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Is Mizzou hoops sorting out an identity crisis?

An upset at the hands of Jackson State underscored a rotation that’s in flux — and Dennis Gates’ challenge in balancing the present against the future. 

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

Early in the second half of its road upset, Jackson State deployed a rude adjustment: picking on Missouri forward Jesus Carralero-Martin.

It wasn’t challenging, either.

On its first possession, JSU cleared out the right side of the floor to isolate wing Ken Evans Jr. Two dribbles put Carralero in retreat, opening space for Evans to bury a step-back 3-pointer. A trip later, JSU tried the same tactic again, only Evans drove a seam for a comfortable floater.

Just like that, the SWAC visitors whittled MU’s lead to one in 24 seconds.

It also presented coach Dennis Gates with a decision to keep Carralero on the floor. Undoubtedly, the Campbell transfer’s skillful facilitating offensively smoothed over some rough terrain in the first half. Yet, such ruthless hunting of a mismatch wasn’t a reasonable tradeoff. With 17:53 to play, Gates tapped Aidan Shaw to check in.

While this season is still young, Shaw’s arrival often signals Carralero’s exit. Entering Sunday, the pair had played together for six minutes, while Carralero had racked up a mere five minutes playing the post. So, Carralero trotted to the bench, right?

Nope.

Shaw took on the job of tracking Evans, nudging Carralero to the five-spot. Did this halt JSU’s naked aggression? Nope. The Tigers dialed up a spread pick-and-roll to put Carralero in the mixer on the ball and found Jordan O’Neal rolling quickly to the rim for a dunk. The Tigers also singled out Carralero twice more, and its targeting campaign racked up 11 points for the game. At the same time, the tandem with Shaw only netted a plus-1 scoring margin in five minutes of action. .

Meanwhile, John Tonje and Connor Vanover, each in the starting five, watched from the sideline. Would Tonje, a rugged wing, have been a better counter to Evans? Maybe inserting Vanover with Shaw would have boosted on-ball defense and bolstered support along the back line. Given how MU retooled its roster, it’s a bit head-scratching that those veterans were bystanders.

Now, Carralero’s presence isn’t the reason the Tigers lost Sunday. He wasn’t on the floor for a last-minute meltdown. But the scale of Carralero’s usage raises a question: What precisely is MU’s identity? And how close are the Tigers to defining it?

That question is also somewhat qualified. It’s not a new phenomenon for Gates to explore the studio space. Over the first five games, he’s used 103 lineups, a slight decrease from the same point last season. And, as you can see, his approach sharply deviates from Cuonzo Martin, who tended to be a bit more decisive in managing his rotation.

Top Lineups | First Five Games | 2021-2024

Season PG CG Wing Wing/CF CF/Post %Min Off. PPP Def. PPP Net
Season PG CG Wing Wing/CF CF/Post %Min Off. PPP Def. PPP Net
2021 Smith, D. Pinson Smith, Ma. Brown, Ko. Tilmon 17.0 108.0 81.0 27.0
2022 Coleman Davis Pickett Brown, Ko. DeGray 12.3 128.0 103.0 25.0
2023 Honor Hodge Gholston Brown, Ko. Carter 15.4 162.6 103.5 59.1
2024 Honor East Grill Carralero Carter 7.8 131.3 112.0 19.3
Date Sources: Hoops Lens, Pivot Analysis

Tinkering with lineups and exploring pairings isn’t outlandish. But last season, Gates mimicked Martin in one crucial aspect: locking in his top group early. The only mild intrigue was Isiaih Mosley’s availability and Aidan Shaw’s allocation of minutes.

But early in his second season, only five of Gates’ lineups have shared the floor beyond five minutes, and their percentage of playing time is slightly behind schedule compared to recent years.

Tinker Time | First Five Games | 2021-2024

Season Total Lineups 5 Minutes + %Min Scoring Margin
Season Total Lineups 5 Minutes + %Min Scoring Margin
2021 71 9 35.3 31
2022 47 12 40.8 -5
2023 114 4 29.9 70
2024 103 5 25.7 26

Obviously, there are some caveats around why finding an optimal quintet has proven tricky. Tonje has looked rusty and short on stamina as he works back from an undisclosed foot issue. As for Vanover, who withdrew from the NBA draft to return to college, the NCAA docked him three games for participating in the Portsmouth Invitational.

However, isn’t a three-game homestand against JSU, South Carolina State, and Loyola Maryland the ideal time to ramp up Tonje and Vanover’s involvement? Yet after the 13:11 mark in the first half, neither Tonje nor Vanover saw the Mizzou Arena floor again. Their absence was similarly conspicuous a week ago in Minnesota.

Examining how Tonje and Vanover’s minutes have been redistributed across MU’s lineup is worthwhile. Matt Watkins forecasts the percentage of minutes each Tiger should expect each offseason, estimates calculated using weighted averages for the past seven teams Gates helped coach. His approach relies on Historical usage and efficiency data to place players on their respective lines. In the table below, you can see how those projections stack up against reality.

Expected Minutes | Missouri | 2023-24

Player Projected %Min Actual %Min Difference
Player Projected %Min Actual %Min Difference
Nick Honor 72.0 72.5 0.5
Noah Carter 71.3 70.5 -0.8
John Tonje 65.6 19.0 -46.6
Caleb Grill 58.3 57.5 -0.8
Connor Vanover 53.1 5.0 -48.1
Sean East 42.5 77.0 34.5
Tamar Bates 36.8 45.0 8.2
Aidan Shaw 29.2 40.0 10.8
Trent Pierce 24.2 11.5 -12.7
Curt Lewis Lewis 19.8 13.0 -6.8
Jesus Carralero 13.2 22.5 9.3
Jordan Butler 7.0 21.0 14.0
Anthony Robinson II 4.5 37.5 33.0
Kaleb Brown 2.5 6.5 4.0
Source: Matt Watkins/Rock M Nation

It might not be jarring to see Sean East II with double the expected floor time, but the rest of the distribution is mildly surprising. During the preseason, few would have expected Carralero and Butler with the kind of workload they’ve handled so far. And as Sunday illustrated, it’s not coming in garbage time. Coming down the stretch, Butler manned the post, a period where he allowed a couple of offensive rebounds and missed a pair of crucial free throws.

Upping the dosage of PT for freshmen isn’t a sin, especially when Butler and Robinson are proving valuable at times on the defensive end. That said, MU didn’t approach this offseason with the posture of a program openly embracing a youth movement and the growing pains that come with it.

Gates’ staff trawled the portal for veteran guards to shore up backcourt depth. Tonje fit that plan flawlessly. The Omaha native shot 37 percent from 3-point range last season, and he spent the past four seasons with a program whose offense largely resembles what Gates installed in Columbia. And from Tonje’s seat, why leave Colorado State, where he averaged 14.6 points and 4.7 rebounds, to be a reserve?

Similar logic applies to Vanover, who deferred the start of his professional career to return to the SEC. At almost every opportunity, Gates and others around the program made a concerted point that Vanover was the ideal option for a stretch five. Unlike Tonje, Vanover’s perfectly healthy. Once the NCAA’s punishment wrapped up, nothing was impeding his involvement.

The runway to get both comfortable is also getting shorter. After this week, MU’s non-conference schedule ratchets up in intensity. And given what transpired on Sunday, MU needs to start amassing quality wins to offset a Quad 4 loss that will be a blight on its team sheet come March. Yet the Tigers’ rotation isn’t structured – at least so far – in a way that aligns with returning to the NCAA tournament.

Even if Tonje’s game is coated in a bit of rust, the roster Gates assembled comes with a hedge against the worst-case scenario. That’s Aidan Shaw.

While Shaw’s offensive repertoire remains modest, the former top-60 recruit has started putting the pieces together defensively. Currently, Shaw grades out as the Tigers’ best defender (0.647 PPP), and MU only allows 96.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor – a 10 percent improvement compared to MU’s baseline. He also happens to rank No. 10 nationally with a 14.9 block percentage.

Running Shaw at the four-spot potentially backstops Tonje on the wing if he hits turbulence while rounding into game shape. Flowing more minutes to Tonje – and potentially Shaw – also frees Gates from the downstream consequences of his current rotation.

Shaw’s presence is additive on defense, but he’s not the same kind of connector as Carralero. That means the Tigers rely more on five-out alignments, particularly ball-screen actions run on the empty side of the floor. Inserting Carralero allows the Tigers to open up the section of its playbook rooted in triangle-based concepts, which use Carralero as a linkage at the elbow of the top of the key.

Expanding Tonje’s involvement could mean siphoning time from Carralero, but that’s tenable given Tonje’s background and Shaw’s skill set defensively.

The irony is that Gates is also more reliant on certain veterans.

During the preseason, Gates suggested the Tigers would make a concerted effort to pair up Honor and East. So far, he’s been true to his word. The results, though, are mixed. In nearly 100 minutes, lineups featuring that tandem own a minus-5.7 net rating. If the aim was to juice the Tigers’ attack, the result – a 102.7 offensive rating — qualifies as pedestrian.

Fortunately, Gates imported Indiana transfer Tamar Bates, who is averaging 8.8 points and 1.2 assists on 20 percent usage. The junior’s not a natural creator, but he can mix it up by playing out of spot-ups. And on the defensive end, his size and athleticism make it harder for opponents to target him in switches – a common tactic against East.

Lineup data also offers supporting evidence for boosting Bates’ role as a combo guard. For example, East and Bates have posted a 55.6 net rating, per Pivot Analysis data. Yet groups featuring the junior in that role only amount to 15.5 percent of minutes.

Is it Tamar Bates’ time at combo guard?

PG CG %Min Margin Poss. Off PPP PPP Net
PG CG %Min Margin Poss. Off PPP PPP Net
Honor East 48.6 -9 159 102.72 108.4 -5.68
East Bates 7.9 15 27 137.04 81.48 55.56
Honor Bates 7.6 10 26 107.69 69.23 38.46
Data Source: Pivot Analysis

When Bates decamped from Bloomington, it was hoping to integrate into a system with a bit more pep and wouldn’t relegate him to a stagnant role off the ball. Sifting lineups, though, reveal his role still tilts in that direction. Inevitably, those gaudy net ratings will decline if Bates accrues more possessions at combo guard. Maybe the result isn’t any better than keeping Honor and East together.

Yet there’s a distinct possibility that most of Bates’ impact at combo guard holds up. Finding out requires committing. The same could be said of weaving in Tonje and Vanover. And those choices demand tough tradeoffs, like curbing minutes from freshmen who’ve settled in quickly.

Last season, MU rarely confronted such tradeoffs — and concurrent risk. Gates toted three players with him from Cleveland State, and he inherited an All-SEC player tailor-made to his preferences. When Gates tinkered, it was at the margins. Perhaps we took growing pains for granted, but after five games, MU looks like a team trying to balance the present against the future.

Yet Gates and his program haven’t masked their ambition this season. It spent the offseason fitting out a roster it hoped would inflict damage come March. Assuming that’s still the goal, Sunday’s result could make simply getting into the field challenging.

There’s still time for Mizzou to determine the kind of team it wants to be — but the deadline for choosing is closing in.