With any introductory press conference, there’s a familiar staging and script: too many officials in suits, a pep band, cheerleaders, a select group of boosters, and press packed into the back of the room. A lot of words get uttered. Most of them are hollow.
In late March, newly minted head coach Dennis Gates served up a prime example, a sound bite that gained immediate traction.
“To our current team, you may not have chosen me, but I choose you,” Gates said during his opening remarks. “I choose you.”
Within two weeks, though, MU’s newest figurehead began swiftly dismantling the roster he inherited. Seven players ventured into the transfer portal, while East St. Louis point guard Christian Jones received a release from his letter of intent. By the time the portal closed, just three members of last season’s team remained: Kobe Brown, Kaleb Brown, and Ronnie DeGray III.
Dizzying? Sure. Hypocritical? Not all.
This is the reality of roster building in the current climate – an environment where players and coaches have equal freedom of movement. Coaches take better jobs. And the recently deregulated labor market allows highly coveted transfers to seek a robust NIL payday. For now, we’ll ignore that half of the 1,600 players in the portal we’re probably nudged out the door.
And regardless of who held the job, a reboot was likely in the offing. Once Gates got down to brass tacks, the only appreciable difference came in the form of last-year’s up transfers – DaJuan Gordon, Amari Davis, and Jarron Coleman — vacating their spots.
The facelift involved contacting 40-plus prospects, including 36 Division I transfers, and a serious inbound traffic to Columbia. Gates and his staff landed six Division I transfers, the nation’s top two JUCO prospects, and scored a renewed pledge from top-50 talent Aidan Shaw. Meanwhile, MU’s holdovers shared the floor for a whopping 8.5 percent of minutes last season.
We’ll need to see how Gates and his staff cap off their work this spring, but now is a reasonable point to do a cursory assessment with the bulk of the project complete. The short version: Barring this collection of players appears to be better than last season’s roster — but just barely. And on first glance, any improvement might be the byproduct of a better system fit.
What should we know about the new guys?
Patience is not a virtue for Gates.
Forget the days of meticulously balancing your roster, coaxing chemistry, and nurturing continuity. A coach inheriting a rebuild no longer spends a season trying to make ill-fitting pieces interlock. Instead, they hit the transfer portal.
Over the past three years, bluebloods have wiped out the market inefficiency that middle-class programs enjoyed by giving high-end talent a place to jumpstart their careers. But a savvy coach can find pieces that fit his system. They can also do something else — compress time.
In six weeks, Gates rapidly grayed MU’s roster. Right now, its average Division I veteran is 22.3 years old and owns 2.4 years of experience. Among that group of nine, there are a combined 221 games against top-100 KenPom teams and 5,316 minutes, an increase of 37.2 percent over last season’s veteran corps.
This is what happens when you swap in Nick Honor for Anton Brookshire, Sean East for Christian Jones, Noah Carter for Yaya Keita, and DeAndre Gholston for Sean Durugordon. A year ago, MU ranked 229th in experience, per KenPom. Now, it’s not unreasonable to think the program might finish in the top 50.
Yet this iteration of the Tigers also comes with flexibility. Only three players — DeAndre Gholston, Tre Gomillion, and D’Moi Hodge — exhaust their eligibility this season. Four more — Carter, East, Honor, and Kobe Brown — can use their COVID year to stick around. However, it also offers the newly assembled staff a chance to open up to seven spots in its 2023 signing class.
So, what exactly has Gates speckled together? Let’s look at how this crew has performed against top-end opposition.
Veteran Status | Career vs. KenPom Top-100 | Entering 2022-23
That’s a lot of rows, columns, and decimal points. But a fine parsing can offer us hints about the course Gates is plotting in his first campaign. Let’s tease those out.
Production by committee
There’s no apex predator on this roster. Only two Tigers – Carter and Hodge – have posted double-digit scoring averages against top-100 opponents. Even then, Hodge’s average dips to 9.3 points per game once you strip away a 35-point outlier against Oklahoma State.
Surveying this group, there’s no one who can dominate in late-clock situations or outside the natural ebb and flow of a possession.
That’s fine. While Gates’ scheme is his own, it’s hard not to see the imprint of Leonard Hamilton on the overarching approach. It’s a collective one built around rolling nine or 10-deep and spreading the load across that rotation.
But what about East, who scored at 20.7 points per game clip for John A. Logan? As you can see, East only averaged 8.6 point on 36.6 percent shooting against top-end teams when he suited up at Bradley and UMass. “His scoring might struggle to scale up in the SEC,” said a scout familiar with East’s time in the JUCO ranks.
So, how will Mizzou actually score?
Lay absolute siege to the rim.
By last season, the Vikings were second nationally in cutting possessions and were fifth among high-volume teams by averaging 1.224 points on those plays, per Synergy tracking data.
The best lens to use in viewing this roster is to ask how good its members are at finishing from point-blank range. The eight members who saw D1 action last season averaged 1.207 PPP, which would have ranked 68th nationally and second in the SEC.
Around the Basket | Efficiency | 2021-2022
|Ronnie DeGray III||78||102||1.308||48||78||61.5|
Over three seasons at CSU, a slow shift occurred under Gates’ watch. The Vikings steadily decreased their reliance on spot-ups and pick-and-rolls. In their place, Gates’ NBA-inspired system ramped up the percentage of possessions ended by hitting a cutter or a dribbler attacking out of a hand-off.
The hub of CSU’s offense was the elbow, where big men had to split actions, pin downs, or 45 cuts from the weak side of the floor. And once a shot went up, the Vikings crashed down on the offensive glass. Importing Gomillion and Hodge serves as a clear hint at Gates’ early preferences in Columbia.
Gates filled this roster to the brim with guys who excel moving off the ball, posting a collective 1.272 PPP on cutting possessions. While it certainly helped that MU landed the likes of Carter and Hodge, Gates could also look in-house at DeGray and Kobe Brown. It’s no coincidence that the Tigers’ brief stretch of offensive competency took place when Martin used those combo forwards at the high post and had them reading off-ball cutters on the weak side of the floor.
Cutting | Efficiency | 2021-22
|Ronnie DeGray III||44||57||1.295||23||34||67.6|
And while CSU didn’t operate in a ton of ball screens, this roster has players who can exploit those situations. For example, at Clemson, Honor was an undersized lead guard in the ACC. Yet he averaged 1.029 PPP as a scorer in pick-and-rolls over two seasons, ranking in the 70th percentile nationally. Meanwhile, Noah Carter can use a ball screen to attack slower-footed bigs or dribble into post-ups against guards.
Pick-and-Roll Ball-Handling | Efficiency | 2021-22
|Ronnie DeGray III||1||2||2||1||1||100|
The table doesn’t include East’s time at Bradley and UMass, but those efficiency numbers — 0.797 PPP and a 35.2 field-goal percentage — are pretty sobering. As we noted when East committed, his best asset might be a floater package that he uses attacking closeouts. At least in the sample of games I watched, Logan coach Kyle Smithpeters didn’t feed East a massive dose of pick-and-rolls.
Gates’ teams also increasingly relied on transition possessions to power their offense, finishing 20th last season. While the Vikings’ efficiency wasn’t elite (No. 122), getting in the open floor makes Hodge a critical piece. The former JUCO All-American usually had four or five transition opportunities per game – many coming on leak-outs — and led high-usage players nationally at 1.169 PPP.
And Shooting? That’s an uglier matter.
Let’s rip the band-aid off.
No matter how you look at the numbers, MU’s probably going to be devoid of snipers around the arc. According to Synergy tracking data, its Division-I veterans have made 32.2 percent (423 of 1,315) of their career catch-and-shoot attempts. Had those old heads been together last season, their efficiency (0.941) would have checked in at 284th nationally.
If you wonder why Gates wrangled Gholston, the Milwaukee transfer’s career catch and shoot clip (37.7%) is the only one north of 36 percent.
Catch-and-Shoot Jumpers | Efficiency | 2021-22
|Ronnie DeGray III||78||72||0.923||24||78||30.8|
Now, East did can 40.7 percent of his 3-balls for Logan. Yet his catch-and-shoot efficiency at two mid-major stops — 1.07 PPP and 35.7 percent — is closer to the Division-I average. But against KenPom top-100 teams, his 3-point accuracy slumps to 27 percent.
And what of Aidan Shaw?
He shot almost 39.1 percent for Blue Valley last season. Surely that hints at a positive transition, right? Keep those expectations in check. Since the NCAA moved the arc back ahead of the 2019-2020 season, guards ranked in the top-75 of the composite have a median 3-point clip of 31.1 percent as freshmen. Off of the catch, that rises to 34.7 percent.
As for Mohamed Diarra, the No. 2 JUCO prospect, the stretch five only shot 30.7 percent from long range at Garden City Community College.
The modest hope might be that some combination of Gholston, East, and Honor on the floor provides adequate shooting to let bigs operate at the high post and cutters room to roam. Fortunately, MU’s lack of shooting fits the larger pattern in the SEC. The conference has ranked fifth or worse among other leagues for 3-point shooting three times in the past five seasons.
Ball-handling looks (slightly) better
A 1.1 assist-to-turnover ratio and a 1.6 BCI aren’t causing confetti to rain, but it would have been tough to be as bad as MU was last season. Honor averaged 2.2 assists with a 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio in the ACC. Elite? No. But two times better than Coleman. And Gates backstopped him with East, who logged 4.1 assists per game at two mid-major stops before John A. Logan College.
On film, Carter pops off the screen as a connector that keeps a possession flowing but is adept at hitting cutters, whether in handoffs, ball reversals, or short rolls. The same goes for Gomillion. Meanwhile, DeGray comes from a read-and-react background. So, even if Gates isn’t running PNR-heavy sets, he’s imported guys who can initiate good action, keep the ball popping, and make sound decisions.
It also matters what type of turnovers occur. Are they takeaways against pressure? Are they unforced but due to haphazard handling? Or do they come from the ball moving quickly and guys making reads? The final form — the result of creativity — is easier to stomach.
Disruption without insurance
During Martin’s tenure, it was rite of the offseason for him to profess that MU would extend defensive pressure to spur fast break opportunities. That never truly transpired.
Under Gates, though, that shift seems more likely. The vets on this roster averaged 10.8 steals per game last season, a tally that would have ranked second nationally. Meanwhile, CSU was 12th in the country for the percentage of initial shots taken almost immediately after forcing a turnover.
How the Vikes went about, though, is interesting. As a Hamilton disciple, Gates’ team used a switch-heavy man-to-man defense at its base, but — at least over several viewings — its help rotations weren’t quite as aggressive as the famed Junkyard Dog system in Tallahassee. What might be more surprising is how often CSU toggled to a zone defense, using it 25.3 percent of the time. That ranked 20th nationally, per Synergy. On film, the system blurs the line between a 1-3-1 and a matchup 2-3, in part, because wings pushed out a bit more.
The result: deflections that led to runouts for the likes of Hodge and Gomillion.
Yet there’s a potential tradeoff required in Columbia. Aggressive wing pressure allows opportunities for cutters to exploit overplays and opens up corners. Having length around the restricted area is prime deterrence, but outside of Mohammed Diarra and Aidan Shaw, the Tigers are a tad undersized.
It’s why Western Kentucky’s Jamarion Sharp was so coveted. Not only is his massive 7-5 frame ideal for swatting shots, but Sharp had enough lateral agility and fluidity that you couldn’t just hunt him in pick-and-rolls. He could at least stay in front of a guard long enough for a teammate to recover back, and if he was beaten off the bounce, Sharp knew how to notch trail blocks without fouling. Or he could hard hedge, recover back to an opposing big and wall up.
Having him as a backline anchor not only covers up for smaller combo forwards but allows perimeter defenders to be more assertive. Now, the staff will need to use one of its remaining scholarships to trawl for that insurance.
What’s left for the staff to do?
Shoring up the post rotation is probably the only outstanding to-do on the list for Gates and his newly assembled staff.
Diarra’s potential is obvious, but it will take some time for him to bulk up and adjust to the physicality he’ll endure each night against high-major competition. Landing Sharp would have served as a buffer and ensured MU kept a rangy big on the floor most of the time. Obviously, Sharp’s decision to stay put in Bowling Green, which caught staffs in Columbia, Houston and Memphis by surprise, heaves a wrench into the gears.
The timing is the most significant complication. The transfer portal closed up, and the market for proven big men has thinned out. Washington State’s Efe Abogidi trimmed MU early on in his process, and the Tigers never entered the fray for St. Bonaventure’s Ossun Ossuniyi, who committed to Iowa State. Meanwhile, the upper tier of the JUCO rankings has been stripped of post players.
Now, Maryland transfer Qudus Wahab is still around, but there’s no indication MU’s exploring him as an option. Mohammed Gueye, another mobile big out of Washington State, entered the transfer portal. Yet the Pac-12’s Freshman of the Year is using that for insurance after declaring for the NBA draft. On that front, Gueye scored an invite to the G League Elite Camp. Playing with filters at Bart Torvik and Evan Miya’s respective sites doesn’t turn up much, either.
If the staff has targets in mind, they’re not apparent to the rest of us. As for Gates, he expressed confidence this week that the program will use its remaining vacancies.
Now, there are some potential specialists to be found, primarily low-usage floor-spacers like Davidson’s Michael Jones (42.4 3FG%), USC-Upstate’s Bryson Mozone (38.4%), and St. Bonaventure’s Dominick Welch (37.4%). MU’s isn’t linked with any of them, but a one-year rental to shore up jump-shooting might be wise.
At this point, Gates’ retrofitting leaves MU replacing between 50 percent and 70 percent of its production in most statistical categories. That’s not nearly the same scale as what we saw last offseason. And perhaps more importantly, the key holdovers — DeGray and Kobe Brown — align with the new staff’s blueprint.
Missouri | Returning Production | 2022-23
But with any an overhaul of this scale, you’re likely running short of another commodity — continuity. We can define that as a percentage of a team’s minutes played by the same player from one season to the next. Several years ago, Ken Pomeroy noted programs with more of that commodity performed better, particularly on offense.
Last season, MU ranked 330th nationally — or fifth-lowest among high-majors — by having just 19.7 percent of minutes involving the same player in the same role they held on an NCAA tournament team. In effect, the chemistry that helped MU get off to a fast start and amass a slew of Quad 1 wins evaporated.
It’s also one reason to keep expectations modest.
Since 2018-19, the lower end of continuity among power-conference schools is 25 percent. Over that span, 29 schools fell outside that boundary. Below, you’ll see their median values for wins, efficiency margin, and experience. The key takeaway: set the floor at 14 victories.
Lacking Chemistry | Median Low-Continuity Teams | 2018-2022
We can also use Torvik’s handy RosterCast tool, to fiddle with parameters. Currently, MU sits at 55th in his 2023 projections. In the past 10 seasons, five high majors finished in that slot, and just one — Arizona State in 2018 — earned an NCAA tournament bid. None won more than 19 regular-season games.
An optimist might find comfort in how quickly this roster aged and the fact its constituent parts seem to fit Gates’ blueprint. By contrast, that system relies, in part, on those same parts developing a deep familiarity with one another, the kind you only get by logging extensive in-game reps together. That’s before you get to the roster needs we just outlined.
But let’s say MU added the likes of Wahab and Jones. The moves would bump the Tigers up to 40th in Torvik’s projections – a range where it’s common for power-conference programs to land somewhere between a No. 6 and No. 10 seed in March. Of course, it’s all theoretical, but it underscores the opportunity that Gates and his staff have in front of them.
They’ve built a potential NIT team, but they could elevate the ceiling with some savvy maneuvering.