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Turnovers: A Plan for Mizzou’s Defense?

Can a renewed emphasis on turnover creation bring Mizzou’s defense back?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 13 Oakland at Cleveland State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A common refrain over recent Mizzou campaigns has been the squad’s ability to score sufficiently to win games. Make no mistake, at times that has been an issue. Whether it be for the casual fan who tunes in for games when the mood strikes, the dedicated followers watching every game or the data enthusiasts, offensive performance is a good deal easier to critique. Be it box score stats, efficiency data or even play type data, there’s a wealth of fairly reliable information at our disposal. Comparatively speaking, defense is more difficult to discuss. But that’s not going to stop us from doing it anyway.

To set the stage for the conversation, it’s helpful to know where the program has stood in recent years on the defensive end. Arguably the best “catch-all” defensive statistic is Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. It calculates how many points a team is expected to allow in 100 defensive trips down the floor. A figure of 90 equals 90 points allowed per 100 trips and is quite exceptional. A figure of 110 points allowed per 100 trips on the other hand is quite poor. To arrive at a more precise statistic, the team’s performance is then weighted against the strength of competition faced to generate a final number. Hence “adjusted.” Those numbers are then ranked among the 350+ Division I teams. Here’s how Mizzou has fared:

Mizzou Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Ranks in Division I

2022: 138th

2021: 57th

2020: 71st

2019: 51st

2018: 43rd

2017: 97th

2016: 169th

2015: 166th

2014: 137th

2013: 63rd

2012: 111th

2011: 68th

2010: 18th

Over the past 13 seasons, five Mizzou squads have failed to crack the top 100. Only two have finished in the top 50! The remaining six have fallen in the “passable,” category of 51-100, though those performances aren’t going to do much for increasing NCAA tournament chances.

To add additional context to the conversation, the following ranks represent the same statistic when only including teams in the same conference AND those numbers accumulated in conference games. Conference performances only. This sheds out all potential noise from the non-conference slate and focuses only on performance in league contests.

Mizzou Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Ranks In League Play

2022: 12th (of 14)

2021: 8th

2020: 9th

2019: 11th

2018: 8th

2017: 12th

2016: 14th

2015: 13th

2014: 13th

2013: 6th

2012: 7th (of 10)

2011: 5th (of 12)

2010: 3rd (of 12)

As you can see, Mizzou has not fared particularly well on this end of the floor when measured against league competition. In fact, since the move to the SEC, they’ve finished top half in league play in defensive efficiency one time in ten seasons. It’s incredibly hard to win that way, as the Mizzou faithful have witnessed. For all of the perceived offensive issues, their defensive performance has been at a level that hurts their postseason hopes.

With the hiring of Dennis Gates, Mizzou is once again rebooting on what is hoped to be a successful venture of revitalizing the Men’s basketball program. We can’t say how that will go. We can see how Coach Gates fared during his time at Cleveland State in these same rankings with the added bonus of his predecessor’s numbers for improvement context: (Note: Dennis Gates coached CSU from 20-22 and Dennis Felton coached them from 18-19)

Cleveland State Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Ranks in Division I

2022: 227th

2021: 138th

2020: 250th

2019: 309th

2018: 277th

It bears noting that playing in the Horizon League presents several disadvantages. Namely, access to high major talent and access to high major scheduling, both of which are understandably going to impact these rankings. Nonetheless, you do see a level of immediate improvement that continues into more marked improvement as time goes on.

Cleveland State Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Ranks in League Play

2022: 3rd (of 12)

2021: 2nd (of 10)

2020: 5th

2019: 10th

2018: 8th

This subset of data really drives home how much Cleveland State improved defensively. Prior to Gates’s arrival, CSU was a bottom quartile team in league defensive numbers, much like Mizzou. In year 1, that number jumped up to the middle of the pack. In years 2 and 3, it jumped again to the top quartile. The immediate turnaround without question played into CSU’s ability to win multiple conference championships and reach the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Looking deeper, we can pinpoint why those defenses improved so much. Gates’s CSU teams were not particularly great at cleaning the defensive glass or keeping opponents off the free throw line. They were much improved over the 18-19 CSU teams and a decent enough team at shot defense.

The biggest factor in this significant turnaround? Turnovers created! This can be easily explained by looking at those teams’ defensive turnover rate. Defensive turnover rate is simply the number of turnovers created per possession while on defense. If your team creates 1 turnover every 5 defensive possessions, you have a 20% turnover rate. And that’s just what Gates’s teams did, and more!

In the year before Gates took over, CSU had a defensive turnover rate of 16.8% which ranked 278th nationally. In conference games only, the figure was 17.1% and ranked 8th out of 10 teams. They simply were not creating many turnovers on defensive possessions.

Enter: Dennis Gates. Implementing an iteration of the Leonard Hamilton Florida State defense, renowned for its ability to create confusion and speed up offenses leading to tipped passes…and turnover, were results that were immediately evident.

In year 1, Cleveland State created turnovers on 20.6% of defensive possessions which rated 73rd nationally. In league play, that number grew to 21.1% and ranked best in the Horizon. An immediate improvement from 8th best!

In year 2, CSU created turnovers on 20% of possessions overall and ranked 96th nationally. In league play, the number once again grew finishing at 21.7%, once again tops in the Horizon.

In year 3, CSU created turnovers on 21.9% of possessions, ranking 28th nationally. In league play they finished at 21.8% and came in second, by 0.1%.

Causing turnovers was a major reason why Gates’s defenses were so effective. The turnover truly is the perfect defensive stop. Creating a dead ball turnover guarantees your team a dead ball opportunity to retain possession and start up your offense without need to secure a rebound. A live ball turnover is one where play isn’t stopped, and possession immediately changes hands. Live ball turnovers frequently lead to high efficiency offensive looks in transition. They not only do you terminate your opponent’s possession, but you very often receive great offensive opportunities!

But how can this translate to SEC play? It’s true that the Horizon is not the SEC. However, Coach Gates has immediately assembled a crew that is solid in the turnover generation department. Two of his three leading turnover creators are following him to Columbia, including D’Moi Hodge who ranked top 20 nationally in individual steal rate. Nick Honor proved to be very effective at swiping possessions during his time at Clemson. Isiaih Mosley has the length and quickness to do the same (see videos below). Aidan Shaw, recently posting his 49-inch max vertical and a possessor of arms for days also projects well in this department. Put together and used in a system that focuses energy on jumping passing lanes and creating deflections, the path to a quick defensive turnaround becomes more clear.

And that’s very important. A brief view of SEC league-only stats over recent years shows the importance of thefts in overall defensive efficiency rankings. Recall that Gate’s Cleveland State teams all boasted turnover rates north of 20%. In 2022, six SEC teams managed a 20%+ turnover rate in league play. Five of those teams finished top half in league defensive rankings. Since 2013, 42 teams have achieved the 20% turnover creation benchmark and a whopping 71% have finished top half in league defensive efficiency.

The message is clear. Teams that cause turnovers are frequently going to have an effective defense. Dennis Gates’s Cleveland State teams have been very good in that department, and they got there quickly. Mizzou projects to have players that can cause those turnovers. Should Coach Gates captain a squad that hits the 20% turnover benchmark, both overall and in conference play, the Tigers may well be playing meaningful basketball come March.