It’s an understatement to say that Missouri was a great passing team in 2022-23.
The Tigers averaged 15.9 assists per game (21st in the nation) and had a 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio (tied for fifth). Dennis Gates prides himself on coaching elite passing teams that spread the ball around to create a free-flowing offense, and his first squad at Mizzou did just that.
The system has not changed going into this season, and despite tonight’s result, this year’s group still has the chance to eclipse those numbers. It’s in large part due to this team appearing to have a fairly different makeup on offense.
The main reason for that? The departure of Kobe Brown, who was generally the only Missouri player that received any form of isolation action on offense, has appeared to truly open this offense up to the level that suits the pass-first, open-floor style that Gates wants to employ.
Before I delve into this, no, I am not saying that the absence of Kobe Brown has made this team better. He was a once-in-a-generation talent that will go down as a Missouri legend. I am merely stating that the style of offense that Gates likes to run can be just as effective (if not more so) without a star player that needs the ball in his hands frequently.
To start, the floor spacing of this team appears to be superior to last year’s, which is saying something. Every player knows where to be, when to cut and when to get the heck out of the way.
Take this play for instance:
At the start of this clip, you see every Tiger player on the perimeter, with an overload to the right side of the floor. From there, you watch Sean East II fake a dribble-handoff, confusing Memphis’ defenders, who were unsure of whether or not to switch.
East attacks the rim, getting into the body of his larger defender to create space. From there, the lone weak side defender (Caleb Mills) has to come over to help. East knows this beforehand and spins away from the oncoming help. Aidan Shaw makes the key cut to the rim, and East finds him with a well-placed bounce pass. Floor-spacing provided the opportunity for East to make the play, and his high-IQ and ability to attack off the bounce allowed it to be executed.
Even with Mizzou’s offense revolving around frequent passing and a plethora of players contributing, every college basketball team needs that one guy it can look at to get a bucket when it has to have it. Brown was that player last year, and East II has emerged as that player thus far considering that he has a combined 35 points on 12-for-16 shooting through two games. He’s always been a crafty individual, but East is playing a much more physical brand of basketball this season and—perhaps more importantly—is playing with visible confidence on the floor.
“He played an outstanding game in that first half,” Gates said. “We were able to get him certain looks, whether it was one more pass or an extra look or just our spacing.”
This shot did not fall often for East last season, but more importantly, he likely would not have even thought of it as an option back then:
Throughout last season, turnovers plagued the guard from Louisville, as he finished with 53 of them (third worst on the team). As a point guard, that number is unacceptable, and thus he fell behind Nick Honor on the depth chart.
Following an offseason of emerging as a team leader, putting on some muscle and working on his perimeter shot, we have now been able to see the true potential of East. He already had an elite handle and was able to see passes that other players could not, but—and I will always argue this—the best attribute any basketball player can have is confidence. You can tell that Gates and this staff have handed East the metaphorical keys to this team, and he’s driven this black and gold Maserati into the sunset at times.
I’ve been fairly glass half-full through most of this piece. Missouri did lose this game 70-55, and the Maserati appeared to crash multiple times in the second half. That’s because, at the end of the day, every single Gates-coached offense will rely upon the team shooting at a high-level to have consistent success. One could even argue that Mizzou, based on its up-tempo play style and good-not-great defense, needs to shoot at a respectable clip from the floor more so than most other teams in the nation.
“I thought our offense impacted our defense,” Gates said. “We can not allow missed shots to impact our energy. I was not excited about the discouragement I saw when we missed easy plays.”
For much of the first half against Memphis, we saw what the ceiling of this Tiger offense looked like, with the ball flying around the floor and the team hitting open shots. For the rest of the game, we saw what happens when the opposition controls the tempo and Mizzou goes cold from the floor. Memphis interim coach Rick Stansbury said that he opted to employ a smaller lineup with Mills alongside Jahvon Quinerly in the second half to disrupt what East and Co. were doing, and that two point guard approach appeared to work well for the visiting Tigers on both ends of the floor.
Missouri had five assists and six steals in the opening half. It had only three assists and two steals in the second period.
Mizzou made 13 shots in the first half, five in the second.
This team needs effective passing and live-ball turnovers to manufacture offense. Therefore, all of those numbers are directly correlated.
We also learned something else tonight. Despite East’s hot start to the season, Mizzou does not have a player like Brown that can act as an equalizer when the team goes cold, at least as of yet.
Regardless, Mizzou is a team full of skilled shooters that only need to see the ball go in a handful of times to drop 80+. Gates knows this all too well, and similar to last season, he will always encourage his guys to never pass up a good look.
“I still want these guys to shoot the shots that they took,” Gates said. “I truly believe that there may not be another shooting display like that.”
A team that lives and dies by its ability to shoot the ball at a high-clip and pass well. Sounds a lot like last season’s bunch, doesn’t it?
And, much like that team, this group will be just fine. They’re still learning how to play for Gates, for this city, and most importantly, for each other. There’s a long way to go until March.