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Rock M Roundtable: Let’s talk about JUCO!

Dennis Gates made good on his reputation for recruiting the JUCO ranks. What can Mizzou fans expect from this approach?

Syndication: Columbia Daily Tribune Sam Greene/USA TODAY NETWORK / USA TODAY NETWORK

Welcome to Rock M Roundtable aka Editorial Bored aka Pregamin’ (but in the Summer), a weekly Q&A where we’ll consult the editorial board on all the big questions facing Mizzou Athletics this summer.

Let’s talk about prep, baby. Let’s talk about Mo’ and East

Dennis Gates’ first recruiting class has included quite a few names, but few drew the same excitement as the guys coming from the junior college ranks.

This wasn’t much of a surprise, as Gates’ reputation preceded him. When Gates’ hire first took Missouri fans by surprise, his ability to recruit in the JUCO circuit became one of the first widely circulated pieces of intel. What was a surprise was how quickly he backed up. Mohamed Diarra, considered by one service as the top JUCO prospect in the country, joined Gates’ staff almost immediately. And while it took a little longer, the top JUCO guard — transfer portal frequent flyer Sean East — made his way to Columbia as well.

So what are we to make of Dennis Gates’ talent acquisition strategy? Especially with a few more roster spots to fill? We gathered some of Rock M’s brightest basketball minds to think it through?

While Missouri has dipped into the junior college ranks in the past, Dennis Gates has fully committed to the JUCO pipeline. Are you in favor of this approach overall?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Cleveland State at Houston Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Harris, Basketball Editor: The always fun answer — it depends. Undoubtedly, MU’s mined that market in this roster flip. Whether it’s truly a long-term source of talent remains an open question.

But there is an opportunity. As a result of the pandemic, recruits in the 2021 and 2022 classes received short shrift. Grassroot events were limited. High school seasons were truncated. Individual skill work was harder to do in lockdown. And Division-I coaching staffs had to scout off laptops on livestreams. Meanwhile, the competition for scholarship slots became fierce once the NCAA granted bonus COVID years and approved a one-time transfer exception.

Rather than bet on prep prospects, staffs leaned on transfers. The result: borderline and under-valued recruits wound up at junior college programs. The same phenomenon impacted a segment of mid-major and low-major transfers who didn’t have a chair when the music stopped.

While every program is fighting it out in the transfer portal, there’s a vein of talent at the JUCO talent that’s gone untouched. You just need the right people to dig it out — the kind of folks populating coach Dennis Gates’ staff. That goes beyond Kyle Smithpeters, too. For example, Dickey Nutt spent the last two seasons at Gaston College. Charlton Young’s Rolodex includes the top JUCO programs in Florida, especially those in the panhandle.

If MU wanted to tap that pipeline regularly, it has the right expertise and discernment.

Matt Watkins, Guest Speaker: There’s no question that in the early stages, Coach Gates has fully embraced the Junior College circuit. Of the 16 spots he was looking to fill (3 assistants; 13 scholarships), 2 scholarships still remain open and 7 of the remaining 14 spots have been occupied with those that have ties to a Junior College program. That’s a fairly considerable amount. The question to me, however, is whether this is a part of a quick turnover project or more of a long term plan?

In terms of coaches with a Junior College background, I’m in favor. With the radical changes basketball has undergone in recent years teams are having to rebuild rosters on the fly each spring, who better to help navigate those waters than guys who had to do exactly that? Both Kyle Smithpeters and Dickey Nutt were having to turn rosters over and constantly recruit due to getting players for a maximum of 2 years. It takes relentless talent evaluation to make it work. As for the players? Entirely dependent on the player involved.

Parker Gillam, Beat Writer: It is certainly a risky route, as I have seen JUCO products be hit-or-miss throughout the years. However, there is a reason more and more coaches are willing to dip into the ranks. The level of competition at the junior college level has improved recently, and there is always the potential that you find a Jimmy Butler, Ben Wallace, or or Avery Johnson.

Still, for me, I would say every 13 JUCO products lives up to their expectations, at least in year one. After all, there is a stark learning curve when jumping up to the D-1 level. For me, it comes down to the coach. If Dennis Gates is fully invested in developing these guys, then I think he is the type of coach that can get the best out of them. That starts with allowing them to showcase their strengths that got them to this point, not changing them into something else.

While JUCO recruits often come more fully formed than their high school compatriots, there is often a reason a player is playing at the junior college level in the first place. How can fans generally calibrate their expectations for JUCO commits?

Syndication: The Garden City Telegram BRAD NADING/GARDEN CITY TELEGRAM / USA TODAY NETWORK

Matthew Harris: My view owes more to perception than hard data, but I usually set the floor for a JUCO addition at the same level as an up-transfer. Maybe their minutes and usage decline a bit, but it either maintains or steadies overall efficiency. Simply put, they’re a solid rotational piece with the ability to grow into a second or third option.

Again, I don’t have any hard numbers, but the variance in JUCOs seems to be wider, too. The range falls somewhere between Chris Duarte or Axel Kongo, with Keon Ellis as a middle ground. A player’s path to JUCO also matters. Were there a high-major prospect but ran into qualification issues? Are they an international prospect using a junior college as a proxy for a prep program? Or are they a former Division-I player using a stopover to reset their career?

At worse, you can use JUCO talent to fill specialized needs on the roster while making a strategic bet every so often one becoming a key cog in your rotation.

Matt Watkins: Fully dependent on the player and their situation. Being a Junior College product can mean so many different things. While the Netflix series “Last Chance U” was certainly entertaining, I think it may done a disservice to the narrative of these players. Athletes opting for the JUCO route don’t all fit into the categories portrayed in the show. There’s an incredibly diverse background from which the schools draw talent. And that matters in terms of expectations. Was the player one who was set to commit to a high major but missed a test score? Is the player an international prospect who was introduced to the American game via that circuit? It’s really hard to put a one size fits all approach. Having staff members with experience in the JUCO ranks certainly improve your chances of hitting on the right combinations.

Parker Gillam: Again, it is hit-or-miss with JUCO products. They usually come in with gaudy point per game averages, or having dominated the glass, or dropping dimes all over. Usually, you can expect them to be half as productive as they were at the JUCO level, at least at first. The competition is far superior, and the adjustment to a new program can take time. Overall, be excited about their potential, but do no expect them to hit the ground running at their normal pace. Patience is key, especially with this program that is going through so much change right now.

Gates made a big splash by signing the two top JUCO recruits in the country — Mohamed Diarra and Sean East. What are you expecting from these two in their time as Tigers?

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

Matthew Harris: After looking over Sean East II’s metrics and watching five games, I asked a scout whether I was wrong in keeping expectations modest for him as a scorer. “Going to be hard for him to have similar success in the SEC,” I was told. If the John A. Logan product averages 12 points and three assists, that would qualify as a success. Those benchmarks assume the 3-point stroke has improved and that his assist tally dips a smidge transitioning to a high-major conference.

At Logan, East might initiate a set but spend most of it working off the ball. He wasn’t tasked with powering the Vols in a heavy dosage of pick-and-rolls. Often, East attacked gaps after a kickout or ball reversal and, as I mentioned when he committed, relied on a floater package as finisher. As a shooter, East showed the ability to punish defenders going under a screen or side-stepping into a jumper.

So, I’m not sure East can serve as an isolation threat outside the normal ebb and flow of a possession. But he can move between the point guard and combo spots, and give you some reliability while filling a pressing positional need.

As for Diarra, I’m taking a wait-and-see approach. While he fits the parameters of a modern five, patience will be a virtue as he adds mass and adjusts to the physicality of the SEC. Landing Jamarion Sharpe would have given the program and Diarra that buffer — one that chose to stay at Western Kentucky.

MU has two scholarship openings to find another post player, and the three combo forwards on the roster — Kobe Brown, Ronnie DeGray III, and Noah Carter — all have experience bodying up on the block. Still, the pickings are slim in the transfer portal and some proven size would help make MU’s defensive scheme hum quietly. Does it mean Diarra has to spend more time learning on the fly?

Matt Watkins: I expect both to be contributors in the near term. East is a known commodity. Having played at UMass and Bradley his first two years, there’s a body of work to look into for clues for potential production levels. He’s relatively rare in that regard. Add that he played for Kyle Smithpeters at John A. Logan, and you’d have to believe the staff knows exactly what to expect. My expectations are a rotation piece that logs a fair amount of minutes. A lot of his game is predicated on having space to operate. Has his stroke truly improved to be a bona fide three point shooting threat? If so, his pull-up and floater game becomes much more dangerous.

Diarra is more of an unknown, to me at least. Good size, impressive skill profile. The question is the physicality. SEC basketball a year ago was more likely to need body bags than it was a third digit in the scoring column. Tshiebwe, Kessler, Coleman and Eason were all grown men. Add in non-conference fixtures with Kofi Cockburn and David McCormack, and Mizzou was really up against it playing with a small lineup. While the opposition’s personnel will change, Mizzou adds Diarra, Carter and Shaw as front court possibilities. For Diarra to emerge, he’s going to have to show he can handle the physical component in what has been an incredibly physical league.

Parker Gillam: For Diarra, I agree that he will have a rude awakening at first, especially with some of the bigs he would have to go against in the SEC. Garden City is a respected JUCO program, and his size and length at 6’10” is a great starting point. Still, he will likely have to add some weight to his 215 lb. frame, and he seems like more of a long-term project than immediate contributor.

In East’s case, I think he can be a bit more of an early contributor. The physical tools are there, and he’s already been a part of a D-1 program (UMass). I can see him being a solid rotational piece that plays his role. If he can continue to be an effective shooter, that can drive him to something more. Overall, he’s not someone that is going to dominate a game offensively, but the hope is that he can be a threat to score at all times out on the floor.


Got a question for our staff regarding Mizzou Sports? Let us know in the comments and we’ll look at adding it to an upcoming roundtable!