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Close & Late: When the game is tight, Mizzou has come through

More than just a few lucky shots, the Tigers value the ball and execute when the game is close.

Syndication: Columbia Daily Tribune Caitie McMekin / USA TODAY NETWORK

We’ve spent a fair amount of time and energy at this site trying to explain why the computers, or the metrics, don’t like Missouri. An elite offense is almost overshadowed by a team who struggles to get defensive stops, and most of that extends to the inability to collect rebounds. You don’t need a computer to tell you that it’s frustrating watching your team watch as the opponent grabs every other missed shot.

But this isn’t another post about their deficiencies, but one about what makes them so much fun. Their preternatural ability to make the right plays to win games late. One of the reasons the computers don’t like Mizzou as much is because when the Tigers lose, they tend to lose by a not-so-insignificant amount. But you don’t win 23 games by being a bad basketball team. If anything, Mizzou seems to have mastered the art of close wins. At least so far.

The Tigers have won 8 games this season with a margin of victory of 5 points or less. They have zero losses of 5 points or less (their loss at Bud Walton Arena in January was by 6 points; everything else was at least 9 points). But as I’ve talked about before, final margins can be misleading. A not-close game can get closer late, and a close game can get away from one team if they go cold. So for me, being within a single possession in the last five minutes is how I would determine if a game is close or not. And since we explored this before, I figured now would be a good time to look at it again.

Here are the games we are looking at:

Mizzou in Close & Late

Date Opponent Time Score Leader Mizzou's Last/Biggest Lead Finish Result
Date Opponent Time Score Leader Mizzou's Last/Biggest Lead Finish Result
Nov 29, 2022 Wichita State 2:20 71-69 Wichita St 1:31 (OT), +6 19-13 W (OT)
Dec 17, 2022 UCF 4:32 60-60 Tied 2:29, +5 8-6, MIZ W
Jan 4, 2023 Arkansas 3:31 66-63 Arkansas none 8-5 ARK L
Jan 7, 2023 Vanderbilt 4:43 71-71 Tied 0:06, +6 14-11 MIZ W
Jan 18, 2023 Arkansas 2:36 67-64 Arkansas 0:07, +4 15-9 MIZ W
Feb 11, 2023 Tennessee 3:35 76-73 Tennessee 0:00, +1 13-9 MIZ W
Feb 21, 2023 MIssissippi State 5:00 52-51 Mizzou 3:00, +4 12-10 MSU W (OT)
Mar 1, 2023 LSU 3:01 72-72 Tied 0:23, +5 9-4 MIZ W
Mar 4, 2023 Ole Miss 3:40 69-69 Tied 0:28, +5 13-8 MIZ W

What we’re looking at here is every game this season where Mizzou and their opponent were within a single possession (three points or less) of each other within the last five minutes of the 2nd half. I marked when each game was the closest after the five minute mark, what the score was, who was winning, then if Mizzou took the lead or not, how it finished after that first possession under five minutes, and the result.

You’ll notice the results only increased the pool from the 8 games mentioned above to the 9 games in the chart. It also brought in a loss, but one thing of note about that game is that Mizzou cut the Arkansas lead to 3 points but never got closer. Mizzou won every game where there was a tie in the final five minutes, and won every game where they had a lead in the final five minutes.

When I performed this exercise two years ago, Missouri had more close games and a more even record in them. That team played 12 close games with a shorter 26 games schedule, versus 9 close contests in 31 games. That team had a bit of an issue where they played well when ahead, but struggled to play from behind.

This team seems to do both! One of the more impressive things here is that only Arkansas was able to outscore Missouri when the score was close, and that game was in Fayetteville when the Hogs had some momentum from the home crowd. Now two of those games included buzzer-beating LONG three point attempts by DeAndre Gholston. And without one of those (UCF) Mizzou wouldn’t have outscored their opponent. But you can’t take successful plays off the board any more than you can take unsuccessful plays off the board, no matter how much of an outlier some might consider them.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

But one thing this team does well is it does exceptionally well when the game is close and late. It takes care of the ball. I looked over the possessions in these close games within the last 5 minutes of play and overtime and found that in these 9 games, Missouri played 55 minutes of game action.

Mizzou’s adjusted tempo on Kenpom.com is 69.4, and for this purpose and because late portions of games tend to include more free throws, I’m going to round up to 70. 70 possessions is about 1.75 possessions per game minute, which would mean this team played roughly 96.25 possessions of Close & Late basketball. And here are their turnovers:

  • at Wichita State — 1, 1:08 (OT) Sean East II
  • vs. UCF — 2, 4:56 Kobe Brown, :39 DeAndre Gholston
  • at Arkansas — 2, 2:52 Kobe Brown, :53 Sean East
  • vs. Vanderbilt — 0
  • vs. Arkansas — 0
  • at Tennessee — 0
  • vs. MSU — 3, 1:23 Noah Carter, 3:06 (OT) Tre Gomillion, 2:06 (OT) Kobe Brown
  • at LSU — 0
  • vs. Ole Miss — 1, 4:46 Sean East

That’s right, 9 turnovers in 96 possessions. Or just 9.3%.

Missouri is currently top 50 in the country with a 16.3% turnover rate. That number drops 6% in late game situations. For comparison, the best TOR% in the country is Oral Roberts at just 13.1%.

One way to be a little extra good in close and late situations is to be a little extra careful with the ball. Three of those turnovers were charges also, and one was a jump ball.

This last offseason Dennis Gates made it a priority for his team to value the ball, by the additions he’s made. Those traits are just amplified late in games and that, with a bit of luck in making the late game shots, is what’s made this season so much fun.