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The Verdict: A Balanced Attack for the Mizzou Basketball Offense

On paper Mizzou lacks a high-volume scoring threat. A deep dive into whether Mizzou can thread the needle in constructing a potent offense.

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

Exactly one year ago, Mizzou entered Dennis Gates’ first season on the bench with serious offensive potential. However, numerous questions remained regarding whether it was merely potential or if would translate to production. Had we known how the season would play out in terms of personnel availability — we’re not going back there — more questions would’ve arisen about the prospects of fielding an elite offense.

We knew that Kobe Brown would return, an all-league performer as a junior who had struggled mightily with his jump shot during his career. We also knew of the portal additions in D’Moi Hodge and DeAndre Gholston, who joined the squad from the Horizon League. Good players to be certain, yet both were tasked with a significant increase in competition. Late in the spring of 2022, Mizzou had also landed a bona fide scoring machine in Isiaih Mosley. As fortunes often have it, Mosley turned into an enigmatic presence that at times overshadowed the team itself.

No matter, the 2022-2023 Mizzou offense proved to be an efficient, scoring machine. A group of players who were largely unfamiliar with one another just months prior formed a potent group and finished Top-10 in adjusted offensive efficiency. They shot the ball incredibly well — finishing 17th nationally in eFG% — and protected the ball like a dog would a bone.

And here we are, 12 months later with questions to answer once again. Mizzou has lost this potent core and their production must be replaced. Whether it’s Gholston’s shot creation, Kobe’s role as a playmaker and scorer or Hodge’s elite shooting ability, each player leaves behind a chasm in production.

Who is going to be...”THE GUY?”

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

The “High-Volume” Player Defined

If you’ve been around basketball courts long enough, you’ve heard the vernacular. The “Alpha.” The “Dog.” The “Go-To Guy.” The “Bucket Getter.” The “High Volume Option.” And so on...

Whatever the term, the meaning is the same: The guy that is going to absorb more offensive possessions than his teammates, especially those in crunch time.

The idea is simple enough, but how do we quantify something that is so often amorphous?

The following metrics are the standards I’ve applied for the purposes of this piece in defining such a player:

  • 50%+ Minutes Played — Minutes played rate is simply a percentage of the total minutes available that were played by a certain player. 50% roughly equates to 20 minutes a game, 100% roughly equals 40 minutes a game and so on.
  • 24%+ Usage Rate — Usage Rate is a calculation of the number of possessions that a player “ends,” by 1. making a shot; 2. missing a shot rebounded by the defense; or 3. committing a turnover. That figure is divided by total possessions played. A rate of 24% or higher is considered a “major contributor,” but the fan favorite, Ken Pomeroy. The higher the rate, the higher the involvement the player has offensively while on the court.
  • 100+ Offensive Rating — I’ll allow Pomeroy’s concise definition to apply: “A measure of personal offensive efficiency developed by Dean Oliver. The formula is very complicated, but accurate. For a detailed explanation, buy Basketball on Paper.” A rating of 100 is considered average. The higher the rating, the better the offensive performance.

I’ve chosen these standards for several reasons. First, you have to play sufficient minutes to be “The Guy.” To have an impact you must actually be on the court! You also have to use sufficient possessions while on the court, for a man who stands idly by while his teammates put in the work is by definition, not “The Guy.” Finally, you must produce offense at an average level or above. Shot takers abound. Shotmakers are the ticket.

In meeting all three, you have a legitimate scoring threat for which opposing defenses account. The theory is simple. Meeting all three standards has proven to be less so.

The 2022-2023 Mizzou Options

This past season, Mizzou had one player that achieved all three marks. Would it surprise you if I told you that it was DeAndre Gholston? Although he’ll be most fondly remembered for his late-game theatrics, Gholston was a find of all finds by Dennis Gates. In Gholston’s final year with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Dree” tallied marks of 78.8% minutes, 26.6% usage rate and a 92.6 offensive rating. Two of the three boxes were checked, but the most significant one was left open. Fast forward to his only season in Columbia, and Dree produced: 57.5% of minutes, 25.1% usage rate, 101.2 offensive rating. It’s true, Gholston actually became “The Guy” when faced with stiffer competition!

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Utah State vs Missouri Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to Gholston, both Kobe Brown and Isiaih Mosley had cases to be made. Mosley finished with 19.7% of minutes, 29.8% usage rate and a 95.3 offensive rating. While his disjointed season was without a doubt the primary cause for failing to hit these benchmarks, he did find traction during his mid-season conference resurrection and averaged these figures during that brief return.

Kobe Brown, who I’m guessing most would’ve considered “The Guy,” narrowly missed qualification. He averaged 71% of minutes, 23.5% usage rate and a 125.5 offensive rating. There’s not much question that he was a dude in his own right, but his low turnover rate and incredible ability to create offense for teammates off the pass in lieu of individual shot creation knocked him just below the usage threshold. There’s certainly an argument to be made for lowering the standard because of players like this, but there’s a rule about outliers. Kobe was just that.

No other player on Mizzou’s roster came particularly close to the usage threshold. Only Noah Carter and D’Moi Hodge cracked 20% in that category. Yet the Tigers had one, and sometimes more options to turn to in carrying the offensive load. It helped propel them to a standing of a top 10 offense.

Will Mizzou have such an option THIS year?

The 2023-2024 Mizzou Options

Enough about last year already. The question is a pressing one. Who can be the go-to player that makes the offense hum for this year’s squad?

The following chart reflects the “best year in D-I” of each Mizzou Tiger that figures to be a part of the team’s rotation. Simply put, this is the closest individual season any player with a Division I history has come to being “The Guy.”

Mizzou’s High Volume Options

Player Year Team Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
Player Year Team Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
Nick Honor 2019 Fordham 90.00% 24.90% 98.5
Noah Carter 2022 Northern Iowa 65.70% 28.10% 111
John Tonje 2023 Colorado State 77.30% 23.50% 106.1
Connor Vanover 2023 Oral Roberts 64.90% 21.70% 118.5
Sean East 2020 Massachusetts 69.80% 23.70% 95.6
Curt Lewis 2021 E. Kentucky 58.10% 19.90% 112.1
Caleb Grill 2023 Iowa State 58.80% 15.40% 107.6
Tamar Bates 2023 Indiana 50.80% 15.70% 104.4
Aidan Shaw 2023 Mizzou 23.90% 11.70% 117.7
Jesus Carralero 2022 Campbell 65.40% 27.10% 92.9
Kaleb Brown 2022 Mizzou 20.00% 13.00% 64.1
Mabor Majak 2022 Cleveland State 7.70% 9.20% 85.5

It doesn’t take a statistical savant to see why this is a talking point. The numbers corroborate our suspicion. Only Noah Carter has cleared that bar — once, his junior season at Northern Iowa — and his numbers in his first year at Mizzou dropped to 53% of minutes, 21.9% usage rate and 116.3 offensive rating. Carter is actually the norm in that regard when players transfer up from a mid-major to a high-major. While his efficiency rose, his usage and minutes played rates dropped considerably.

Mizzou has an experienced group of players who have combined to play 37 seasons of Division I Basketball. Just one time has a player met all three criteria in a single season. Just as importantly, in only six seasons has a player had a usage rate of 24% — Carter and Honor once each, Jesus Carralero the remaining four times at Campbell.

A case could be made for Noah Carter to slide into that space, to be sure. One could also be made for John Tonje, who had a brilliant campaign with Colorado State. While the Mountain West is not a high major league, there are few conferences that come as close to mirroring that level as the Mountain Best.

Syndication: The Coloradoan Lucas Boland/The Coloradoan / USA TODAY NETWORK

Yet it appears that at least on the surface Mizzou may be without such a player, absent a surprise progression from one or more individuals. Especially when you consider the only players close to the high-volume triumvirate accumulated their numbers at level lower than the SEC.

Presented with this information the question shifts to: if you don’t have “That Guy” does it really matter?

Recent History of Similar Successful Teams

Looking back over the past two seasons, 93 teams have fallen into the NCAA Tournament “at-large pool.” Simply put, the teams that qualified for this group either: 1) Secured an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament, or 2) Would have done so but for earning their league’s automatic bid. In other words, teams good enough to punch their own ticket without needing a conference tournament championship.

Mizzou’s goal SHOULD be to make an NCAA Tournament in 2023-2024, so it’s prudent to look at that group as a means of comparison.

When cracking open the stats book, of those 93 teams included above, 78 had at least one player reach the above-defined status of being “The Guy.” That’s right, 83% of teams had such a player. In fact, 18 teams had more than one of those players!

Lacking said player does appear to be a minority position among successful teams. Yet there were groups who made it work no matter what.

2022 and 2023 At-Large Teams Lacking a High Volume Scorer

Team Year Ken Pom Rank Adj Offense Rank Adj Defense Rank
Team Year Ken Pom Rank Adj Offense Rank Adj Defense Rank
Texas 2023 5 15 13
Tennessee 2023 6 64 1
Creighton 2023 12 23 14
Xavier 2023 15 8 24
Utah State 2023 28 16 70
Iowa State 2023 29 114 8
Providence 2023 40 18 92
Villanova 2022 10 9 23
St. Mary's 2022 17 51 12
Arkansas 2022 18 53 11
Memphis 2022 24 38 33
Loyola (Chi) 2022 29 75 18
USC 2022 47 54 45
Creighton 2022 50 112 19
Rutgers 2022 77 96 53
Mean - 27.133 49.733 29.067
Median - 24 51 19

As we can see from the list, there were, in fact, very good teams who did not rely on a single player to shoulder a heavy offensive load. Texas reached the Elite Eight and likely should’ve been in the Final Four. Creighton and Tennessee proved to be very quality teams that played well into the Tournament’s second weekend. The same is true for the teams in 2022, including Villanova’s run to the Final Four.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-Villanova vs Kansas Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

But the thing that strikes me is this: Most of these teams had good, if not great defenses. Ten of the 15 teams had defensive units that ranked top 25 in adjusted efficiency. Twelve of 15 teams had defenses in the top 50. The only three who didn’t? Utah State, Providence and Rutgers in 2022. None of these three teams earned higher than a 10-seed and none won a game in March Madness. In fact, Rutgers didn’t even make it into the field of 64 after bowing out in Dayton.

While this may be veering towards a conversation on defense, it’s not my intention. It’s simply notable that a year ago Mizzou rated 180th in adjusted defensive efficiency and beat all odds by not only making the tournament but advancing within it. That mark simply must improve for more reasons than just this one. But absent an improvement into the top 50 defensively, Mizzou will still be heavily reliant on offensive prowess to steam their engine. Can they have such an offense without “The Guy?”

Looking further into this group for the teams that stood out, there were in fact elite offenses that lacked a high-volume scorer. Six of the fifteen teams listed managed to crack the top 25 — a mark Mizzou will certainly hope to match. The following represents the most impactful players on each of these teams and how they fared in the three categories we’ve been discussing:

Balanced Offense Comps

Texas 2023 Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
Texas 2023 Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
Marcus Carr 84.00% 23.10% 113.1
Tyrese Hunter 74.70% 19.30% 99.2
Timmy Allen 64.60% 22.30% 104.3
Sir'Jabari Rice 62.50% 23.40% 116.3
Dylan Disu 44.40% 20.30% 119.1
Christian Bishop 43.80% 20.00% 105.5
Creighton 2023 Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
Ryan Nembhard 84.40% 20.70% 108.6
Baylor Scheierman 81.10% 21.10% 107.8
Trey Alexander 79.50% 20.50% 112.4
Ryan Kalkbrenner 73.30% 19.40% 133.4
Arthur Kaluma 73.00% 23.00% 100.9
Xavier 2023 Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
Zach Freemantle 42.40% 24.70% 110.9
Souley Boum 87.60% 21.20% 119.2
Colby Jones 82.20% 22.10% 112.5
Jack Nunge 73.10% 21.90% 120.2
Adam Kunkel 71.30% 16.70% 111.8
Jerome Hunter 52.00% 18.10% 119
Utah State 2023 Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
Steven Ashworth 83.00% 21.60% 127.7
Max Shulga 77.70% 21.10% 111.1
Taylor Funk 76.20% 20.30% 114.2
Trevian Dorius 34.60% 21.70% 110.2
Sean Bairstow 78.60% 18.20% 105.7
Dan Akin 66.50% 19.70% 120.3
Providence 2023 Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
Bryce Hopkins 85.50% 23.60% 108.3
Devin Carter 78.60% 21.20% 110.2
Ed Croswell 70.40% 21.30% 123.3
Jared Bynum 59.50% 21.00% 110.1
Noah Locke 68.20% 17.30% 112.9
Clifton Moore 32.40% 18.20% 112.7
Villanova 2023 Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
Collin Gillespie 85.40% 22.20% 122.7
Justin Moore 81.60% 23.20% 109.3
Jermaine Samuels 74.00% 20.90% 113
Eric Dixon 62.70% 21.20% 119
Caleb Daniels 64.10% 19.20% 110.2

When looking at these teams, it was fairly evident that each had a core group of 5-6 players that played significant minutes and scored efficiently, despite falling short of the 24% usage threshold. In other words, these teams relied on having a balanced attack of a number of efficient players on the court together as a de facto replacement for having a high-impact, high-volume scorer.

Can Mizzou match this strategy in 2023-2024? This table lists each returning player on the Tiger’s roster and their “best,” season that fits into this strategy of efficiently spreading the love.

Mizzou’s Option for Balance

Player Year Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
Player Year Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
John Tonje 2023 77.70% 23.30% 106.1
Jesus Carralero 2022 65.50% 27.10% 92.9
Connor Vanover 2023 65.00% 21.70% 118.4
Caleb Grill 2023 58.60% 15.40% 107.3
Curt Lewis 2021 58.10% 19.90% 112.1
Nick Honor 2021 58.00% 19.90% 106
Sean East 2023 57.70% 19.00% 102.8
Noah Carter 2023 53.00% 21.40% 116.3
Tamar Bates 2023 50.70% 15.80% 104.4
Aidan Shaw 2023 23.90% 11.60% 117.6
Kaleb Brown 2022 6.10% 13.00% 66.3

Mizzou appears to have a number of players who would qualify, supposing the players are able to match or exceed the numbers they’ve posted previously. While it’s not a given that the players on this year’s roster can recreate the magic of a year ago, Dennis Gates and his staff may have earned the benefit of the doubt on that front.

Let’s say these numbers transfer perfectly — what John Tonje and Connor Vanover did a year ago is exactly how they’ll perform this coming season, for instance. How does Mizzou match up with these teams? The following table represents the average player in the “core rotation,” of the teams listed above — while not a perfect statistical analysis it does provide us with rough boundaries. Included in the list is Mizzou’s projected starting lineup, the projected top 8 — both based on my super-secret projections — and their entire 11-man roster with D-I experience. You’ll note that freshmen are NOT included, since they have no data to parse.

Threshold Averages Among Core Groups

Team Minutes% Usage % Offensive Rating
Team Minutes% Usage % Offensive Rating
Texas 2023 62.33% 21.40% 109.6
Creighton 2023 78.30% 20.90% 112.6
Xavier 2023 68.10% 20.80% 115.6
Utah State 2023 69.40% 20.40% 114.9
Providence 2023 65.70% 20.40% 112.9
Villanova 2022 73.60% 21.30% 114.8
Mizzou Projected Starters 62.50% 20.30% 110.8
Mizzou Projected Rotation 59.90% 19.50% 109.2
Mizzou Roster 52.20% 18.90% 104.6

Among the three key statistical categories, Mizzou’s projected starters and rotation group fare pretty well in terms of usage rate. Mizzou’s group is slightly lower than the rest, but well within the scope of the sample. Their offensive rating is again on the lower end, but not an outlier. Where the differences manifest the most is in the share of minutes played. Mizzou’s starters are very similar to the group at Texas last season, but the bulk of the list reflect groups that play a very significant amount of their respective teams’ minutes.

These previous core groups are all eating a big portion of the time their team spends on the court. Their offensive performance represents most of their team’s performance. Comparatively, Mizzou’s “core” reflects a much smaller share. Part of this is by design as the ideal Mizzou system relies on depth — often blowing past the standard 8 men used by most teams — in an effort to overwhelm opponents with fresh bodies.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Quarterfinals - Missouri vs Tennessee Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

The minutes played rate is going to be different for Mizzou because of one big reason: They can’t. The Tigers aren’t going to rely on just 6 or 7 players to play the bulk of the minutes. Their defensive theory of creating havoc by causing deflections leading to open court opportunities is a taxing one. As we saw a year ago, playing a short bench will impact them negatively. They won’t replicate the majority of the six teams above because they can’t.

The bigger question in my mind is this: can they replicate the offensive efficiency while playing more players than these teams typically do? This requires the players beyond the “core group,” to be equally proficient in seeing their usage and efficiency marks translate. Mizzou can’t rely just on starters to make this balanced approach work without suffering on the defensive end.

The starting rotation numbers suggest that they’re in the ballpark — any regression would certainly be cause for concern. Conversely, if they were to maintain or improve their efficiency among eight or more players, they would be well-situated to not only join the ranks of these teams, but to be an outlier themselves. A team with not just 5 or 6 efficient players powering a balanced attack, but 8 or 9! But that takes into account that those players will perform at their prior level.

Dennis Gates Has Gotten His Players to Improve Their Game

The caveat you’ve been eying. “IF Mizzou’s players can maintain or exceed their prior level of performance.” A big one to be sure.

Looking briefly at a year ago, the staff has had a recent track record of success in improving players when looking at it in this format. The table below shows the 2022-2023 season average for the top 6 players in minutes and compares that in a similar way versus their previous best seasons. In other words, this is what we could’ve projected last October using this same thought process.

Mizzou 2022-2023 “Core Six” Average Comparison

Year Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
Year Minutes % Usage % Offensive Rating
Prior Best Season 68.30% 23.30% 107.2
2022-2023 64.20% 20.50% 114.9

While each year is different and no two groups are the same, you must be heartened by the evidence. Magical things happened. We all saw it over 35 games a year ago. The proof is indeed, in the pudding.

Final Takeaways

In today’s game, it is relatively rare to find success, both offensively and overall, without a high-volume scoring option. Having “The Guy” has a demonstrated track record of improving a team’s outlook in both categories. None of that should be surprising.

There are, however, teams that have rejected that notion and instead relied on a balanced approach. While most of these teams are successful because of efficiency on both ends of the court, a subset of the group has been comprised of elite offensive squads. That sample of six teams has typically relied on a core grouping of 5-6 players to achieve those results. A team looking to spread the wealth around AND to maintain a high level of offensive success would be pretty rare.

The good news for Mizzou fans is that Mizzou may well project to be an outlier. Dennis Gates and staff have found a multitude of players that fit the mold of the type of player that fits well into a well-balanced offense, statistically speaking. In fact, Mizzou may have more players that fit that mold than other similar teams in the recent past.

When looking at the group as a whole, their offensive success or lack thereof will be directly tied to players slightly adjusting their usage profiles and matching or exceeding prior seasons in efficiency. A tough ask, but one that was met with shocking ease a season back. Questions will remain about individual role placement within the offensive scheme and how the trickle-down impact affects their game. Another area Mizzou excelled in in 2023, but a question we’ll be watching closely as the season progresses.

Mizzou is trying to do something that is pretty rare. Yet when you scan the roster and look at Dennis Gates’s success in quickly developing players, you see the path to success. Should this occur, Mizzou is in a good position to field an offense that is among the nation’s best despite lacking what most tournament-quality teams possess.

Or “The Guy” might just emerge as a surprise to us all.