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SEC Basketball Preview: #6 Missouri Tigers

Previewing the No. 6 team in the SEC, the Missouri Tigers.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Mizzou fans were in a pretty dark place following the 2021-22 season. Missouri was coming off its worst season (non-Kim Anderson edition) since 2006 when they sank to 12-21 on the season and just 137th in KenPom. It was exactly the type of season Cuonzo Martin was hired to avoid and yet here he was, getting fired for the first time in his career. Things were so dire in Columbia that when the news trickled out that Martin’s replacement would be Cleveland State head coach Dennis Gates, the reaction was less than positive.

But the good news for Missouri fans is that initial fan reaction online is no real indicator of future success because since taking the job Gates has struck the right note at nearly every turn. He quickly assembled a rag-tag bunch of mid-major misfits, built that roster around Kobe Brown, won 25 games, got a double bye in the SEC Tournament, won the program's first NCAA Tournament game since 2010, sent Brown into the 1st round of the NBA Draft, got D’Moi Hodge in on a 2-way contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he currently has the top overall recruiting class in 2023. So yeah, pretty solid year and a half's worth of work.


Previous SEC Previews:

Mizzou Preview

#6 Missouri Tigers

Last Season: 25 - 10 (11-7 in conference) No. 57 KenPom

My Prediction: 19 - 12 (10-8, 6th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 10.2 - 7.8 (6th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 9th in conference

KenPom Projection: 17-14 (8-10 in conference) No. 55

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Dennis Gates | 2nd Season, 25-10

So it’s safe to say that most, if not all, Missouri fans are pretty happy with how things are going in the Dennis Gates era. His turnaround in one year seemed to border on wizardry at times, with a reliance upon a spread five out offense and a high volume of three point shots from a team with little regard for defense or rebounding. That specialty offense in a league like the SEC was enough to earn the Tigers their best finish in the SEC. Mizzou finished 11-7 in the conference, a mark only equaled in their first season in the SEC under Frank Haith. But that season they finished tied for 5th, instead of 4th.

Gates has momentum at Missouri like no coach has had for a long time. On top of a stellar record of recruiting under Leonard Hamilton at Florida State, Gates now had legitimate on-the-court success he can point to with recruits and it’s paid dividends with the 2024 recruiting class. On top of winning 25 games in his first season he’s now going to be able to build a roster deep with higher-end talent. Last year Gates went heavy with players he knew, mostly from mid to low majors. This year he’s stepped up the level of transfers he's brought in, although the playing style isn’t expected to change. After all why change up what works?

Seat Temp: COLD

mizzou 10 year look preview 2023

Mizzou won 30 games in 2012, then 23 in each of 2013 and 2014. Cuonzo Martin got to 20 once in his first season, but Gates hitting 25 was the most for the program since that 30-win season. You have to go back two more years for the last time Mizzou won an NCAA Tournament game. Missouri has had success in and around the last 15-20 years, but the success has generally been fleeting and or erratic.

Now that the ugliness of the Kim Anderson era is fully behind the program, and Martin’s mostly middling results are gone now too, it’s up to Gates to see if he can permanently elevate this program.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Kobe Brown professional 34 71.13% 19.48% 21.56% 16.99%
D'Moi Hodge graduation 35 72.41% 18.61% 20.09% 14.76%
DeAndre Gholston graduation 35 57.52% 13.83% 10.11% 14.67%
Isiaih Mosley professional 14 19.57% 4.89% 3.84% 5.87%
Tre Gomillion graduation 24 28.79% 4.20% 4.66% 5.00%
Mohamed Diarra transfer 25 20.92% 2.90% 3.07% 4.18%
Ronnie DeGray III transfer 17 11.91% 1.27% 1.76% 1.45%
Ben Sternberg* graduation 10 0.71% 0.22% 0.05% 0.32%
56.59% 65.40% 65.14% 63.24%

When Kobe Brown hit campus four years ago, nobody expected him to be a first-round draft pick. When Dennis Gates hit campus early last year he identified Kobe Brown early as a player he needed to keep around. Brown’s ability to make plays, pass the ball, and finish at the rim were all desirable traits in the Gates offense. What he didn’t count on though was Kobe going from a 21% three-point shooter to a 45% shooter with double the volume. That jump helped Brown get picked in the NBA draft since the rest of the skill set was already there. The ability to stretch the floor made him one of the toughest matchups in the SEC. Now he’s a Los Angeles Clipper.

Meanwhile, D’Moi Hodge is a Los Angeles Laker. Hodge was plucked out of junior college obscurity to play for Gates at Cleveland State, and now he’s signed to a two way deal in the NBA after increasing his shooting percentage from 29% as a junior to 40% last year on 250 attempts. Both Hodge and Brown combined for nearly 40% of the team's points from last season. If they were both on, the Tigers were a hard team to beat.

DeAndre Gholston came on board early and was overlooked as an addition, few had him getting even more than some scant minutes. Especially with Isiaih Mosley dominating the minutes at the wing. But Mosley had trouble staying on the court and in the rotation due to some off the court issues. When he was available he was very good, when he wasn’t Gholston stepped in as the late clock hero. In some ways, he was Missouri’s MVP. Were it not for Gholston banging in two threes at the buzzer the results of the season would be drastically different.

When healthy, Tre Gomillion was a very versatile player who did a little bit of everything for the team. The problem is he wasn’t healthy often enough which depleted the team’s depth in the second half of the season. Mohamed Diarra transferred to North Carolina State after seeing increased playing time as the season wore on. But while his minutes increased, he was rarely counted on for offense. Ronnie DeGray III also transferred to Wichita State after one season of sparse minutes and missing the final 16 games with injury. Ben Sternberg was a walk-on for Dennis Gates at Cleveland State and a necessary part of the culture reclamation in the locker room. We’ll always have Benny Buckets.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Noah Carter G-SR CF 34 52.77% 11.84% 59.91% 11.54%
Nick Honor G-SR PG 35 74.33% 10.07% 57.76% 11.21%
Sean East II G-SR PG 35 58.01% 9.27% 53.15% 8.90%
Aidan Shaw SO WING 32 23.90% 3.08% 61.35% 3.05%
Kaleb Brown JR CG 11 6.10% 0.33% 50.00% 0.26%
Mabor Majak* SR POST 8 1.49% 0.04% 26.60% -0.09%
Jackson Francois* SO WING 8 0.43% 0.00% 0.00% -0.01%
43.41% 34.63% 34.86%
NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Noah Carter | GRAD SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD

Maybe it won’t be one for one, but if you’re looking for an approximate replacement for Kobe Brown you won’t have to look much further than Noah Carter. Carter is a playmaking combo forward who started his career at Northern Iowa and landed at Missouri last year. He ended up 6th on the team in minutes and 4th in points. But more interesting was how similar to Brown his usage and percent of shots were. Brown had a 23.5% usage, Carter 21.4%. Brown took 23.6% of the shots when he was on the floor, and Carter took 21.9%.

With his ability to stretch the floor from the post position, and being an undersized five for much of the year, Carter was able to play opposing big men off the floor. With the makeup of the roster this year he’ll have similar opportunities, but more likely at the four spot. Taking over for where Kobe left off. Or at least try to come close.

A throwaway line in last year's preview of the Tigers said Nick Honor might have been the most important addition of the offseason. Honor’s low turnover rate and ability to hit catch and shoot threes were an important element to the turnaround last season. Honor started all 35 games last season and did everything he was asked to do, he made 39.9% of his threes and sported just a 13.2% turnover rate. Getting a bonus year should be a boon for the Tigers this season.

Also back is Honor’s backcourt mate and backup Sean East. The 2022 JUCO player of the year at John A Logan, East was used by Dennis Gates as a tempo juicer. He pushed the pace and was generally daring in the open court. occasionally lapsed defensively and struggled to make outside shots, but East was an integral part of what made Missouri work last season. He and Honor worked hand in hand to provide secure ball handling and sound decision-making but in a good cop/bad cop kind of way. Honor was the good cop, East was the bad cop. They made each other better.

Aidan Shaw is a former top 60 recruit who played a limited role off the bench. When he was in the game he provided an explosive athlete who was good for catching lobs and providing energy on defense. Kaleb Brown, younger brother of Kobe, struggled to find minutes in his sophomore season but has good size and physicality for his position. Mabor Majak was able to provide limited spot minutes at the center position, and Jackson Francois is back for year 2 as a walk-on.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
FR Trent Pierce 6'10 210 ★★★★ 102 CF
FR Jordan Butler 7'0 230 ★★★★ 126 POST
FR Anthony Robinson II 6'2 175 ★★★ 194 PG
JR Curt Lewis 6'5 215 TRANSFER JUCO WING
JR Tamar Bates 6'5 195 TRANSFER Indiana CG
SR Jesus Carralero 6'7 225 TRANSFER Campbell CF
G-SR Caleb Grill 6'3 215 TRANSFER Iowa State WING
G-SR John Tonje 6'5 220 TRANSFER Colorado State WING
G-SR Connor Vanover 7'5 230 TRANSFER Oral Roberts POST
NCAA Basketball: New Mexico at Colorado State Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

John Tonje | GRAD SENIOR | WING

Maybe it’s not one for one, but getting a reliable consistent playmaker and shooter from a good program that runs a very similar offense should be as plug-and-play of a transfer you could ask for. So at the surface it might have been surprising that John Tonje committed to Missouri so quickly, when you dig into the details it’s an obvious fit.

Mizzou needed help on the wing, they run a Princeton influenced 5 out offense, and here was Tonje. A 14.6 ppg scorer with a 106 Offensive Rating, Tonje got gradually better with each season while at Colorado State. He’s a physical wing with good athleticism and a solid defender, and for a team in need of a consistent playmaker on the wing he could be the best offseason addition.

Aside from Tonje, Missouri added four other transfers. The biggest, literally, is Oral Roberts transfer Connor Vanover. Listed at 7’5 Vanover fills a needed space for a team that lacked any interior presence for much of the season last year. Defense and rebounding was not something you thought of when you considered the Missouri Tigers last year, and Vanover solves some of that with a very good defensive rebounding rate and an elite level rim presence. But as much as he can help with rebounding and rim protection, he should also be a reliable option with his outside shooting.

Speaking of shooting, Iowa State transfer Caleb Grill joins the team after playing three of the last four years for the Cyclones. He’s known for his shooting, but Grill brings some toughness and leadership and even some defensive intensity. Tamar Bates is a familiar name to most Missouri fans who follow recruiting. The Kansas City, Kan. native was a prime target for the program, but Gates scooped him up after two seasons at Indiana in hopes of reviving and unlocking Bates’ talent. A former top 30 recruit, Bates hasn’t yet shown what made his recruiting ranking that lofty and is hoping to grow into a bigger role at Mizzou. The last of the transfers is Jesus Carralero Martin, a Campbell transfer and a mobile post player who can play either the 4 or the 5.

Missouri signed four players in their regular signing class including another JUCO Player of the Year from John A Logan, this time it was wing Curt Lewis. Lewis originally signed at Eastern Kentucky but then the Louisville native transferred to Logan where he blossomed as a scorer and landed at the top of the JUCORecruiting.com’s top 100 rankings.

The other three signees were all freshmen, with 4-star 6’10 combo forward Trent Pierce leading the way. Pierce finished as the 102nd-ranked recruit in the country, but Missouri is really high on his ability to defend and stretch the floor. Jordan Butler checks in as a 230 lb 7-footer with an NBA pedigree as his older brother John Jr. is currently a Portland Trail Blazer. Jordan is a skilled player but may need some time to develop. Then they also signed Anthony Robinson II out of Florida. Robinson is a projectable point guard with exciting ability in the open floor, but he faces a steep climb to minutes on the floor sitting behind both Nick Honor and Sean East.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Nick Honor Sean East II Anthony Robinson II
(2) Combo Guard Tamar Bates Caleb Grill Kaleb Brown
(3) Wing John Tonje Aidan Shaw Curt Lewis
(4) Combo Forward Noah Carter Trent Pierce Jesus Carralero
(5) Post Connor Vanover Jordan Butler

Figuring out the depth chart is easy when you start at point guard with Nick Honor. From there Dennis Gates can go in a lot of different directions, but it seems safe to assume that Noah Cater will take over the spot manned by Kobe Brown last year. Connor Vanover seems the safest bet to start at the five, and with Tonje’s fit it would make sense that he’s the fourth starter. Tamar Bates and Caleb Grill both could see starts at the 5th spot, depending on matchups. But those six, plus Sean East, seem to be the consensus picks for the top minutes getters on this roster.

Aidan Shaw, Trent Pierce, Curt Lewis, and Jesus Carralero are all likely to see some minutes as well, with Kaleb Brown, Anthony Robinson and Jordan Butler collecting some spare minutes from what we can gather. The battle between 8 and 12 should be a hot one.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 20-11 | KenPom Projected Record: 17-14

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Illinois vs Arkansas Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home Arkansas-Pine Bluff 339 W
Nov 10 Home Memphis 32 W
Nov 13 Home SIU-Edwardsville 240 W
Nov 16 Away Minnesota 112 W
Nov 19 Home Jackson State 219 W
Nov 22 Home South Carolina State 345 W
Nov 25 Home Loyola Maryland 303 W
Nov 28 Away Pittsburgh 62 L
Dec 3 Home Wichita State 141 W
Dec 9 Away Kansas 2 L
Dec 17 Neutral Seton Hall 56 W
Dec 22 Neutral Illinois 19 L
Dec 30 Home Central Arkansas 319 W
avg 168.38 10-3

Anytime you automatically have Kansas, Illinois, and an ACC opponent (thanks to the ACC-SEC Challenge) on your non-conference schedule there really isn’t a big need to load up outside of that. Missouri faces the preseason odds-on favorite to win the national title, and a contender for a top 4 finish in the Big 10 right out of the gate, building a schedule that the NCAA Tournament committee will like is pretty easy from there.

So Missouri still added Wichita State, Seton Hall, Minnesota, and Memphis into that mix. Only Memphis is projected to finish inside the top 50 in KenPom right now, but the other three will provide opportunities for good wins. The rest of the schedule is mostly fodder with Jackson State and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville as the only teams inside the top 300.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 6 Home Georgia 57 W
Jan 9 Away Kentucky 18 L
Jan 13 Home South Carolina 66 W
Jan 16 Away Alabama 10 L
Jan 20 Home Florida 39 W
Jan 23 Away Texas A&M 24 L
Jan 27 Away South Carolina 66 W
Jan 31 Home Arkansas 14 W
Feb 3 Away Vanderbilt 79 L
Feb 7 Home Texas A&M 24 W
Feb 10 Home Mississippi State 27 W
Feb 17 Away Ole Miss 82 L
Feb 20 Home Tennessee 8 W
Feb 24 Away Arkansas 14 L
Feb 28 Away Florida 39 L
Mar 2 Home Ole Miss 82 W
Mar 5 Home Auburn 15 W
Mar 9 Away LSU 47 L
avg 39.50 10-8

Winning in the SEC is often about taking care of the games you can win, being nearly unbeatable at home, and then catching a game or two most wouldn’t expect. Last year Missouri did that, they only lost to Alabama and Texas A&M at home and beat Ole Miss, Georgia, and LSU on the road. Then they shocked Tennessee on the road to complete the schedule.

This year Missouri opens with a winnable home game before traveling to Kentucky. It’s never easy to win at Rupp Arena, but the Wildcats are young and John Calipari’s teams are usually stronger down the stretch than they are early. Then a trip back home to play South Carolina, that’s as good of a three-game start as you could ask for.

A few other key games to keep an eye on are the road trips to South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, and LSU. All winnable road tests. Then home games against Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State. Having home-court advantage over the top of the league you hope to be able to go 3-1 in those games. I’d also watch Missouri’s home and home against Florida for the first time since 2014. Both Mizzou and UF should be jockeying for position in and around the middle of the league, if Mizzou can win at Florida late and hold serve at home early that would give them a big leg up in the league standings.

OVERVIEW

Last season is over, but the optimism that surrounds the Missouri basketball program is still very prevalent. Mizzou was able to exploit a league largely devoid of good offense by focusing in hard on scoring the ball and letting everyone else try to play catch up. If you look up and down the league over the years, it’s been a defensive league fraught with hard-nosed defenses that make you work hard to score. And in true fashion, the league just copy-catted itself by hiring coaches who want to defend-defend-defend.

Mizzou last season was a hard pivot. They had the 9th best offense in the country and best in the SEC by a comfortable margin. They were 0.03 points per possession better than Alabama, a team known for being an elite offense under Nate Oats. How they did it was with a high percentage of three-point shots (2nd only to Alabama), a low turnover rate, and attacking the rim. The defense was awful, but they halfway made up for it by forcing a truckload of turnovers and many of them steals, which would be live ball turnovers. Garnering more possessions, being more efficient on offense, and just forcing your opponent to score with you.

Most teams can’t do that. At least not in the SEC. Even when you’re playing below-median defense for all of Division 1 schools. There were plenty of games where Mizzou simply outscored their opponent. The question is, can they do that again?

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There really isn’t a big reason to believe they can’t play with that level of offense again. There’s no Kobe Brown to suck defenses towards him. There’s no Isiaih Mosley or Deandre Gholston to take late-clock shots. But there’s a deep roster of good players and they can all shoot the basketball. Every addition Dennis Gates made this offseason were players who could shoot the ball at their position. Tamar Bates, Caleb Grill, John Tonje, Connor Vanover, all transfers who shot the ball at a high level.

But what about the defense?

Simply put it has to be better. Possession data gives you an idea of who is and isn’t good over an extended period of time and Mizzou just gave up too many points to both good and bad offenses. They gave up an average of 8 points a game on putbacks alone, and in conference play their offensive rebound rate allowed was last in the league at 38.8%. Which is where they need to clean things up, and where offseason additions should help.

With those same shooters, you also have a more stout defensive group. Bates is a high-level defender, Tonje is known for being sound defensively, Vanover is 7’5 and can provide rim protection, and Grill is known for his toughness. The freshmen class also has elite size for their position, and then there’s an expected bump in playing time for sophomore Aidan Shaw. Shaw had a reputation on defense, and brings the athleticism to impact that end of the floor as well.

So the offense should be good again, the defense should be improved... then what’s wrong?

I think Mizzou still needs a guy. The bulk of the roster is made up of low-usage guys. The highest usage player last year was Tonje at 23.3%, which doesn’t scream late-clock option. So it will likely need to be a by-committee approach, which doesn’t mean it can’t work just that it’s nice to have someone you can go to and count on.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Right now if you’re a Missouri fan why wouldn’t you be optimistic? It’s not often the Tigers have what feels like this much momentum and Dennis Gates and his staff are recruiting at high levels. But looking up and down this roster it has a lot of keys that you need to be successful. They have experience, they have continuity, and the talent level has increased over last season. The baseline for this roster has been raised in a good way.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Missouri was rated 41st in KenPom going into last season and finished 57th. They finished 6-0 in single-possession games and overtime, and had two or three late-game heroic shots at the buzzer not gone in the Tigers might have been on the outside looking in of the NCAA Tournament. This year Missouri is rated lower than they were a year ago at 55th, the defense and rebounding will have to be much better than it was a year ago or else the Tigers will need just as much late-game luck as they had last year.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in “the Masses” picks. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.