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Closing Time: What should we expect as Missouri winds down the season?

The Tigers are undoubtedly playing better, but a softer schedule and historical data tell us there’s a ceiling for Cuonzo Martin and this roster.

Missouri v Iowa State Photo by David K Purdy/Getty Images

On Saturday, an ominous sense of déjà vu arrived when the clock ticked under a minute to play and Missouri led Texas A&M by five.

The Tigers’ fortitude had withstood 39 minutes of stress, whether it was grinding out offensive possessions, winning the rebounding battle, and responding to an Aggies surge midway through the second half. But after Amari Davis banked in a jumper, the bolts started rattling. Again.

The Tigers lost track of Hayden Hefner, who buried a 3-pointer after drifting to the right corner. Then, after breaking the huddle from a timeout, the play diagrammed by Coach Cuonzo Martin stalled out — twice. First, the Aggies swarmed Ronnie DeGray III, forcing a jump ball. And on the second go-around, they stripped Jarron Coleman on a drive to the rim.

Making matters worse, DeGray fouled Quenton Jackson just past mid-court on the resulting fast break. With 12.7 seconds left, a game that looked to be in hand was on the verge of overtime. Unfortunately, it also bore a striking resemblance to the script that played out three days earlier against Florida — unsure ball-handling, handsy defense, and poor decision-making.

It also fits a larger trend of Missouri failing to close out games where it held solid leads — a first meeting with the Aggies, a road trip to Alabama, and a failed upset of top-ranked Auburn.

Yet the fates seemingly granted a reprieve. Jackson’s first attempt kicked off the heel. Kobe Brown pulled it down. And after he was fouled, the junior sank two freebies to end a four-game skid.

Usually, a 9-13 squad eking out a road win in February isn’t fraught with meaning. This version of the Tigers isn’t burnishing postseason credentials. More than anything, it’s an audition after a disastrous start, whether it’s players trying to stick in the rotation or a coaching staff fighting for job security.

More than anything, it’s a salvage run. It’s also shown signs of progress — except in the win column. Now, as we enter the home stretch, it’s worth looking at how the Tigers have evolved and what constitutes success as a season enters the home stretch.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Basketball-Missouri at Texas A&M Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

Is Mizzou actually playing better?

Laughable as it sounds, the Tigers have improved. Granted, it’s also relative.

In its first 14 games against Division I foes, the Tigers’ posted a gruesome minus-11.64 efficiency margin. The culprit: an offense that was operating at a level which would rank around 310th nationally in raw efficiency, per KenPom.

Part of the issue stemmed from hardware. Bypassing a proven lead guard for several combo guards created a ball-handling deficit that’s baked in now. Meanwhile, MU lacks the kind of frontcourt pieces to thrive in middle pick-and-rolls, making last season’s offense ill-suited software for this roster.

Those deficiencies and a brutal non-conference schedule teed up early-season calamity. Over six games, from the renewal of the Border War to a shellacking at Arkansas, the Tigers lost four games by more than 25 points. Their raw efficiency? Around minus-27.7. Even when adjusting for the caliber of opposition, MU bore a statistical resemblance to the No. 304 squad in KenPom.

Worse, in three rivalry games, the Tigers were minus-49 points per 100 possessions worse than the Jayhawks, Illini, and Razorbacks. That’s equivalent to the worst team in Division I taking the floor in the most-important matchups for the program’s fanbase. I can show you all the math and data I want, but it’s trumped by the visceral embarrassment fans feel watching their team look like a low-major getting slapped around for a check.

At mid-season, MU was charting a course toward a sub-250 finish in various analytic indexes. Had that death spiral continued, the arguments for keeping this staff, much less the roster, would have been thin.

It’s also what has induced whiplash in recent weeks.

Sam alluded to it in Study Hall, but I’ll spell it out here. Since returning from Fayetteville, MU’s improved its raw efficiency by 9.6 points per 100 possessions. And when we adjust for its SOS, the program’s efficiency margin (12.50) would rank around 60th in KenPom. It’s hard to see, but notice how the gap between offense and defense has stabilized.

What’s behind the shift?

An offense with a degree of competency certainly helps. In fact, all of MU’s efficiency gains have come at that end. The numbers tell us the Tigers resemble an average Division I team in raw terms. And to be more reductive, their jump-shooting has gone from a liability to, well, average.

Before and After | Offense | Missouri | 2021-2022

Period Off. PPP eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate 2FG% 3FG% 3FGA Rate
Period Off. PPP eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate 2FG% 3FG% 3FGA Rate
First 14 0.88 44.1 20.1 32.1 0.31 48 24.4 34.1
Last 7 0.99 54.8 21.4 30.5 0.26 53.1 39.4 27.7
Change 0.11 10.7 1.3 -1.6 -0.05 5.1 15 -6.4
Hoop Lens

The Tigers have shot an astounding 39.4 percent from 3-point range during the last seven games, elevating their effective-field-goal percentage (54.8%) by nearly 10 percentage points. But, crucially, it’s on lower volume — MU ranks 12th in the SEC — and higher-quality looks, such as skip passes and kickouts off drives to a shooter spotting up on the weak side of the floor. Sure, opponents still default to clogging gaps, but MU still ranks fourth in the SEC for shotmaking, per Shot Quality.

Meanwhile, Martin and his assistants have steadily retooled the offense. Gone are sets triggered by weaves, dribble-handoffs, and chase actions. They’ve kept staples like Gut or horns but tweaked how those are structured. For example, the Tigers didn’t use ghost screens — or screen at all — in Gut, which kept the Aggies from trapping side ball screens. They’ve also incorporated more sets using Brown, DeGray, and Trevon Brazile as playmakers from the elbows and pinch post.

The approach empowers Brown to play from spots he likes, but it incorporates DHOs and, increasingly, more diverse off-ball cuts. Meanwhile, the Tigers selectively play with some pep and attack in transition when the opportunities arise. And quietly, they’re getting more mid-range touches for Amari Davis.

Defensively, though, the Tigers find themselves in a similar place but for a different set of reasons. First, opponents are no longer strafing MU on the initial shot of a possession. Martin’s crew only allows a 44.9 effective-field-goal percentage over the last seven games. That would rank first in the SEC. (Even when you factor in the first three games of conference play, the Tigers sit in third.) It’s also more in line with Martin’s reputation.

Before and After | Defense | Missouri | 2021-2022

Period Def. PPP eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate 2FG% 3FG% 3FGA Rate
Period Def. PPP eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate 2FG% 3FG% 3FGA Rate
First 14 1 53.6 17.6 27.1 0.325 52.4 37.1 39.1
Last 7 0.99 44.9 16.8 37.8 0.34 43.1 32 37.2
Change 0.01 -8.7 -0.8 10.7 0.015 -9.3 -5.1 -1.9
Hoop Lens

But if teams are objectively shooting worse, why haven’t we seen a dip in the points MU gives up each trip? Bluntly, MU hemorrhages possessions. Its frontcourt is undersized, and there are times when one of Brown, DeGray, and Brazile are pulled out of the paint. That enables opponents to feast on the offensive glass, where MU sits 13th in the SEC. Then there are the turnover woes, which only exacerbates the imbalance.

MU’s guarding better, but it’s having to do too much of it.

Earlier in the year, we said Martin would need to radically alter his approach to this season. To a certain degree, he’s obliged. The rotation is tighter, evidenced by Sean Durugordon looking for minutes elsewhere and Jordan Wilmore with DNP streak that coincides with MU’s improved play. He’s leaning more on his veterans, but he’s ditched parts of an offense that clearly don’t fit their skillsets. And recently, he’s throttled back the pace.

The result is an offense that gives itself a puncher’s chance — when the defense strings together enough stops and rebounds. Is that great? No. Does it fit the vision Martin laid out in the offseason? Far from it. But all that matters are results.

Until last weekend, though, that tangible proof had been scarce. Martin’s earned a nod for resourcefulness, but it’s paired with a critique. The struggles aren’t the result of injury luck. Instead, they stemmed from conscious and considered choices made by this staff. Credit is limited when the problems are of your own making.

I don’t know where Martin’s stock sits with his bosses or how warm his seat actually is. And I try not to overweigh the sentiments of a fanbase’s most vocal element. But it’s fair to say Martin’s burned a healthy amount of political capital. At the very least, whiffing on home wins against Texas A&M, Auburn, and Florida are missed opportunities to restore even a modest amount of it.

If MU held on in two of those games, it would sit at 11-11 overall and 5-4 in the SEC standings, good enough for a fifth-place tie and games against Vandy and Ole Miss ahead. It would also be the kind of math athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois needs to avoid more complicated calculations required to make a $6 million buyout affordable.

Missouri is ranked 127th in KenPom. Can it at least avoid a sub-100 finish?

The arithmetic is tricky.

Let’s assume the adjustment MU receives for a demanding schedule remains the same. Let’s also hold MU’s tempo steady. What would need to change is its scoring margin. Currently, MU’s been outscored by 126 points. That needs to shrink by 38 points over the next nine games to make the math work. Basically, MU needs a plus-4.2 scoring margin each time out the rest of the way.

Will it happen? No idea.

For the moment, KenPom’s projections have MU with a minus-5.55 scoring margin in its remaining contests. That would make for an 88-point swing. Sadly, it’s also the kind of rubble you’re digging out of when rivals drop bunker-busters on you.

But MU showed it was possible at Texas A&M, where they were a 10-point underdog and won by four. That boosted them seven spots in KenPom’s ratings. Put a few more performances like that one together, and maybe the Tigers will pull it off.

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

Missouri was No. 95 to start the season. Should we be shocked?

No. And yes.

Every year, you hear talk of how teams want to improve as the season unfolds. But the reality is that most teams regress from their preseason rating. In 2011, KenPom began displaying how a team’s ranking changed from game to game. That fossil record allows us to loosely gauge a team’s performance throughout a season.

For example, we can look at where high-major programs start and at the end of the regular season. It’s also robust, with more than 778 data points. Once we plot them all, we see the slope point downward.

Now, there’s no relationship between a program’s starting point and how many spots it will rise and fall in Pomeroy’s ratings. But what we care about are the descriptive stats, which can tell us the average change in ranking and the range for a normal distribution — or around 80 percent — of outcomes.

Season of Change | High-Major Programs | 2011-2021

Count Mean Median Mode Std. Dev
Count Mean Median Mode Std. Dev
778 -8.317 -4 1 36.133

Looking at that table, we know a high-major program sees the KenPom ranking slip by around eight spots from its preseason position. And if it rises or falls by 36 spots — a 72-spot range — that wouldn’t be considered an outlier. Now, we can’t use those figures to predict a team’s final ranking, but they can help set expectations.

In Missouri’s case, the Tigers began the season at 95th in Pomeroy’s ratings. Using that historical data, an “average” change would see them slide to 103rd by early March. Still, any finish between 59th and 131st would not have been an abnormal outcome. Basically, the top end of that range would have seen MU squarely in the mix for an NIT bid.

Sure, the performance has been disappointing, but, at the moment, it’s not wildly divergent from what we’d expect.

How often do high-major programs finish lower than 100th?

Over the last decade, the annual tally is around 14 — or roughly 20 percent. Now, half of those teams start the year below that cutoff and never escape. That means seven played poorly enough to earn that ignominious distinction. And often, the teams who tumble started the year rated lower than 60th in KenPom.

But let’s look at the narrow band where MU started the year — programs between No. 85 and 105th. That creates a 73-team pool since 2011, and half of them finished the year with a ranking lower than 100th.

Unsurprisingly, a team’s final ranking is strongly correlated (R=0.99) with how many spots it dropped. But again, its preseason rating has no connection (R=0.03) with how far it will rise or fall. What we still care about, though, is the average change in ranking and the normal range of outcomes.

Looking over the descriptive stats for this band, we find the average change in ranking is a slippage of roughly four spots, and 80 percent of teams fall in a range of plus or minus 42 places.

Season of Change | No. 85 to No. 105 | 2011-2021

Mean Median Mode Std. Dev
Mean Median Mode Std. Dev
-4.29 5.5 23 42.46

Even then, MU would be on a knife’s edge to finish below No. 100, and the end of the range would place the Tigers around 53rd in KenPom. But what we care about most is the floor. Using that range, finishing around 137th or 138th would not count as an outlier for this group.

But I don’t think anyone would conflate typical with acceptable. If MU holds steady the rest of the way, they will rank in the 24th percentile among programs that started the season in a similar place.

Keep this in mind, too: the original blueprint had the Tigers skidding 76 spots during non-conference play. That would rank in the fifth percentile of all high-majors since 2011. Yes, MU’s improved, but the result is cutting off a dangerous flirtation with catastrophe.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Basketball-Missouri at Texas A&M Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

What should we expect as the season winds down?


Let’s use KenPom’s data and set Jan. 15 as our starting point for measuring how high-major programs conclude the regular season. What we find is the average ranking changes by a whopping 1.9 spots. The median? It’s zero. The most common result is? Also, zero.

There are wider fluctuations, which explains why a normal range is plus or minus 20 spots. For the most part, though, you are what you are by now. MU has piled up more than 1,400 possessions against Division I opposition. And while they’ve played like a top-70 team recently, the Tigers only moved up 10 or so spots in the last six games.

Here’s another fun factor: MU could play better but still slip in the rankings. If its raw efficiency holds steady, it will unfold against a softer stretch of the schedule. That would drag down the adjustment KenPom uses in his ratings. As noted earlier, MU would have to significantly over-perform to push its way upward.

That’s not impossible. It’s just hard to do.

Let’s say Martin gets another season. What’s the likelihood he’s in the same spot?

It’s a 50-50 proposition.

In the last decade or so, almost half of teams who finished lower than 100th in one season followed it up with encore. Yet the overarching trend bends toward improvement. On average, a sub-100 team improves by 39 spots in KenPom the next season, and only 21 percent have finished lower in the ratings.

Unsurprisingly, the starting point matters. High-majors saddled with back-to-back sub-100 seasons finished the first one around 167th. But a team in Missouri’s position can harbor reasonable hope of escaping purgatory.

If the season ended today, the data tells us that finishing 88th in KenPom next season would be a realistic threshold. And even if we thought MU would be verging on an outlier-level of improvement, it would place the Tigers somewhere around 70th. In both cases, the program would find itself contending for an NIT bid.

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, just four teams were helmed by a coach who had been on the job five years or more.