guard spots. The configuration is straightforward when he joins Honor. Hodge is a staple on the wing. If Gates wants to offer up a four-guard look, he’ll have Gomillion on the floor while Brown or Carter spend equal time as the five. Or he’ll just stick with Brown and Carter as his frontcourt. Using net rating, we know Carter has been a better fit (+31.3) than Brown (-22.89) in that setup.

Potent Combo | Most-Used Lineups | Past Six Games

PG CG Wing Wing/CF CF/Post Poss Off. Eff. Def. Eff. Net
PG CG Wing Wing/CF CF/Post Poss Off. Eff. Def. Eff. Net
Honor East Hodge Gomillion Brown, Ko. 21.84 123.57 146.45 -22.89
Honor East Hodge Gomillion Carter 15.97 150.24 118.94 31.3
Honor East Gomillion Brown, Ko. Carter 12.3 136.26 90.84 45.42
Honor East Hodge Brown, Ko. Carter 9.79 204.24 112.33 91.91
Honor East Hodge Gholston Shaw 5.64 159.43 106.29 53.14
Source: Pivot Analysis

The best part is that bundling Honor, East, and Hodge together creates a backcourt where everyone boasts a steal percentage north of 5.0. Adding Gomillion, who owns a 3.4 steal percentage, means the Tigers’ quickest hands share the floor. Whether it’s Hodge poking the ball away, East ripping a steal in a trap, or Gomillion creating a deflection, it’s a lineup optimized to get the game going up and down.

Point Man | Lineup Data | Past Six Games

PG CG Wing Wing/CF CF/Post Poss Off. Eff. Def. Eff. Net
PG CG Wing Wing/CF CF/Post Poss Off. Eff. Def. Eff. Net
East Mosley Gomillion Shaw Brown, Ko. 21.96 122.92 91.05 31.86
East Mosley Gomillion Gholston DeGray 6.72 148.8 89.28 59.2
East Gomillion Hodge DeGray Carter 5.76 86.8 0 86.8
East Hodge Gholston Shaw Brown, Ko. 5.64 53.14 141.72 -88.58
East Mosley Hodge Shaw Brown, Ko. 4.14 120.56 72.33 48.22
Source: Pivot Analysis

Once East moves over to point guard, the picture quickly clears up. Even with Mosley sitting out against Wichita State and playing barely six minutes against SEMO, the Missouri State transfer spent more time sharing the floor with East than anyone else. (The Tigers have a plus-45 scoring margin when that happens.)

Those personnel tweaks go beyond having an impact on data in spreadsheets. Reviewing the film, it’s easy to see that East’s distribution process adapts to his running mates. None is more distinct than his connection with Hodge.

If you could dispense one piece of advice about Hodge, it would be simple — rotate back. Last season, Hodge leaked out early on the break 19 times for Cleveland State. He’s already done it nine times for MU. And even if one man does get back, Hodge is comfortable setting up in the right slot and biding his time.

Integrating Mosley into the rotation hasn’t been as seamless as we expected. Early on, the Rock Bridge product almost seemed too deferential as a creator. Then, he served as a one-man zone buster against Mississippi Valley State, and shredded Coastal Carolina in the first half. Along the way, Mosley also seemed to forge a solid partnership with East.

Sometimes, those touches come when MU’s converting defense to offense, especially when Mosley gets out and runs the left channel.

That’s also the case when MU flows into early-clock offense. More than anything, East’s creation method is merely sound decision-making and getting the ball to a teammate in a preferred spot on the floor.

In Mosley’s case, a hit-ahead pass frequently finds him in the corner. Usually, there’s a gap he can exploit as the defense scrambles to cross-match. Typically, rim attacks from that spot on the floor have limited options. Not for Mosley. His touch is so deft on floaters — which he launches off either foot — that he can generate a high-quality look off just one dribble.

So far, Mosley’s averaging around 3.6 transition possessions each game, per Synergy data. That’s a slight uptick over last season and the only source of offense that hasn’t been cut in half now that he’s suiting up in Columbia.

It’s also heartening to see this iteration of East, who isn’t hoarding touches when getting up and down. That’s hard coming off a campaign where you averaged almost 21 points per game, many of which were racked up racing past people on the break for easy rim attempts. It’s not that East couldn’t facilitate. The question was whether he could strike a balance between those impulses.

The math also backs up the notion that deference is the better option. At this point, East averages 0.815 PPP in transition, according to Synergy. That’s the lowest efficiency on the roster and ranks in the 24th percentile nationally.

On tape, though, East’s shot selection hasn’t differed dramatically. It tilts toward rim attempts and floaters. Unfortunately, those aren’t dropping at the same rate. And even against Wichita State, East had three quality mid-range pull-up attempts after handoffs that all kicked off the rim.

East had 15 chances to convert in transition in the past three games — three more than he had combined in MU’s first six outings. Yet they’ve only produced 0.733 PPP — almost a third less than the Division I average. The Tigers would love to see those shots start dropping because East typically gets just four opportunities each game when facing a set defense.

That said, East has tried to make the most of those chances. As we expected, he’s used spot-ups as a chance to attack the paint. The returns, however, have been mixed at just 0.571 points per possession, according to Synergy. Still, his floater remains arguably remains the best scoring tool in his kit.

We don’t have to search too far to find evidence of its impact. Honor moved off the ball down the stretch at Wichita State and ceded creative control to East. He used it to team up with Brown and Carter to operate in the middle of the floor. The left-handed tear drop helped him when Shammah Scott recovered back to slow him up in a middle gap and after he bumped off Gus Okafor during a straight switch.

Meanwhile, East’s making the right reads when facilitating in ball screens, often finding Carter in pick-and-pops that yield uncontested catch-and-shoots. Yet Carter is just 1 of 3, and — as you can see in the clips, Kobe Brown bricked his lone 3-ball that resulted from the same action.

The upshot: East’s possession tallies in the half-court are small enough that changing the outcomes of touches, whether they come out of his hand or a teammate, could tilt the efficiency metrics in a gaudier direction. And they can’t undercut the broader idea that he’s an essential component for a team that seems wholly committed to playing at the fastest clip in Division I.

But as with so many facets of this team, the rest of the season will test how durable these early insights genuinely are. East’s decisions haven’t produced dire outcomes against the likes of SIUE, Coastal Carolina, and Houston Christian. They’re choices he’s made countless times before. Moving forward, though, the Tigers face just two teams — Vanderbilt and South Carolina — ranked lower than 100th in KenPom.

We’ll see if his East’s method — and Missouri’s pace — survives the stress test.