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The Verdict: An Identity Crisis

On Sunday afternoon the Mizzou Tigers wobbled across the third-of-the-way guidepost of the season. We’re left with as many questions as we have answers about their true identity.

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday afternoon as I was watching the Mizzou Basketball team find itself down by 19 points — again — I had an epiphany of sorts. No, I didn’t turn the game off. No, I didn’t find another way to occupy my time.

Instead, I opted to scrap the individual game review for a bigger-picture piece. Mizzou, for all intents and purposes, had put together one of their worst showings in the early stages of the Dennis Gates era. Anyone who followed a year ago knew an outing like this was possible. Last year these games would prove to be outliers and typically came against teams well-suited to lay the hammer down to a team that wasn’t firing on all cylinders. That Mizzou squad had an unshakeable identity, for better (mostly) or worse.

Sunday was not that. No, Seton Hall — a team situated 88th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings entering the game — did whatever they wanted on offense for 40 full minutes. While Mizzou was able to cobble together an efficient outing offensively, it was simply a matter of “too little, too late.”

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

While we could certainly talk about my pre-game keys, notably “Protect the Rim” — Mizzou was eviscerated with a 39.3% rim rate allowed and an astonishing 1.64 PPS conceded. We could also talk about “Don’t Killed on the Defensive Glass” — Mizzou allowed Seton Hall to rebound 46.2% of their rare misses. We could show you an hour-long stretch of clips detailing how Mizzou wasn’t up to the task in front of a sparse, but highly partisan crowd.

No, I didn’t think that was the best use of everyone’s time. Because my epiphany wasn’t about the details of this defensive quartering. It was about the bigger picture of trying to figure out who this team is trying to be. A third of the way through the season, I’m simply not sure where to begin. What better time to address a few issues that have had me perplexed?

A 7-4 record is not the end of the world, but there are significant concerns. In five games thus far, Mizzou has trailed by 15 or more points. They’ve managed to win two of these contests — Minnesota and South Carolina State. Mizzou had appeared to move past that unsightly stretch of ball during Thanksgiving week — where they dropped a contest to Jackson State and struggled for long portions in two other buy games — but Sunday showed that wasn’t entirely true. The Tigers’ season is teetering between a tournament-worthy campaign and one that will end under far dimmer lights. The questions are many, but the answers so far have been too few.

Before I rattle off a list of grievances in true Festivus spirit, I do have several qualifiers to offer. First, Mizzou has been fighting various absences, be it Connor Vanover’s suspension or injury and the subsequent fallout with senior transfers Caleb Grill and John Tonje. Second, there was little doubt this was going to be a transition year before a slew of blue-chip recruits descended upon Columbia. It was just a matter of degree. Yet even considering those factors, there are things fully within the control of this year’s teams that have seemingly gone sideways. Below are a scatterbrained assortment of five.

The Pace is Gone

Mizzou’s adjusted tempo through eleven games this year is 67.6 possessions per game, which rates 255th nationally. The faster you go, the higher you rank. In terms of raw possessions, Mizzou is averaging 68.9 possessions per contest. Just a year ago, Mizzou’s full season adjusted tempo was 68.7 possessions per game but rated 105th. Through eleven games a season back, Mizzou was averaging 74.8 possessions per game. That’s a stark contrast to what we’re now seeing. All indicators have the Tigers skewing towards a half-court ballclub.

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What’s more notable is that some of the key metrics that underpin an up-tempo club and Mizzou’s slippage year over year:

  • 22-23 Defensive Turnover Rate: 24.0% — 6th Best
  • 22-23 Defensive Turnover Rate through 11 games: 26.6% — 5th Best
  • 23-24 Defensive Turnover Rate: 21.0% — 45th Best

  • 22-23 Transition Offense: 22% Usage (98th %) — 1.100 PPP (80th %)
  • 22-23 Transition Offense through 11 games: 26.4% — 1.157 PPP
  • 23-24 Transition Offense: 20.4% Usage (86th %) — 1.023 PPP (33rd %)

The evidence is fairly straightforward; Mizzou isn’t generating the same frequency of defensive turnovers as we’ve become accustomed to. They’re consequently able to run less and when they do, they’ve been far less efficient. This isn’t a problem in of itself, namely if you’re a structured half-court team that prides itself in shot suppression and rebounding as well as grinding out offensive possessions on the other end. A brief look at the substitution patterns suggests they’re not content at settling into a half-court affair and DO want to juice the pace. But it’s simply not happening near the level it was a year ago nor the mark which it needs to reach.

Mizzou is Playing All of the Players

Mizzou’s aforementioned substitution patterns thus far have resulted in 35.8% of minutes delegated to non-starters. The minutes played by Mizzou’s bench ranks 78th most among D-I programs, 13th most among high-major programs. Dennis Gates has been very open about having a deep bench and utilizing every inch of it. For anyone who isn’t aware of Gates’ strong ties to the Florida State program and what that means, allow me to summarize — that’s exactly how the Seminoles operate. In the last 4 years Gates or his trusted consigliere Charlton Young sat on the FSU bench, the Seminoles rated top-35 each season in this metric.

In theory, I have absolutely no qualms about it. Rotating fresh bodies in and out of the lineup in an effort to wear opponents down is a viable strategy. Leonard Hamilton has proven it. Even Mike Anderson when he had the Mizzou program rolling did the same. The theory is sound. But it presupposes that the bench players you're utilizing are providing you a strategic advantage.

Depth is great if it’s providing a positive impact. Through 11 games, we’re not seeing those bellwether data points such as elite turnover rates forced and transition offense success manifesting in Mizzou’s favor. Yet, Mizzou is routinely dipping deep into the reserves as if they might. Thirteen Tigers have appeared in seven or more contests. Nine have appeared in every game they’ve dressed.

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Although Sunday’s contest may have non-strategic explanations — rotating bodies may have been necessary to address glaring performance deficiencies — it is the freshest data point and certainly not an outlier. Mizzou played thirteen players against Seton Hall. Four players for a total of 127 minutes — out of 200. They played the remaining nine for 73 minutes. Six players played less than 10!

A disconnect arrives when I see Nick Honor and Sean East II playing 36 minutes apiece despite the length rotation. What has been consistent this year is those two carrying a heavy share of the load, seemingly contradicting the very essence of the depth-oriented approach. Between 2016 and 2022, Florida State had three players eclipse Honor’s minutes played average of 74.1%. They had none match or exceed Sean East’s 83.6%.

It’s hard to reconcile choosing to implement this strategy, but only in part. There is virtue to playing Honor and East the minutes they have appeared as we’ll see below. There is virtue to playing 13 players. But can you really play the torrid, fast-paced style when your two guards are at — or above — the realistic historical bounds in a similar system stylistically? Conversely, can you really optimize a more centralized concentration of minutes when you’re rolling through 13 men on a nightly basis? So far, Mizzou has tried to split the baby.

Depth Performance

A big part of the theory of going deep in the bench to drive the pace is having your reserves perform at a level that justifies the trade-off. The table below reflects several key areas. The percentage of minutes played indicates the percentage of a 40-minute outing a player is on the court. Offensive usage is the percentage of possessions a player “uses” on offense, by virtue of shots and turnovers. Offensive rating measures the player’s impact — higher the better. On/Off defense is a perhaps overly simplified version of how much better the team is defensively with said player on the court — lower is better.

Mizzou Performance Overview

Player % of Minutes Offensive Usage Offensive Rating On/Off Defense
Player % of Minutes Offensive Usage Offensive Rating On/Off Defense
East 83.60% 23.90% 118.4 -1.26
Honor 74.10% 20.10% 111.4 5.47
Carter 68.90% 22.60% 105.7 -4.15
Bates 45.20% 19.80% 122.4 1.05
Grill 44.80% 20.40% 112.2 -0.05
Shaw 42.00% 10.40% 103.7 -3.68
Robinson 35.50% 19.50% 118.2 1.87
Vanover 22.50% 16.40% 120.7 -13.19
Butler 19.30% 15.30% 94.3 -0.28
Carralero 17.10% 19.50% 94.1 10.74
Lewis 15.70% 16.70% 84.4 -6.08
Pierce 12.50% 19.90% 62.6 -12.37
Tonje 12.30% 17.00% 103.6 19.95
Majak 3.40% 1.00% 236.3 22.6
Brown 3.00% 25.90% 50.2 15.46
Compiled by Matt Harris Data Sources: KenPom and Pivot Analysis

The usage column here is particularly important to me. There are two immutable truths in basketball: 1. The total offensive usage of five players on the court will add up to 100%; and 2. The higher a player’s usage goes, the lower his efficiency will be — it’s not always linear, but the correlation is inverse.

Mizzou’s latest starting rotation consists of players whose current season usage are: 23.9%, 20.1%, 22.6%, 19.8% and 10.4%. Right off the bat, Mizzou is starting in an offensive usage hole as those numbers add up to only 96.8%. Someone is necessarily going to have to increase their usage above and beyond their season average. Mizzou’s top five players in minutes with Grill sidelined are the same as above. But reach down into the next tier of minute-getters and you’re finding where the problem gets even bigger: 19.5%, 16.4%, 15.3%. The picture remains similar the further down you go. Mizzou’s reserves aren’t providing the requisite offensive punch off the bench. The answer thus far has been playing Sean East 33 minutes a night — and Sean’s usage has also risen to nearly 28% over recent weeks. But how tenable is that long-term? Or when opponents can successfully take him away as Seton Hall did for stretches Sunday?

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The composition of the roster makes the math difficult, especially when you consider the offensive rating of the individual along with the usage rate. When you inject the defensive aspect, it becomes nearly untenable. Aidan Shaw improves your team on the defensive end but induces considerable stress offensively with his minuscule 10.4% usage rate. The same could be said for freshman Jordan Butler. Conversely, Nick Honor is a valuable function of the team’s offense in providing offensive firepower behind the arc, yet he’s been exploited a bit defensively.

East’s introduction into the high usage scene has been a welcome development. Beyond Sean, however, Mizzou is perpetually in a possession crunch offensively. Players are being asked to stretch their boundaries — Sean in minutes and the remainder in usage. The Tigers’ defense has yet to prove that it’s able to win games itself and therefore justify a lineup centered around it. Mizzou’s math gauges are squarely in the red.

The Defensive Safety Blanket

If there’s one area Mizzou has assuredly improved upon over last year it’s in their defensive efficiency. Entering Sunday, Mizzou’s adjusted defensive rating was 99.5 (74th nationally.) A year ago it was 105.3 (180th nationally.) Put in layman’s terms, Mizzou was allowing 5.8 fewer points per 100 defensive possessions after adjusting for level of competition. A significant leap!

Furthermore, Mizzou had allowed less than 1.000 points per defensive possession five times. They only accomplished that feat nine times a season back. Their half-court defense points per possession allowed stood at a very impressive 0.819. Another big jump from the 0.878 PPP they allowed in 22-23.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

While Mizzou had seemingly recovered from an underwhelming Thanksgiving week, on Sunday the dam unleashed a torrent of made buckets. Seton Hall, a team sporting a season-long effective field goal percentage of 50% laid waste to the Tiger defense. The Pirates dented the Tigers for a 67.9% eFG, marking the worst performance during the Dennis Gates era. Shaheen Holloway’s team notched 18 made buckets in 22 attempts at the rim. Only one Pirate missed a point-blank shot. It was a nauseating defensive performance and the team sporting the gold threads was the pinata.

Time will tell whether this proves to be an outlier or the expectation. Yet one thing we know: Mizzou is not the same offense they were a year ago. That Tigers flamethrower offense could go bucket for bucket with just about any squad in the country. Up until yesterday, you felt good about this year’s Mizzou being a defensive unit that could at least raise the floor and not require such offensive outings to compete. A welcome development that could’ve aided in relieving the offensive stress described above. That belief took a torpedo straight to the hull on Sunday afternoon.

Mizzou’s Shot Profile

One final area to hit on is the type of shots Mizzou is taking. Coming into the season the coaching staff was adamant that this would be a high-volume perimeter shooting team. Frankly, it made sense then and still does. Perhaps now more than ever.

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Mizzou on the whole does rate top 40 in three-point attempt rate, with 45% of all field goals coming behind the arc. The Tigers have shot it well with a season make rate of 36.2%, 72nd nationally. What I find somewhat intriguing, however, is how those numbers have varied when playing the best competition on their schedule — a five game sample of Memphis, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Kansas and Seton Hall.

  • Five Game Total: 39.5% attempt rate — 34.7% make rate
  • Remaining Six Game Total: 49.7% attempt rate— 37.6% make rate

In their most difficult games, Mizzou has shot the ball from behind the arc really well. In fact, in four of five games they’ve shot it exceptionally well. Yet, the five-game sample indicates an attempt rate of 39.5%, which would rate 125th nationally. The 34.7% accuracy rating leads to a quick calculation of 1.041 points per shot. Few teams wouldn’t consider that a rousing success.

Comparatively in those five games, Mizzou has made 84-181 from inside the arc. That 46.4% make rate equates to 0.928 PPS. The equation would shift if Mizzou were able to get to the free throw line at a high rate, but through eleven contests they rate 292nd nationally in free throw attempt rate. The variety of two-point shots they’ve taken isn’t conducive to those trips to the line— Mizzou has tallied a 26-76 mark (34.2%) in the five-game sample on mid-range two-point attempts compared with a 58-105 (55.2%) mark at the rim.

Against better competition you’re inherently going to be presented with less shots you want. But the data — and my eye — are telling me that Mizzou is passing up a few too many of those chances by their own volition.

Closing

There’s seemingly a disconnect between what this team aspires to be and what they are in practice. Are they better with a deep rotation or does the roster construction call for a more condensed version? Can the bench be productive enough to justify the minutes required to play a true up-tempo brand of basketball? Is there a point when preparing the returning players overrides the more imminent issue of winning basketball in 23-24?

The choice to make changes reflecting these realities is not easy. You have four seniors who have been integral pieces in the revitalization of the program and four more seniors who transferred in. You also have numerous players who project to be a big part of your future. The decisions on how Mizzou approaches the next three months will impact not only this season but potentially future iterations as well.

Big decisions must be made. And that’s just part of the business.


Statistics provided by Matt Watkins, Matt Harris, Synergy Sports, Ken Pomeroy and Pivot Analysis.