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The transfer portal has been a mixed bag

Missouri’s misses in the transfer portal have led to a bumpy entry into the season, but they’re not alone in their struggles.

Missouri guard Tamar Bates motions to his teammate Jordan Butler as Butler enters a game against Wichita State on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, at Mizzou Arena. Missouri took the lead early and never trailed in the 82-72 win. (Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation)

We have an addiction to the transfer portal in case you hadn’t noticed.

Here at Rock M Nation we have many posts about the transfer portal. The portal is open and crazy for college football right now, and in March and April it's the same for basketball. And it's more than just football, Mizzou Volleyball got in on the transfer game when Dawn Sullivan added Texas A&M transfer Alayna Pearson on Christmas. Any stigma of using transfers has long been discarded and coaches have successfully supplemented their roster with them to find plug and play level players, and back fill depth.

The last few weeks we’ve watched Ole Miss go in hard on the portal in an effort to fix their defense, hoping to land squarely in the playoff mix next season. Missouri has been more selective, adding key pieces and specific areas of need, most recently with Florida transfer Chris McClellan. While Lane Kiffin knew he needed a big fix, Eli Drinkwitz feels like he just needs a few tweaks.

But adding 6-7 transfers in football is akin to adding one transfer in basketball, and a lot of basketball coaches seem to be leaning hard into roster building through the portal.

Mizzou added five players from the transfer portal this past offseason. That’s one season removed from adding 6 transfers the season before. That number jumps if you include junior college additions— one this past year and two the year before. Each of the last two years Dennis Gates has used the portal to build his roster. After signing a 3-man freshman class in 2023, his 5-man class in 2024 make it appear as though the plan is to eventually pivot away from the portal to build the roster. But for now it’s how Gates has proceeded.

A season ago Gates’ portal additions made the difference. Mizzou went from a forgotten program to a top 4 seed in the SEC Tournament in just one offseason. Gates got nearly 80% of the team’s total possessions used by transfers (including JUCOs), and from those, 80% of the teams possessions they got 1.10 points per possession. Plugged in with Kobe Brown and the Tigers were able to restore the roar.

But things have sputtered so far this season. The incoming transfers have roughly the same efficiency on offense — they’re at 1.11 points per possession — but they’re accumulating that on just over 31.4% of the team’s total possessions. Last year Gates brought in D’Moi Hodge and De’Andre Gholston who combined for 29.43% of the teams possessions on their own. The top two transfers in possessions so far this season are Tamar Bates and Caleb Grill, who have combined for 14.8%.

Gates tried to meld his previous dip into the portal, Sean East II, Nick Honor and Noah Carter, with his incoming freshmen, and then supplement the rest through the portal with mixed results.

So where is the disconnect?

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

The biggest missing component here is likely John Tonje. A guy who had a 23% usage rate for Colorado State last season with a 1.06 ppp. Tonje was one of the first real additions, he was clearly a priority when he committed in late March. If Tonje were averaging the same usage he hit at CSU with around 65% of minutes played, that wold put him at around 14.9% of total team possessions which is right in line with where Hodge and Gholston lived. Instead, he’s less than 2%.

The next commitment was from Tamar Bates on April 11th. By then Michigan had landed the commitment of Caleb Love, after again spurning his home state school. Love was a priority target for Missouri early and things seemed in line for a union, until Michigan swooped in with a much (much) much larger NIL package and Love went to Michigan... or tried. He ended up landing at Arizona after not gaining admission to the notoriously stingy admissions department at UM. It's inarguable that Love landed in a better spot with Tommy Lloyd’s offense in the desert, but his 24% usage and 70+% of minutes would fit well on Missouri’s roster as well. Even if he wasn’t shooting with the efficiency he currently is, that level of usage is what Gates and his staff were looking for in the spring.

Bates has never been that guy. Missouri is just now asking him to find more shots, but he was never intended to be a primary option. Caleb Love was, and then Matthew Cleveland (78% of minutes and a 1.24 ppp on 20% usage) was. Or possibly even throw in Kadin Shedrick (49.1% of minutes, a 1.24 ppp and 21.5% usage).

Instead of Cleveland, Gates added Jesus Carrelero-Martin (17.7% minutes, 1.02 ppp, 18.8% usage). Instead of Shedrick they added Connor Vanover (21.7% minutes, 1.11 ppp, 17.4% usage).

Freshmen (Aidan Shaw) in 2022-23 produced a 1.17 ppp on just 2.83% of the teams possessions and this year the freshmen have used 14.1% of the teams possessions while putting up 1.02 ppp. But that’s actually pretty respectable for a trio of freshmen, and should be expected as they’re brought along. But relying more on non-elite level freshmen (think one and done first round pick as elite level) and missing on priority targets has reduced the overall pop this roster has.

None of this is to say they don’t have competent players at all; obviously they do. But feeding possessions to Caleb Love, Kadin Shedrick, and Matthew Cleveland would sure look a lot different if they’re supplemented by Nick Honor, Noah Carter and Sean East instead of the latter three being the primary options and being supplemented by the current roster. Two of which haven’t been able to make the impact expected.

It should be noted that for a long time Mizzou kept NIL money on the books in case Kobe Brown came back. Brown wanted to be a 1st round pick, and that possibility became far more real around early to mid-May. By then much of the portal had stopped swirling, leaving Mizzou holding their own bag.

Missouri isn’t alone with some portal struggles

NCAA Basketball: Abilene Christian at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers are 7-5 and have sunk to 92nd in KenPom. That’s a 37-spot drop since the start of the season. Arkansas, meanwhile, has fallen from 14th in the preseason to 66th. Eric Musselman is referred to as the importer by CBS’s Jon Rothstein, and Musselman pivoted from his last roster of recruiting top level freshmen and went back hard into the transfer portal. Muss is known for putting things together later in the season, but the Hogs have been floundering and their usual stout defense has been leaky.

LSU also tried a similar revamp and they’ve gone from 47th to 104th.

If you peruse any power conference team struggling, chances are they tried to rebuild through the portal and didn’t get the guys they thought they could land. But the programs at the top of KenPom have continuity, maybe they’ve used the portal but sparingly. Houston added Damian Dunn and LJ Cryer from the portal, but Emanuel Sharp, Jamal Shead, Terrance Arceneaux, and J’Wan Roberts have been with the program for years. Purdue only has Lance Jones from the portal. Kansas obviously added Hunter Dickinson, but you can also point to their early season struggles as coming from the portal since Towson transfer Nick Timberlake hasn’t lived up to the billing.

Meanwhile UConn, Tennessee, FAU and Kentucky are all towards the top of the rankings without relying heavily on the portal.

Basically, the Lane Kiffin approach is a lot harder to get to work than the Eli Drinkwitz approach. Fill an area of need or two works well, Tennessee adds Dalton Knecht and he’s a great fit for what they needed. UConn used the portal last year to add Tristen Newton and this year to add Cam Spencer, but the rest of the rotation comes from development and freshman signees. Kentucky went back to their approach of using elite level freshmen and it’s worked well for them.

My overall point here is that relying upon the portal is going to create a larger variance than if you use it but don’t rely on it. Dennis Gates has a big freshman recruiting class to follow up his promising three man class currently on campus. He’ll be better off trying to recruit and develop players than picking them out of the portal. This current portal class individually makes sense but collectively isn’t working. There still time for them to sort it out, but right now I think the prudent move would be to invest heavily in the 2025 class and take your chances on the 2023 and 2024 classes to develop into a tough unit, with some supplements from the portal.