Mizzou lost yesterday at home for the fourth time this season to South Carolina. They lost for the sixth time in seven games, and haven’t beaten a high major opponent since Caleb Grill was still in the lineup.
This, by all accounts, is a tough season. Missouri is now 8-8 and for the first time since Dennis Gates was handed the reigns almost two years ago, there is some dissension amongst the commentariat around Mizzou basketball, deserved or not.
I get it, this hasn’t gone as we’d hoped. There was some hypothesizing Gates was a wizard before the season started, and Mizzou basketball would be back with the snap of his fingers. But one thing we’ve learned so far is Gates isn’t infallible and he’s just like the rest of us. He’s a human being, trying to run a basketball program. He’s doing so in a league with a good amount of schools who also care about basketball and have hired coaches they believe can win at a high level.
Gates is now faced with a realization that Missouri isn’t a quick fix. It’s a proud program with a long history but one riddled with as much strife as successes over the previous 25 years. Despite the many wins of 2022-23, the way to winning long term and winning big in Columbia was going to involve setting a deeper set of roots. Comprised with taking the necessary steps towards building more than a roster, but building a sustainable program.
I think what Gates has been trying to do is give his experienced players the opportunity to save their season. The roster is split, part of it with a load of experienced players and part of it with highly talented youngsters. The last three games the minutes have landed heavily towards experience.
For context, Nick Honor has played in 139 college basketball games in his career.
- Noah Carter, 129
- John Tonje, 126
- Connor Vanover, 116
- Sean East II, 104
- Jesus Carralero-Martin 84
- Tamar Bates, 83
- Aidan Shaw, 43
- Anthony Robinson II, 15
Meanwhile, the guys we think we want to see more of (Trent Pierce and Jordan Butler) have combined to play 27 games. Robinson is seeing more minutes because Gates knows he needs to get East and Honor some minutes off the floor. But otherwise over 75 percent of the minutes yesterday went to guys who are in their final season of college basketball. I can’t say for certain because I’m not in Gates head, but this looks to me like he’s saying to his seniors: “Here, go save your last season.”
I’ve been in the position of being a college-aged player playing basketball; there isn’t any sense of finality until you’re at the very very end. Even halfway through your last season, it doesn’t feel like it. The sense of urgency is only on the next play or possession, which for your entire life has been an endless string. But as the finish line begins to get closer, Gates has been giving his guys the chance to make it worth it.
It really doesn’t look like they’re going to do it, either. Since the start of conference play Trent Pierce has played 2 minutes, Jordan Butler has played 6, Robinson has played 12. That’s a total of 18 minutes.
At some point, and hopefully that’s soon, Gates will need to make the decision that it’s not going to happen this season with this group the way they’re playing. They simply don’t score the ball with enough efficiency to play defense as poorly as they do. They don’t force turnovers like they did last year but rebound about the same. They’re 8 points per 100 possessions worse on offense while only being 2 points per 100 possessions better on defense, per KenPom. The two point shooting is worse, the three point shooting is worse, the free throw shooting is better but they get to the line less which is worse.
We’ve seen ample amounts of the veterans on this roster and you’ve leaned hard into them recently. It’s gotten Mizzou to this point of the season where they’re 8-8 and 105th in KenPom, and probably lower in the NET once it updates today.
You have enough lineup and player data at this stage to know what you’re going to get when you roll certain players out. We know who this team is at this point.
They aren’t good enough to make a real dent this season.
There is a way where you can play the younger guys more, while not completely punting on the season. It’s obvious Sean East needs to play a lot, maybe Nick Honor and Noah Carter are a little overexposed but should still play a lot. I think John Tonje warrants some more looks as he appears to be healthier, or at least more confident. And there isn’t a realistic way you can just play the younger guys 35 minutes a night... but you can play them.
I think that’s what we are moving toward, or at least need to be moving towards.
I don’t think Gates is a dummy and doing this to boost his own ego. Although college coaches are prone to that last part. He knows what works and what doesn’t. The rebounding gambit works if you can force turnovers, but he doesn’t have the guards who can force enough turnovers to make the gambit work. The three point shooting at a high volume works if you can generate clean looks. But he doesn’t have players who play with the same pace as last year and half court has bogged down without more than a few players who can generate a clean look on their own. And East, at his best this year, is better in the mid range. So the rim looks and three point looks have decreased.
This roster doesn’t work for what Gates wants, so he needs to begin building for the future. A future that involves Jordan Butler and Trent Pierce. It involves Aidan Shaw and Tamar Bates. It involves Anthony Robinson, and also Annor Boateng, Marcus Allen, and more. The help is coming, but Gates needs to make his investment into that help sooner rather than later. Even at the cost of what’s left on the table this season.