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The Verdict: A Sidebar on Mizzou Basketball’s Double Crunch

Mizzou’s roster depth issues are causing problems on two fronts, both of which have contributed to their 0-4 start in league play.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Alabama Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Mizzou has started league play 0-4. And if you’ve watched all four contests, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking it was a single game played on repeat. Through the vast majority of all of their outings, the Mizzou Basketball Tigers have performed ably. When crunch time arrives? They morph into a team befitting of their record. The following is a sampling of data exhibiting the severity of the issue and one reason that appears to be directly causing it.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Alabama Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Mizzou’s Crunch Time Issues

The following chart displays two things. In the first column you’ll find Mizzou’s scoring margin — how much they were winning or losing by — at the 8-minute mark of the second half. The second column displays the scoring margin for the remaining minutes of the contest starting at the 8-minute mark.

The data here speaks for itself. Through 80% of each contest, Mizzou has been every bit the team they’ve needed to be. You ideally would want to have even better margins, but they’ve allowed themselves the chance to grab much needed wins. However, the last 20% has been a major hangup. While Alabama’s margin in the latter column was inflated by a torrid attack behind the ark, Mizzou is bleeding roughly a point per minute in the later stages of basketball games. Certainly not what you’re looking for in a rugged SEC.

Mizzou’s Minutes Crunch

When the year began, the storyline was that Mizzou had acquired better depth compared to Dennis Gates’s first year in the program. And I believed that to be true. There were certainly questions about whether the top end performers could match that of year 1 — and I penned a lengthy piece on just that. But there was little doubt the depth of the roster would allow for more players to see the court and more intensity to be brought by those on it for just that reason. After all, we certainly remember last year’s defensive issues that could be explained — at least in part — by a rotation that often stopped after 6 or 7 players late in the season.

NCAA Basketball: Wichita State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Well, they’re right there again. With injuries to senior transfers Caleb Grill and John Tonje, Mizzou has lost two vital components to the death by depth approach. The following chart represents my preseason estimates on minute allocation. While this projection is never perfect, it’s often quite accurate — dependent on availability. The minute estimates are driven by historical data of the coaching staff’s player usage and the player allocations are driven by efficiency data — and history with the staff, where applicable. You’ll find the players ranked by those preseason forecasts with the estimate in the middle column. The “Min%” column is simply the actual percentage of minutes played — of all the player’s possible minutes — with the deviation column representing the difference in the two figures.

Projected data via Matt Watkins; SEC Minutes data from Bart Torvik

In sorting through an extended history of data at Cleveland State as well as Florida State — where Dennis Gates cut his teeth on the Florida State model of relying heavily on roster depth — it was rare to ever see a player crack 80% of minutes. The theory is simple. Much like Mike Anderson’s Fastest 40 Minutes, Dennis Gates’s defensive theory is founded upon disruption. A disruptive defense is an active one. An active one requires max effort. Mizzou unsurprisingly rates top 15 in the percentage of defensive possessions they apply a press — per Synergy Sports.

Yet here we are with three players exceeding the rare threshold of 80% of minutes played. A cavernous slot appears in the form of John Tonje and Caleb Grill. The two players were projected to play 120%+ of the team’s 500% of minutes — or for the traditionally inclined, 48 of the team’s 200 minutes each outing. While their absence is felt in terms of production, it’s equally observed in terms of where the remaining minutes are allocated.

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

While I’ll be the first to admit I undershot Sean East’s minutes — and mentioned it was a very real possibility in his player preview — the rest of the projections prior to Caleb Grill’s injury were largely solid. And then disaster struck. Already short Tonje’s minutes load, they were without a second top 5 player — and those minutes had to get sucked up. Tamar Bates has performed at a really high level in picking up the slack, but his minutes increase represents only a third of the lost minutes value of those two injured players.

Dennis Gates — at least through four games of league play — has decided to consolidate minutes amongst his most proven performers. And that has allowed Mizzou to remain competitive through large portions of games. Yet that provides a catch-22 situation. Do you continue to play the way you want early in games and pay the bill late? Or do you deviate by offering less than ideal substitutions earlier in games and run the risk of not being in a position to win when crunch time arrives? After all, Mizzou’s scoring punch since entering league play has been highly concentrated.

Early on, it’s fairly clear that Gates has chosen the first track. Mizzou has four players averaging 70%+ of minutes, two just above 40% and one just above 20%. Quietly, the rotation has been trimmed to something more comparable to a short bench than the traditional 10-11 man rotation employed by his mentor — and apparently the marching orders for the 23-24 team. The minutes projection looks nothing close to reality. And it’s hard to argue with the thought process. Yet, the bill came due in each contest and Mizzou was delinquent in payment.

There is no good answer for a team that was competing to win basketball games. Had the opposite track been chosen, it’s highly probable the scoring margins by game section would’ve been altered. We’re left only to question what effect the assembled depth would’ve had on the season. We only know the result of it’s absence.