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Rock M Roundtable: How do familiar faces factor into Dennis Gates’ plans?

Dennis Gates’ first roster is full of brand new faces, but there are a few returning pieces who will play big roles. How do they fit into this puzzle?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Missouri Tigers vs Ole Miss Rebels Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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.

When most people think about Mizzou Basketball right now, they’re not thinking about how to replicate the magic of the past few years.

This summer has been one of change and turnover for Dennis Gates’ program, a time for the new head coach to revamp the roster and the off-court staff to his liking. We’re so enveloped with new faces that it becomes easy to forget about the known commodities in Mizzou’s program — namely two of the best players that suited up for the Tigers in 2021-2022.

Of the 12 scholarship players who saw game action during Cuonzo Martin’s final season, nine have moved on to... maybe not greener, but certainly different pastures. Somewhat surprisingly, two of Mizzou’s best players bucked that trend. Kobe Brown, the Tigers’ true workhorse and arguably best player overall, is sticking in Columbia for what is likely to be his final run. He’s joined by Ronnie DeGray III, who sported the team’s best net offensive rating at 110.8 without a significant minutes drop from his freshman season at UMass. Also tagging along is Kaleb Brown, who may yet follow in his brother’s footsteps as the unlikely contributor.

Kobe and DeGray were the only two players on the roster who played in all 32 of Missouri’s games last season, true stalwarts on a roster that was desperate for anything in the way of consistency. That begs the question: Do they still have a role on essentially a brand new team? We rounded up some of our basketball staffers to wonder aloud.

Kobe Brown was the centerpiece of Cuonzo Martin’s last roster, a textbook example of a guy maximizing his talent through working hard and being coachable. How does he fit into this new team in his “final” Mizzou season?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament- Missouri vs LSU Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Watkins, Guest Speaker: This is a great question, though one that’s a bit difficult to answer at the same time. Any time you turn over 75% of the roster, it’s hard to project team performance, much less individual. Add in a new coaching staff? You’re getting into timing the stock market territory. Discussing it theoretically, I think the new additions and different staff stand to benefit Kobe. His overall statistics may suffer, but I see him being even better than a year ago. For those who follow me on Twitter you’ll see proof of that with my pinned tweet. Kobe was THE focal point for defenses to hone in on.

Moving forward to this year, I don’t see Kobe as a point guard where he moonlighted last year, but I see his best role as a facilitator. A guy who can hurt you in any number of ways, but especially one who can make reads and deliver score-creating passes. Gates’ Cleveland State teams played through the high post to trigger their offense. The “big” would catch at the elbow which would either begin a series of screens and cuts. Kobe is custom made for this role. Facing up at the elbow gives him the ability to put the ball on the floor, make reads and connect passes or hit shots in the paint. The team around him stands to help, too. Adding scoring punch in Mosley and Carter (a very similar skill set to Kobe) helps. Adding some on-ball talent to lessen his perimeter ball-handling duties helps. Adding a fleet of well-traveled off ball movers who can find space via cuts helps. In theory, just about everything helps.

Matthew Harris, Basketball Editor: The last coaching staff wasn’t pleased when I called Brown a black box soon after he committed. Apparently, it ruffled feathers in Brown’s camp, which imagined him as a jumbo lead guard. Yet anyone who watched Kobe over his first two collegiate seasons saw him for what he actually is: an adept cutter, a big who can exploit switches in the post, and a deft passer making reads while stationary. Last season, Brown’s best outings came when he carried out those tasks — not navigating a middle ball screen or handoff.

As Watkins noted above, Brown can facilitate, and, theoretically, Gates’ system can leverage him at the elbow and nail in triggering actions. Even better, the rest of the roster is ideally suited to that end. Taking on that role, though, probably means giving up that earlier self-conception and some of the touches that come with it. Gates’ strength, in soccer parlance, is man management — generating buy-in from players to system and its principles. In some ways, Brown and his role will be early test of that prowess.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Site Manager: Kobe Brown is good enough that he wasn’t sticking around if a lot of playing time wasn’t on the table. He’s proven he can be highly effective against SEC competition, which is more than almost anyone else on this roster can say.

That being said, he’s probably somewhat fortunate Gates wasn’t able to land a more potent post threat. Without the presence of a guy like Jamarion Sharp, Brown becomes the only real post player on the roster with high major experience, meaning he’ll be the focal point of the front court, especially when the Tigers play small. The addition of Isiaih Mosley and Noah Carter should also be a boon for Brown, who will no longer be the sole person for defenses to key in on. With Mosley capturing the opponent’s attention, Brown is free to shake his bigger defenders off the ball, create mismatches and generally create havoc as a secondary scorer.

Ronnie DeGray III surprised a lot of fans when he emerged as an effective, efficient rotation piece in his first shot at SEC competition. Will he get another under Gates?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Missouri Tigers vs Ole Miss Rebels Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Watkins: I’ll start by saying I’m a big fan of DeGray. The perfect under-appreciated, do-it-all, jack of all trades type. There’s always going to be playing time for those guys. I’ll follow up by saying DeGray’s role may cause me more uncertainty than any other on the roster. On the one hand, he’s one of two returning rotation players and one of three who logged minutes at a High Major last season. He was an effective player as well. On the other hand, if the roster stands as it does now, Mizzou is lacking in the size department down low.

If he’s slotted in his best position, combo forward, he’s got a lot of competition for those minutes where Kobe and newcomer Noah Carter also fit best. If we see two of those guys playing at the same time and manning “the interior,” I suspect his minutes will go up, but his efficiency may suffer being outsized. If they play only one at a time, the converse is true. Gates’ teams usually go 10-11 men deep in terms of the rotation, and he’ll definitely be a part of that group. But where he slots in and how he’ll perform, I’m unsure until I see the team in the flesh.

Matthew Harris: Among the many spreadsheets I maintained last season, one tracked the offensive efficiency of each transfer on Cuonzo Martin’s roster. The top performer? Mr. DeGray. In fact, his overall efficiency (0.933 PPP) ranked in the 81st percentile nationally, per Synergy. Meanwhile, DeGray’s career rim finishing (1.308 PPP) is also the best on this roster. So, as Gates took stock of what he inherited and how it might his design, it made sense that DeGray passed muster.

But how expansive will his role be? We know Gates will roll bodies through, but there is still a potential logjam. We just talked about Brown. Then comes Noah Carter. Oh, and Aidan Shaw can also slide down the lineup to that spot if MU’s looking to play small-ball. This is where landing a legitimate five-man would have been a boon. If DeGray’s on the floor, it might have less to do with his comfort in a read-and-react offense and more to do with bodying up big men on the block.

Josh Matejka: Did I mention above that Kobe Brown was fortunate there aren’t more post options available? That goes double for DeGray, who will likely be eclipsed on the wing by some of Gates’ guys and hasn’t shown enough “power” in his “power forward” game to earn minutes there. However, Gates will be desperate for bigger bodies who know how to play at the SEC level, and DeGray fits the bill. That may sound like I’m down on RD3, and I’m not; he’s already proven he can be a really nice rotation piece and was Mizzou’s most efficient offensive performer in ‘21-’22. But if he wants a sure path to plenty of minutes, he’ll need to do some work on his shooting stroke or hit the weight room... or both, preferably.

Kaleb Brown fought his way into the rotation under Cuonzo Martin, but is facing an uphill battle for minutes in a revitalized roster. Is there any path to playing time for Brown the Younger?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Watkins: For all the reasons mentioned above, I won’t speak in certainties about a role in June. Add to that, certain players can really take off with a good off-season of work. There wasn’t a person outside of the Wisconsin Basketball program that saw Johnny Davis moving from a role player to a First Team All-American his first two seasons. So yes, there’s always a path.

Those caveats aside, however, said path to playing time has gotten much steeper. Lest we forget, Kaleb was averaging about 3 minutes played per game last year in the non-conference before injuries and struggles in the backcourt created space for more run. Now add in 6 new faces on the perimeter that Gates has brought in? All of which have played four or more seasons of college hoops? If the plan is to stick with playing in the back court, there’s a pretty full house.

Matthew Harris: Show me the path to minutes. Point guard? Well, MU just recruited two veteran ball-handlers in Nick Honor and Sean East. Combo guard? Isiaih Mosley, D’Moi Hodge, or Tre Gomillion can all take their turns here. Wing? Welp, Mosley is the obvious option, and there’s a top-50 recruit also looking for some run.

Last season, Brown was the beneficiary of misevaluation. Jarron Coleman was not a lead guard, and the last staff clearly lost confidence or patience with Anton Brookshire. (Even before Brookshire’s supposed injury, his floor time had plummeted.) Maybe this overhaul flops, but the film and data lend credence to the idea that Gates shored up the very spots where Brown would want to see time. Barring awful injury luck, it’s hard to see the sophomore getting more than spot minutes.

Josh Matejka: Uhhhhhh... never say never, I guess. Brown came to earn some minutes last season mostly due to the staff’s desperate search for answers, but he couldn’t make it last even in the worst of circumstances. I suppose there’s a scenario where Brown usurps both the hand-picked guys from Gates’ old roster and the new recruits at his position... but I’m having trouble thinking it up.

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!