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As the season begins, how much will luck matter for Mizzou?

Last season, the Tigers’ ability to execute in clutch moments helped overcome inefficiency from stylistic choices. Ideally, a retrofitted roster will curb late-game drama.

Syndication: Columbia Daily Tribune Caitie McMekin / USA TODAY NETWORK

When DeAndre Gholston banked in a game-winner against UCF, we should have taken it as a sign that — for once — fortune might smile on Missouri.

Such moments are rare, but the Tigers offered up at least a handful in a season that saw them outperform expectations. Gholston replicated his heroics on Rocky Top. Two weeks later, Nick Honor decided to try on the role of late-game savior against Mississippi State.

And it’s not straining credulity to suggest all three of those shots dropping pushed the Tigers into the NCAA tournament.

Ideally, such heroics and drama won’t be on tap as MU tips off the regular season tonight with a visit from UAPB. Yet it’s also worth assessing a trait that proved essential a year ago and wondering whether the Tigers still possess it — and to what degree they might need it as they embark on coach Dennis Gates’ second season at the helm.

Last season, MU ranked 10th in KenPom’s “luck” metric, which is probably a misnomer. Instead, deviation is perhaps the more accurate terminology. Pomeroy’s model uses offensive and defensive efficiency to calculate an expected win percentage and then multiplies it by the number of games a team plays. That model forecasted the Tigers to win 22.3 games in 2022-23 games – or 2.7 less than the final tally.

Those 2.7 “extra” wins represent 10.7 percent of Mizzou’s total, and, sure enough, a glance at the Luck column shows this rating: 0.107. Put simply, MU went 25-10 when it played like a team that would finish 22-13.

That deviation wasn’t just among the highest nationally. It was the largest among at-large teams in the field of 68. Ironically, the next luckiest team hailed from slightly west of Columbia: Kansas.

Fortunate Few | At-Large Teams | 2022-23

Team Overall Seed Luck Rank Deviation Total Wins Extra Wins
Team Overall Seed Luck Rank Deviation Total Wins Extra Wins
Missouri 27 10 0.107 25 2.675
Kansas 3 28 0.082 28 2.296
Arizona St. 45 69 0.047 23 1.081
Texas A&M 25 74 0.045 25 1.125
Kansas St. 11 90 0.035 26 0.91
Nevada 46 92 0.033 22 0.726
Pittsburgh 44 98 0.031 24 0.744
Miami 20 108 0.027 29 0.783
Virginia 16 113 0.027 25 0.675
Northwestern 28 117 0.025 22 0.55
Houston 2 122 0.023 33 0.759
Data Source: KenPom

Expanding our scope to look at the past three seasons, which overlaps the advent of NET rankings, the Tigers rank third when it comes to good fortune. It also shows that just two of its peers made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Undoubtedly, a second-round matchup against Princeton offered potentially easier passage but, as we’ll see, MU’s stylistic choices left it equally vulnerable to an upset.

Fortunate Few | At-Large Teams | 2021-2023

Season Team Overall Seed Luck Rank Deviation Total Wins Extra Wins Round
Season Team Overall Seed Luck Rank Deviation Total Wins Extra Wins Round
2022 Providence 15 1 0.164 27 4.428 Sweet 16
2022 Colorado State 24 6 0.121 25 3.025 First
2023 Missouri 27 10 0.107 25 2.675 Second
2022 Wisconsin 9 15 0.105 25 2.625 Second
2021 Drake 48 17 0.102 26 2.652 First
2021 Clemson 27 18 0.1 16 1.6 First
2021 Michigan State 43 22 0.09 15 1.35 First Four
2021 Wichita State 45 23 0.089 16 1.424 First Four
2022 Miami 38 27 0.088 26 2.288 Elite Eight
2023 Kansas 3 28 0.082 28 2.296 Second
Data Source: KenPom

Unsurprisingly, the direction of the deviation hinges on the answer to one question: How well did your team do in two-possession games? That goes beyond a raw accounting of wins and losses. Instead, a team’s winning percentage has a stronger relationship, as shown in the graph below, which plots every at-large team since 2021.

The Tigers had a 0.900 win percentage in contests decided by six points or fewer, the best in the country over the past three seasons. Using Pomeroy’s methodology, we expected MU to finish 5-5 in those games. Yet the Tigers flipped four regular-season games – Wichita State, UCF, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and Tennessee — into the win column.

Those results also had a material impact on Mizzou’s postseason fate.

A team’s luck ranking makes no difference in where it is seeded, but it can describe how a team assembled the résumé scrutinized by the selection committee. Take quality wins, for example. Since the NET rankings came into use, at-large teams have typically needed six to feel comfortable about earning a bid. Mizzou was no exception, compiling seven of them on its team sheet.

But three of those top-shelf victories – and the cachet that comes with them – came in games decided by one possession. Let’s look at MU’s five closest calls from last season, shall we?

Closest Calls | Expected Win Probabilities | 2022-23

Opponent Location Pregame 5 Minutes 1 Minute Forecast Result Quad
Opponent Location Pregame 5 Minutes 1 Minute Forecast Result Quad
Tennessee Road 31.1% 5.6% 5.2% L W 1A
UCF Neutral 47.9% 66.3% 22.8% L W 2A
Wichita State Road 48.9% 7.3% 28.0% L W 2B
Arkansas Home 50.2% 5.2% 42.2% W W 1B
Miss. State Home 59.5% 49.2% 60.2% W W 1B
Data Source: KenPom

Three of those victories found MU with a less than 10 percent chance of winning with five minutes to go and 50-50 odds at the start of overtime against Mississippi State. And in every game but one, the Tigers found themselves on the wrong side of the math with 60 seconds remaining. Yet Gates’ crew emerged unscathed.

Scratching out wins against the Volunteers, Razorbacks, and Bulldogs would have left MU with a 4-11 mark in Quad-1 tilts. Given those results, a soft non-conference slate, and a spotty efficiency profile, Gates’ squad might have been sweating out Selection Sunday.

Yet extra wins don’t simply materialize out of thin air – even if it takes a Dree heave to get there. Execution mattered. Nick Honor properly read drop coverage before hitting a go-ahead 3-ball against Mississippi State. In Wichita, Gates drew up a stellar set, and D’Moi Hodge timed his back cut perfectly to free throws that forced overtime. And down the stretch against Arkansas, Sean East II and Kobe Brown exploited mismatches in ball screens to power MU’s surge.

At the same time, it’s no mystery why MU found itself in those jams – and why Pomeroy’s model chalks them up to luck.

First, eight of Mizzou’s losses came by double-digits, and half were by more than 18 points. Those blowouts dampened MU’s efficiency margin, lowering expected performance and leading to analytical surprises. It for sure acted as a drag on their NET ranking.

Gates’ stylistic preferences might have been a contributing factor as well. Three-point shooting, the core component of MU’s offense, is routinely prone to wide swings in performance. And defensively, programs that apply heavy pressure to force turnovers tend to allow more off-ball cuts and rim attempts. As a counterweight to that rim pressure, the Tigers’ scheme relied on aggressive help toward the lane, creating more open spot-ups. Toss in a smaller lineup, and MU lacked adequate rim protection and rebounding.

MU’s logic was obvious: burying 3s and scoring in transition – while siphoning possessions – would swamp opponents. But the results could be ugly if MU got on the wrong side of that math. It’s easy to see when we lift the hood and strip out buy games against overmatched mid- and low-majors.

Balancing the Efficiency Books | Missouri | 2022-23

Category Count Off. Efficiency Def. Efficiency Net Rating
Category Count Off. Efficiency Def. Efficiency Net Rating
Normal Wins 9 127.2 100.3 26.9
Normal Losses 9 81.8 111.1 -29.3
One-Possession Wins 5 111.3 107.9 3.4
Two-Possession Wins 4 114.7 104.2 10.5
One-Possession Losses 1 104.2 113.7 -9.5
All 25 102.5 103.7 -1.2
These efficiency ratings were calculated after stripping out garbage time. Data Source:

When we finished our accounting, which also removes garbage time, MU wound up with a minus-1.2 net rating. On the defensive end, it didn’t matter who the Tigers faced. Even in comfortable wins, they posted a raw efficiency that would have ranked 93rd nationally. Close games — and narrow wins — were the byproduct of MU squeezing just enough production out of its offense to make the arithmetic work.

Putting it all together, MU was a team that relied on a high-variance approach that occasionally left it in a bind. But if the result hung in the balance, Gates’ roster had enough veterans who excelled in late-game situations.

Sadly, these deviations are rarely durable. Last year, FiveThirtyEight found the correlation for a team’s luck rating from season to season is only 0.06. When I ran the numbers for the past three seasons among at-large teams, the correlation was even worse at 0.02, essentially telling us that any affinity in late-game situations this season is random.

However, the lessons around luck and deviations remain helpful. For example, the median variation among at-large teams is 0.16 wins, while the cutoff for outliers begins at 0.58 wins. Based on KenPom’s preseason ratings, MU will start to outperform projections if it finishes 18-13 overall and 9-9 in the SEC.

Expected probabilities are also handy in helping us identify potential pick-up opportunities on MU’s slate. Analytical models suggest the Tigers will participate in ten games decided by one possession, half of which are straight toss-ups. The table below shows the five expected losses.

Flip Opportunities | Missouri | 2023-24

Opponent Location Avg. Rating Avg. Probability Avg. Margin Quad
Opponent Location Avg. Rating Avg. Probability Avg. Margin Quad
LSU Road 53.5 38.90% -2.7 1B
Ole Miss Road 60.3 41.70% -2.1 1B
Pittsburgh Road 71.0 45.10% -0.9 1B
Arkansas Home 17.0 47.20% -0.4 1B
Vanderbilt Road 77.0 48.30% -0.4 2A
Data Sources:,,,

But those models haven’t accounted for a critical variable: waiver requests by players transferring a second time. Last week, LSU learned that Jalen Cook, who averaged almost 20 points per game at Tulane, had his initial request and an appeal denied by the NCAA. Meanwhile, they’re still waiting at Ole Miss to learn the fates of potential starters Moussa Cisse and Brandon Murray. Yet analytics sites haven’t adjusted their projections to account for those absences.

Flipping those road games into the win column would potentially bring the Tigers closer to 20 wins overall, a 10-8 mark in the SEC, and six Quad 1 wins. Over the past five seasons, 90 percent of SEC teams that hit those landmarks punched a ticket to the NCAA tournament, and only one – Vanderbilt last season – found itself on the stoop.

Ideally, MU’s roster retrofitting also mitigates some risk. That starts with legitimate size along the back line in Connor Vanover and Jordan Butler turning away shots in the paint. On the perimeter, the Tigers added a pair of reliable off-ball defenders in John Tonje and Caleb Grill, while Tamar Bates flashed promise as an on-ball stopper. Gates will also hope Aidan Shaw made adequate progress during the offseason.

While MU lacks a proven alpha that can create in isolation, it possesses enough depth, shooting, and ball movers to remain potent on offense. Meanwhile, shoring up the defensive end would go a long way toward keeping this squad out of nailbiters.