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How could a rotation pivot unfold for Missouri?

Another winless week might bring the Tigers to the point where change is necessary, but the form it takes could be more measured and nuanced than expected.

NCAA Basketball: Loyola-Maryland at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

With only 16 seconds gone in overtime, a familiar and frustrating routine unfolded for Missouri on Saturday.

A set built around a rolling pattern of ball screens had stalled out, and after receiving a ball reversal, Nick Honor did what he’s so often done this season: plow toward the rim.

Honor’s first step didn’t leave Jacobi Wright in his wake. Instead, the Gamecocks guard remained attached to every one of Honor’s choppy strides. When Honor reached the left block, the internal gimbal that kept him on balance failed. Instead of bumping his defender off, Honor began to topple, a leaner becoming a desperate fallaway.

That failed rim attack was the first of five empty possessions to start an extra period, which was only happening because Honor and East botched a switch and gifted Ta’Lon Cooper a game-tying 3 with 25 seconds left. And it came in a game that – for the third in a row – the Tigers had every chance to win in the waning minutes – only to see one of the nation’s oldest rosters fumble away the opportunity.

It’s January, a hadal zone where the outlook sinks past hope to glum certainty. What were once annoying tendencies in November can’t be excused as growing pains or an identity crisis. In Columbia, it’s a hell of a pendulum swing for a program that a year ago routinely made a mockery of luck.

Forget talk of the NIT. Barring a rapid course correction, it’s hard to father the Tigers’ postseason itinerary extending beyond a trip to the SEC Tournament. Consider this sobering factoid: in the past five seasons, six teams started league play 0-4, and just one finished with more than six wins. The other five all finished lower the 11th in the standings.

It’s not a stretch to say tonight’s trek to Alabama might force coach Dennis Gates to punch in new coordinates. However, a sliver of the fan base loudly wishes that detour had already started, veering toward developing a trio of freshmen over salvaging fading dreams of March glory. Yet it’s not the nature of coaches or their players to scuttle seasons. So, MU has allowed its old heads chances to stage a last stand.

Another winless week, though, likely makes the status quo untenable. A pivot seems inevitable, but that shift will probably be more subtle than some expect when it arrives. While best-laid plans are now in tatters, the potential response could mirror the façade Gates projects on the sideline: coolly calm.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

How might this transition play out?

Contrary to popular demand, I don’t think MU would strip this rotation down to the studs. When we get some emotional distance and account for the macro view of MU’s flawed roster overhaul, lineup data lends credence to taking a more measured approach.

That starts by examining MU’s most-used lineups featuring at least one fifth-year senior and excluding those featuring Caleb Grill, whose return date isn’t known. We’re looking at how frequently those groups get used, their raw efficiency metrics, and their efficiency margin adjusted for opponent strength.

Only lineups with 10 or more possessions were included, and two groups jumped off the spreadsheet.

How effective are MU’s veterans? | Most-Used Lineups | 2023-24

Point Combo Wing Hybrid Post GM Poss. Off. Eff Def. Eff. Eff. Margin Adj. Margin
Point Combo Wing Hybrid Post GM Poss. Off. Eff Def. Eff. Eff. Margin Adj. Margin
Honor East Bates Carralero Carter 7 48 106.3 108.5 -2.3 10.9
Honor East Bates Carter Vanover 9 41 114.6 117.9 -3.3 7.7
Data Source:

These groupings feature four key cogs and a veteran front-court piece slotted in based on need. Sometimes, Gates parks Aidan Shaw, subs in Jesus Carralero-Martin, and keeps Noah Carter as a small-ball five. Or he might take out Shaw to scale up with Connor Vanover but bump Carter down to a connector at the four spot. Either way, those tweaks happen around the first media timeout of a half.

Then comes the chaos.

How effective are MU’s veterans? | Remaining Lineups | 2023-24

Point Combo Wing Hybrid Post GM Poss. Off. Eff Def. Eff. Eff. Margin Adj. Margin
Point Combo Wing Hybrid Post GM Poss. Off. Eff Def. Eff. Eff. Margin Adj. Margin
Honor East Lewis Shaw Vanover 1 18 133.3 44.4 88.9 78
East Robinson Bates Carter Vanover 5 18 111.1 93.3 17.8 29.2
Honor East Lewis Shaw Carter 4 18 111.1 182.4 -71.2 -60.5
Honor East Tonje Carralero Carter 4 15 106.7 113.3 -6.7 4.4
Honor East Shaw Carralero Carter 3 14 85.7 62.5 23.2 38.2
East Robinson Bates Carralero Carter 5 14 100 91.7 8.3 8.1
Honor Robinson Lewis Shaw Carter 3 13 92.3 143.8 -51.4 -62.2
Data Source:

Look like a mishmash? Well, it is. None of those lineups have seen time in more than five games. Sometimes, it’s a one-off group that gains short-term traction. More often, though, their use is sporadic and amounts to a handful of possessions. For example, a lineup including Vanover and Curt Lewis boasts a 78.0 adjusted efficiency margin, per EvanMiya’s dataset. Spending 10 minutes poleaxing South Carolina State, the No. 334 in KenPom, tends to have that effect.

It’s one thing to rank No. 13 nationally for experience but quite another to fashion a steady rotation. Admittedly, Grill’s crash landing created another layer of complexity. Yet it’s an open question whether the staff feels satisfied that it has seen all that Jesus Carralero, Connor Vanover, John Tonje and Curt Lewis have to offer.

Crucially, lineup data isn’t definitive in pointing toward boosting the amount of run bestowed to Anthony Robinson II, Trent Pierce and Jordan Butler. Below, you’ll see the most-used lineups featuring at least one of those youngsters.

How effective are MU’s freshmen? | Most-Used Lineups | 2023-24

Point Combo Wing Hybrid Post GM Poss. Off. Eff Def. Eff. Eff. Margin Adj. Margin
Point Combo Wing Hybrid Post GM Poss. Off. Eff Def. Eff. Eff. Margin Adj. Margin
Honor East Bates Pierce Carter 4 35 122.9 110.7 12.1 24.6
East Robinson Bates Carter Vanover 5 18 111.1 93.3 17.8 29.2
East Robinson Bates Carralero Carter 5 14 100 91.7 8.3 8.1
East Robinson Bates Carter Butler 3 14 207.1 42.9 164.3 155.8
Honor Robinson Lewis Shaw Carter 3 13 92.3 143.8 -51.4 -62.2
Honor Robinson Bates Shaw Carter 1 11 172.7 110 62.7 51
Honor East Bates Pierce Shaw 3 11 145.5 113.3 32.1 50.1
Honor East Shaw Pierce Carter 2 10 130 110 20 37.7

I can almost hear you now after reading the first row of the table above: play Trent Pierce more. But again, circumstances matter. Most of those 35 possessions unfolded against Seton Hall and Illinois in garbage time. And while Pierce sports a 15.4 net rating, his offensive efficiency ranks in the 16th percentile nationally. The combined interpretation: Pierce was on the floor as MU cleaned up the final margin but wasn’t making a material impact.

The same assessment holds for a lineup with a 37.7 adjusted efficiency margin. Most of those possessions occurred during MU’s rally at Minnesota, a surge where Pierce had one possession. But people have put a lot of stock in that corner drive for a 3-point play. Just as they have for a catch-and-shoot against Seton Hall. Or driving three closeouts against Illinois.

Yet it conveniently ignores the three catch-and-shoot misses against Memphis that could have halted a run. Or similar misses and a couple of turnovers as MU tried to claw back at Kansas. There’s also the 64.0 offensive rating he put up in a start against Central Arkansas.

What is MU getting from hybrid forwards? | 2023-24

Player GM Poss/GM Player Net Adj. Off. Eff Adj. Def. Eff Adj. Margin On/Off Split
Player GM Poss/GM Player Net Adj. Off. Eff Adj. Def. Eff Adj. Margin On/Off Split
Aidan Shaw 16 28.1 28.9 107.0 98.5 8.5 -2.2
Jesus Carralero 13 20.0 -1.2 100.7 99.9 0.8 -15.4
Trent Pierce 13 12.2 15.4 115.2 95.3 19.8 5.5
Data Source:

It would still behoove Aidan Shaw to find more ways to make a dent offensively, but his athleticism and length elevate the Tigers’ defense when engaged. The sticking point is whether doubling Pierce’s offensive output trumps what Carralero facilitates around the elbows and top of the key, which proved helpful at times against the Wildcats and Gamecocks.

Any discussion around Butler isn’t quite so fraught. It’s evident that Vanover’s shooting stroke, a swing skill, hasn’t carried over from Oral Roberts. But while he’s only making 16.7 percent of catch-and-shoot jumpers, Vanover’s not weighing down the offense, and his presence, including a 9.9 percent block rate, boosts the Tigers’ defense by an adjusted seven points per 100 possessions. Lastly, the scope of Butler’s role is on par with similarly rated prospects at his position.

What is MU getting from reserve bigs? | 2023-24

Player GM Poss/GM Player Net Adj. Off. Eff Adj. Def. Eff Adj. Margin On/Off Split
Player GM Poss/GM Player Net Adj. Off. Eff Adj. Def. Eff Adj. Margin On/Off Split
Connor Vanover 13 21.5 -6.1 110.3 92.4 17.9 6.2
Jordan Butler 14 12.2 -21.5 102.5 100.5 2.0 -7.1
Data Source:

So long as MU’s offense runs triangle-inspired concepts on offense and needs all the help it can get at the other end, Carralero and Vanover might retains some value. And upping minutes for freshmen — at least right now — may not have the desired team-wide effect some anticipate.

Oddly, I don’t think Vanover or Carralero would be the first to see their minutes pruned. Instead, the course correction might start in the backcourt. Nick Honor’s net rating has tumbled to 0.9, and MU’s efficiency declines by 14.8 points per 100 possessions when the graduate senior is on the floor.

What is MU getting from other point guards?

Player GM Poss/GM Player Net Adj. Off. Eff Adj. Def. Eff Adj. Margin On/Off Split
Player GM Poss/GM Player Net Adj. Off. Eff Adj. Def. Eff Adj. Margin On/Off Split
Nick Honor 16 53.6 -0.9 106.3 99.5 6.8 -14.8
Anthony Robinson 15 23.7 5.7 107.6 100.1 7.5 3.3
Data Source:

The solution: steadily weening the rotation of its reliance on pairing Honor and East. Yet I don’t think Gates yanks Honor from the starting lineup, despite a hard regression that mirrors the Tigers as a whole. Robinson could still sub for him just after the under-16 timeout. However, MU wouldn’t lift Robinson, who’s left a quick impression, after four or five minutes. Instead, he might play the middle eight minutes of each half.

Assuming Robinson adapts well, MU could eventually give the freshman enough latitude to play in the closing four minutes of a tight game. If so, that would bring his nightly dose to between 16 and 20 minutes.

After that, I could see Grill’s return potentially squeezing out Lewis. Vanover, for now, has the right to feel secure. But the next inflection point probably comes down to moving minutes from Carralero to Pierce. Should MU go that route, sub-patterns tell us the easiest avenue is to have Pierce fill the four spot between the under-12 and under-8 timeouts in each half, creating a path for eight to 10 minutes a night.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Why take a conservative approach?

At times, Gates appears paralyzed by a surplus of choices, exploring every option to make a collaborative approach to offense work. Perversely, a form of scarcity has set in. Unlike last season, MU lacks consistent producers outside Sean East II and (increasingly) Tamar Bates, sending the Tigers on nightly foraging missions. Even if Gates wanted to set aside stylistic preferences and pare down the rotation, necessity stood in the way.

And frankly, that will still be the case, even if the Tigers’ outlook shifts.

These suggestions might strike some as microscopic changes, but a modest starting point is probably for the best. On Dive Cuts, we talked about how there’s a fallacy in assuming a linear relationship between minutes and development. More is not always better, and there are several ways it can go awry.

  • Scenario No. 1: One of the freshmen breaks out down the stretch but, in playing well, draws interest from other programs. Maybe that player wants to jump to a program better positioned for immediate success next season. So, they jump into the transfer portal.
  • Scenario No. 2: Playing heavy minutes in the nation’s third-best conference caves in the heads of your youngsters. Rather than callousing them, those minutes convince them your system is flawed, and their role isn’t the proper fit. It inspires them to seek a better fit elsewhere. So, they jump into the transfer portal.
  • Scenario No. 3: Your freshmen perform admirably but hit enough turbulence to buckle their confidence and induce some doubt. They opt to stay but begin a pivotal summer needing to rebuild their psyche, delaying how quickly they scale the face of their skill curve. You’ve held on to a player, but valuable time — and potentially trust — might be squandered.

The hard truth is that Pierce, Butler, and Robinson are more likely to make their leaps after sequestering themselves in the Albrecht Family Practice Facility and diligently adhering to a development plan. Chemistry and continuity will percolate during preseason next fall. Chucking more minutes at young players who are still ill-equipped to absorb their nutritional value isn’t a plan — and it might do more harm than good.

There’s also the assumption that fewer minutes naturally ratchets up frustration and the odds freshmen might bail out. It conveniently leaves out that Gates and his staff’s recruiting pitch came with a transparent catch: minutes might fluctuate or result in a de facto redshirt. If that trio is still on board, there’s no need to appease a demand they’re not making.

Has Gates burned a bit of his political capital? Sure. But last season was such an outlier that it also seemed inevitable. And frankly, the only constituency that matters filters into the locker room daily. Hard conversations will probably be convened soon, but only MU’s staff knows when the timing will suit private talks of shifting roles and staying accountable to your teammates.

On Sunday, Sam Snelling noted players don’t think about the twilight of their career until dusk is falling. Until then, they draw on every bit of their collective experience to win and try to assemble compelling enough tape to persuade a pro team to extend a contract. Our data is a handy tool. But it can’t replace delicate diplomacy and accounting for a very human element.

We shouldn’t give short shrift to those complexities. It’s necessary to avoid pushback and finger-pointing. With freshmen absorbing hard lessons, you don’t want egos imploding and making the environment noxious when it needs to be an enclave to bolster confidence.

Crass self-interest also plays a role. This spring, MU will likely need to persuade three high-level transfers to ply their trade in Columbia. You know what doesn’t help? Benching vets en masse, including some who pressed defibrillator paddles to your program’s chest. As a coach I trust told me last week, those vets also need to feel that you’ve given them enough rope to pull themselves out of a well.

Done correctly, the Tigers’ remaining schedule would be more than an incubator. Gates and his assistants would conduct a comprehensive needs assessment before the portal opens in early April. A thorough understanding of what’s needed to supplement a roster set to feature eight underclassmen is vital.

Experience undoubtedly helps, but it doesn’t trump programs that have amassed healthy continuity. You only get that by letting talented players grow and gel together, which requires enough runway for liftoff as they embark toward contention in 2025-26.

There are also no shortcuts. You recruit well. You retain that talent. You meticulously cultivate it. And you accept growing pains. For all of us, that might mean wincing a bit more than we’d like over the next two months.