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What factors might be behind Mizzou’s non-conference schedule?

It’s typical for first-year coaches to keep their ambitions modest, especially if they’re turning over a struggling roster. Mizzou’s Dennis Gates appears to be no different — hoping the Tigers’ docket creates enough continuity to be a factor in March.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 22 Wright State at Cleveland State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over six hours last Friday, Missouri attempted what amounted to a slow clap in releasing the Tigers’ non-conference schedule. Every 30 minutes, a roster member appeared in a homemade video announcing a new opponent and date — usually followed by a call for MU fans to show up en masse.

No matter how ambitious a staff might be, buy games are a fact of life for most high-major programs. So, inevitably, it meant that someone would have to announce previously reported tilts against the likes of Southern Indiana and Penn. Yet by the time Mizzou got around to rolling out this slate of games, all but three opponents remained unknown.

Would MU unveil a home-and-home with another power-conference program? Or would the Tigers opt for a suitable match from a league like the American Athletic Conference or Atlantic 10? And what of a supposed multi-team event it was supposedly putting on with the Air Force Academy?

By mid-afternoon, the air of mystery gave way to an assortment of opponents that are light on intrigue. Yet, when it was over, the complete mosaic showed a November packed with seven home games against teams who — at best — might qualify as Tier 3 quality in the NCAA’s quad system.

Those mystery teams? They included Lindenwood, Houston Baptist, Coastal Carolina, and Southeast Missouri State. Admittedly, though, some members of our masthead are pleased to see Liberty swapped out — even if the Flames might have wound up as a potential Quad 2 victory on the Tigers’ resume.

Griping and complaining about this assemblage is easy. Yet if we know anything about coach Dennis Gates, there’s a rigorous and coldly logical impetus behind its construction. Rather than complain, let’s explore what might be driving this approach.

Syndication: Columbia Daily Tribune
In constructing a favorable non-conference schedule, Dennis Gates isn’t unlike the 87 other coaches who landed a high-major job over the last decade.
Madeline Carter/ Columbia Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

Rebooting high-majors schedule modestly

At first glance, this schedule leaves a lot to be desired. But, as always, a dose of context helps. Each season around nine high-major coaching jobs turn over, and those new hires approach scheduling with one goal – mitigate risk.

How can we tell? Over at KenPom, a team’s non-con SOS is measured by averaging the adjusted efficiency margins of their opponents. Then, those averages are put in rank order. Those two numbers tell us a lot about the kinds of teams lined by rebooting power conference programs.

The statistics you see below are basic and descriptive, while the upper and lower bounds are basically meant to show the normal range for data points.

Schedule Quality | First-Year Coaches | 2013-2022

Category Median Average (SD) Upper Bound Lower Bound
Category Median Average (SD) Upper Bound Lower Bound
Non-Con Rating -2.76 -2.66 (5.36) 2.7 -8.02
Non SOS 243 219.1 (102.7) (-8.0) 321.8

Since the 2012 offseason, most of the 87 newly hired coaches rarely opted for rigorous tests in their debut campaign. Over the last decade, the median opponent would have been roughly equivalent to the No. 204 team in KenPom last season, while the median SOS checks in around 243rd nationally.

More telling, just 14 first-year coaches – or 16.1 percent – faced a non-con schedule that finished in the top 100 nationally. Twice as many new hires configured slates that were 300th or worse in SOS. Almost a quarter of them had schedules ranked between No. 301 or No. 350.

Schedule Quality | First-Year Coaches | SOS Tiers

Range Count
Range Count
No. 1-50 7
No. 51-100 7
No. 101-150 10
No. 151-200 10
No. 201-250 13
No. 251-300 15
No. 301-350 22
No. 350+ 3
Total 87

So, Gates’ approach isn’t a radical departure. Instead, it’s almost standard protocol for a coach in his position. Nevertheless, it is so jarring because it starkly contrasts Cuonzo Martin’s rationale.

Most fans aren’t keen to award the former coach any credit. But in a time when marquee home-and-homes are tough to lock in, and slots in high quality multi-team events are hard to come by, Martin did an admirable job constructing non-con schedules.

The Tigers received regular visits from mid-majors sitting between 100th and 150th in KenPom’s ratings: Stephen F. Austin, UT-Arlington, Wofford, Northern Kentucky, Liberty, and Bradley. At a minimum, series with Xavier, Utah, UCF, and Temple ensured a potential shot at a Quadrant 2 victory. As for neutral floor events, the Tigers took part in an MTE in four of Martin’s five seasons, in addition to the annual showdown with Illinois. And just for good measure, the Border War experienced a revival.

Rather than feast on empty calories, the Tigers’ non-con SOS usually reflected that Martin made sure his team ate some veggies. As a result, MU finished among the top 20 high majors for SOS three times during his tenure.

  • 2017-18: No. 16 (No. 5 in SEC)
  • 2018-19: No. 33 (No. 8)
  • 2019-20: No. 40 (No. 8)
  • 2020-21: No. 9 (No. 2)
  • 2021-22: No. 17 (No. 4)

That assertive approach helped MU capitalize on a roster flip in Martin’s first season, and it staked MU to a handful of quality wins in a year where COVID wreaked havoc on most schedules.

We’re learning about how Gates administers a program in real-time. And until last week, we didn’t have any indication of what role a non-con slate plays in those plans – at least at the outset of his tenure.

Now, we can’t predict where exactly Mizzou’s schedule will land in KenPom’s version of SOS. However, we can try to draw a thumbnail sketch. How? Well, Pomeroy’s approach takes adjusted efficiency margins for each team a program faces in non-con play and averages them out. Then, those averages are ranked.

We can do the same thing. So, I did it for each of the past five seasons.

Performance History | Non-Con Opponents | Adjusted Efficiency

Opponent 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018
Opponent 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018
Penn -3.34 -5.13 2.63 4.21 3.69
SIUE -11.47 -14.8 -17.72 -16.21 -13.61
Miss. Valley State -22.53 -41.29 -27.87 -24.63 -24.21
Coastal Carolina 1.3 -0.86 -1.33 1.03 -4.19
Houston Baptist -17.14 -18.9 -19.38 -2.82 -17.61
Wichita State 8.11 12.3 15.19 10.1 19.03
SEMO -6.41 -10.05 -19 -12.22 -8.11
Kansas 27.49 19.98 30.23 21.57 23.49
UCF 6.27 8.54 4.88 16.51 5.62
Illinois 18.75 29.06 17.23 7.97 6.67
Iowa State 14.63 -0.14 8.35 22.09 6.58
Average 1.42 -1.94 -0.62 2.51 -0.24
SOS Rank 122 250 199 98 165

That table imparts a key idea: the quality of MU’s opponents is pretty stable. Mississippi Valley State is consistently on the 10 weakest programs in Division I. SIU-Edwardsville isn’t much better, usually among the bottom 30 in KenPom. Houston Baptist also calls that subdivision home. Southeast Missouri State is in a slightly better ZIP code. Coastal Carolina’s often close to the D1 median for adjusted efficiency, while Penn’s steadily declined in recent years.

Almost half of MU’s docket features opponents likely to register as Quad 4 wins. And that’s before factoring in a pair of games against opponents – Lindenwood and Southern Indiana – transitioning to Division I. On average, those teams have a minus-8.01 adjusted efficiency margin, which would have ranked 253rd nationally last year.

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. Illinois and Kansas will likely finish among the top 30 for adjusted efficiency. Theoretically, they serve as resumé-boosting Quad 1 games, but most reasonable minds would expect Tigers to place two ticks in the loss column.

Before the ball is tipped, there’s a low-risk prediction that MU should win at least eight games. After that, the only intrigue comes from Wichita State and Iowa State. This season, the Cyclones are forecasted to finish 48th in Bart Torvik’s rankings, just one spot ahead of Mizzou. As for the Shockers, they’re slotted at No. 112 in Torvik’s projections.

Crude? Sure.

But this version of the Tigers’ non-conference schedule would have ranked 122nd in Division I last season. Then, add the proxy rating for transitioning D1 programs, which falls to minus-0.4 and 157th in SOS. That would place the Tigers in the 69th percentile of our historical sample.

All Gates and his staff have done is opt for several games against struggling low-majors instead of lining up mid-majors who contend for a conference title. The structure of the schedule also plays a role. Instead of steadily ramping up the caliber of competition, the Tigers will take a massive jump in quality on Dec. 10 when KU visits Mizzou Arena for the first time in a decade.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 22 Tennessee at Missouri
As one just three returners from last season’s roster, senior forward Kobe Brown personifies most of MU’s continuity entering the 2022-23 campaign.
Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Continuity can play a crucial role

Now, let’s look at a slightly wonkier mystery: Why did Gates choose the hardwood version of a soft opening?

Any coach sketching out a non-con schedule has to weigh several obvious variables. How good is their roster? How much collective experience does it have? And how much continuity is there at each position? Earlier this spring, we documented how Gates’ roster overhaul aged MU’s roster while cycling out proven production. There’s a decent chance this iteration of the Tigers might be among the oldest in Division I. Graying the group, however, sapped it of continuity.

Pomeroy’s data is also helpful in fleshing out the role of experience and continuity in setting a schedule. Using that trove, we can run correlations to see the strength of those relationships. A quick refresher: correlations measures a relationship between two variables on a scale from -1.0 to 1.0. A score of 1.0 implies a perfect relationship, and -1.0 represents a negative relationship. Think of it like this:

  • Correlation of 1.0: As continuity goes up, the efficiency of scheduled opponents goes up
  • Correlation of -1.0: As continuity goes up, the efficiency of scheduled opponents goes down
  • Correlation of 0.0: Continuity doesn’t matter at all.

Sure enough, there’s a modest relationship (0.28) between the continuity of a rebuilding high-major and the average efficiency margin of the team’s on their schedule. Basically, the more of that commodity a team has, the more difficult its non-con schedule might be.

Schedule Quality | Correlations | First-Year Coaches | 2013-22

Category Experience Continuity Old EM
Category Experience Continuity Old EM
SOS Rating 0.197 0.280 0.322
SOS Rank -0.157 -0.288 -0.303
A correlation of 1.0 means a perfect relationship, and -1.0 implies a negative relationship. KenPom

Last season, though, MU defied that relationship. The Tigers finished 330th in continuity, but their non-con schedule ranked 103rd nationally and 17th among high-major programs. Given MU’s roster, it might have benefited Martin to scale back his ambitions.

It will be of little surprise if MU finds itself short on continuity again this season. And over the last decade, programs in a similar position – with less than 30 percent of minutes being played by the same personnel – the average non-con SOS checked in at 250.5.

It’s not hard to see Gates’ incentive. Of course, he had no choice regarding Illinois, Kansas, or Iowa State – games practically locked in place years in advance. But the rationale behind the other eight D1 teams is easy to spot. Last season, that group had a minus-5.65 average adjusted efficiency margin. That’s roughly equivalent to an SOS of 311th in Pomeroy’s ratings.

And also, make a note of the relationship between a team’s adjusted efficiency and the average efficiency of their non-con opponents. It’s 0.322, meaning there’s a modest link between caliber of competition a team lines up and how that rebooting program performed the prior season. That makes sense. Teams that really struggled are likely to keep their ambitions modest under a new coach.

In Martin’s final season, MU finished with a 3.01 adjusted efficiency margin, which is even an outlier among teams who slogged through woeful campaigns. Over the last decade, programs with similar performances had an average S0S of 287 in their new coach’s first season on the job.

To sum it up: It was always likely Gates would take a cautious approach. Even if put off flipping the roster, poor performance might have led him to the same choice. But once he moved forward with a renovation, it became even more obvious.

Iowa State v Miami
Last season, T.J. Otzelberger took a moribund Iowa State from 171st in KenPom to the NCAA tournament. The Cyclones were the only high-major to pull that off in the first year of a coaching change this decade.
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

How much does the non-con schedule matter?

You’ve waded through all this and potentially wonder how influential the non-con schedule might be on MU’s actual play on the floor.

Here’s the spoiler: not one bit.

Seriously, the correlation between SOS and adjusted efficiency is 0.01. So statistically speaking, there’s no relationship at all.

However, modest relationships exist for experience (0.26), continuity (0.30), and improved efficiency. But the strongest one is also the most obvious: a program’s performance (-0.53) during its former coach’s swansong. The worse a team performed, the more their adjusted efficiency margin improved. Essentially, those struggling outfits are taking advantage of more headroom for growth.

Schedule Quality | Influence on Improvement | 2013-2022

Category Non-Con SOS Experience Continuity Old AdjEM
Category Non-Con SOS Experience Continuity Old AdjEM
AdjEM Chg 0.01 0.26 0.30 -0.53
A correlation of 1.0 means a perfect relationship, and -1.0 implies a negative relationship. KenPom

Yet, among the 87 coaches who took over at a high-major program in the last decade, the median change in adjusted efficiency was modest: minus-0.53. Additionally, the upper bound for improvement was 7.50 points per 100 possessions. Beyond that, you’re talking about an outlier.

In MU’s case, maxing out improvement would mean finishing with a 10.51 adjusted efficient margin, usually around 73rd in KenPom’s ratings.

Schedule Quality | Improvement | First-year Coaches | 2013-2022

Category Median Average (SD) Upper Bound Lower Bound
Category Median Average (SD) Upper Bound Lower Bound
Old AdjEm 10.68 9.80 (8.4) 18.20 1.40
New AdjEM 8.38 9.00 (8.1) 17.10 0.90
AdjEm Chg -0.54 -0.80 (8.3) 7.50 -9.10

What Gates needs more than anything else is for this refashioned roster to gel and manufacture as much continuity as it can early on. The most sensible approach is front-loading the schedule with winnable games, ones where the coaching staff might also have the latitude to tinker with the rotation. To do it, MU swapped out those mid-majors we talked about earlier and passed on gradually increasing the degree of difficulty.

Is there a risk? Sure. There’s a chance MU loses to the Illini and Jayhawks while UCF and Wichita State wind up closer to Quad 3 tilts. Even if the Tigers are 11-2, there wouldn’t be a lot of substance behind that glittering record.

Still, Mizzou might have enough cohesion entering SEC play to pick off Quad 1 wins against Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, and LSU – all of whom visit Columbia. And Iowa State’s visit in late January might serve as another pick-up opportunity. Last season, teams who went to Dayton for the NCAA tournament’s play-in games averaged just five Quad 1 wins. This non-con schedule isn’t perfect, but combined with MU’s SEC docket, there’s enough bites at the apple to reach that tally.

Keeping expectations modest might still be prudent. Since 2012-13, just 28 first-year coaches led a high-major to the NCAA tournament. Of that group, only nine had a non-con SOS below 200th in KenPom. And just one had a worse efficiency margin than what MU posted last year: the 2021-22 Iowa State Cyclones under T.J. Otzelberger.

Yet even if MU doesn’t snatch an at-large bid in Gates’ first season, you can still see the upside from his perspective. Should MU go 11-2 in non-con and finish .500 in the SEC, the Tigers would reach 20 wins and — depending on the composition of those victories — earn an NIT trip. That would hand the coaching staff modicum of momentum to sell to prospects its pursuing for the 2024 class, where its ambitions are set pretty high.

And if all goes according to plan, Gates might not have to make these kinds of schedules standard operating procedure.