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Re-evaluating Missouri basketball following non-conference play

And just like that, the non-con portion of the season is over for the Tigers. Here’s what we’ve learned thus far.

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

In a flash, Missouri basketball’s 2023 non-conference slate has concluded.

Following a schedule that gradually leaned into tougher competition as it went on in 2022, Dennis Gates wanted his team to be tested earlier and more often this time around.

He certainly accomplished that, with Mizzou taking on Memphis, Minnesota and Pittsburgh in November before it ran a gauntlet in December. The results were varied, with the Tigers picking up quality wins over the Gophers, Panthers and Wichita State but also falling to the aforementioned Tigers, Kansas, Seton Hall and Illinois. The defeat at the hands of Jackson State will also more than likely register as an infamous Quad 4 result.

With SEC play looming just around the corner, I wanted to take a look back at what went down over the past two months and what we have learned about this Tiger team thus far.

Noah Carter: A man of the people.
Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

Notable Numbers

Points Per Game: 76.5

Field Goal Percentage: 45.2%

3-Point Percentage: 34.3%

Free Throws: 163/213 (76.5%)

Assist-To-Turnover Ratio: 180-150 (6-to-5 ratio)

Rebounding Margin: -2.7

Points Allowed Per Game: 71.3

Opponent Field Goal Percentage: 42.6%

Opponent 3-Point Percentage: 31.8%

Opponent Free Throws: 198/267 (74.2%%)

Blocks Per Game: 6.0

Steals Per Game: 8.9

Positive KenPom Statistics: Defensive Block % is 17.2% (2nd in nation), Adjusted offensive efficiency of 110.5 (67th in nation), Forces Turnover on 20.9% of possessions (45th in nation), 52.7 effective FG % (85th in nation)

Negative KenPom Statistics: Allows Offensive Rebounds on 34.1% of misses (318th in nation), FTA/FGA is 27.0 (307th in nation)

This team’s ability to block shots stands out the most when looking at the positives. It’s generally been a group effort, and these Tigers are also still stealing the ball away at a high level. The shooting percentages on the offensive end have been solid as well.

The glaring negatives lie in rebounding, free throw shooting and turnovers. Much like last season, Mizzou has been dominated on the glass by stronger teams at times, and improving upon that will not get any easier in the SEC. Unlike last season, however, this team struggles to get to the free throw line and puts the other team up there a lot, and it’s cost them in some close affairs.

This group still forces plenty of turnovers, but the assist-to-turnover ratio that Gates so often harps on sits at 6-to-5 right now. That’s not a number the head coach is happy with, and it’s a sign that this offense is still not where he wants it to be.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Pittsburgh
Mr. Shaw doing what he does best: Get Mizzou fans out of their seats. The Zoo, conversely, was not a huge fan of this one.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Evaluating the Results Thus Far

Moved The Needle

The weight of the victory over Pittsburgh is TBD dependent upon how the Panthers fare in ACC play, but at the bare minimum it looks like it will be a win over a team that is competing for an NCAA Tourney berth. Thus, this should rank as a Quad 2 win at the end of the season, and it’s overall just a great result that initially changed the tide of this season for the Tigers.

As of now, the win over Minnesota does not appear to be of the Quad 1 variety, and thus it will serve as a memorable comeback and a solid Quad 2 result.

The victory over Wichita State will likely carry similar weight. The Shockers have an experienced, albeit thin, roster, but they should still be able to finish towards the top of the American Conference with Houston having moved on to the Big 12. Regardless, the 82-72 victory will remain a quality win and showed what the ceiling of this team can look like.

Treaded Water

Falling to Memphis and Illinois, while missed opportunities, will not do much to hurt Missouri’s NCAA Tournament chances. A road loss at The Phog will do nothing to harm the résumé, either.

The defeat at the hands of Seton Hall is not damming by any means, but it remains to be seen how the Pirates finish out in the Big East. They’re a tough group, and that win over then-no. 5 UConn will go a long way in helping both their NCAA Tournament hopes as well as Mizzou’s strength of schedule, but expect the neutral site defeat to hover around the Quad 2 mark for much of this season.

Taking down Arkansas Pine-Bluff, SIUE, South Carolina State, Loyola (MD) and Central Arkansas also falls into this grouping. The issue lies in the fact that Mizzou may have missed out on too many opportunities for a signature win in this category.

Hurt the Résumé

There’s not much that could hurt a résumé more than losing to 4-9 Jackson State. Plenty of great teams have dropped a weird game or two early in the season and recovered just fine, but the fact of the matter still remains:

The loss to Jackson State will hold as a Quad 4 defeat throughout the season, and it will stick out like a sore thumb. Mizzou will likely need to pull off at least one major upset to offset that loss.

He was the most consistent player on the team early on, but Carter struggled in December.
Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

The Make-Up of the 2023-24 Missouri Tigers

Much like last season’s squad, this Tiger team featured a healthy mix of returners, transfer and freshmen. Thus, it was expected that it would take a good chunk of time for this group to truly mesh and find chemistry on both ends of the floor.

Last year, Mizzou had the luxury of playing a light opening schedule during that time. This year, that was not the case, and it led to rough showings against Memphis, Jackson State and South Carolina State.

As the players have appeared to get used to playing alongside each other, we have seen this offense begin to find its footing. The rotation has become more concise, with Anthony Robinson II and Caleb Grill (when healthy) earning the primary minutes as wings off the bench. Robinson has flashed as a pesky defender and can score at all three levels on offense, looking like anything but a freshman.

Grill is the high-energy rebounder who can also get hot at a moment’s notice, and he’s been tabbed as the “spark” for this team whenever he gets into the game.

Sean East II has been masterful in how he has run this offense. He and Nick Honor’s patience and comfort within Gates’ system has been impressive to watch, and this team will only go as far as that duo can take them. They both act as coaches on the floor, but they also need to remain aggressive and hunt their own shots when need be.

We saw what happens when Honor and East aren’t contributing offensively for most of the Jackson State game and the first halves against Seton Hall and Illinois. But, they’ve also managed to pick each other up at times, such as when Honor poured in 20 points against SIUE while East struggled or when the latter dropped 21 against Pitt while his running mate went scoreless. This team needs this duo to play at a high level on a night-to-night basis.

Tamar Bates has found his footing after scoring in double-figures in only one of the first seven games of the season. The athletic sharpshooter has been a mainstay in the starting rotation during December and provides instant offense for a team that has desperately needed it at times, and he only appears to be improving with each passing game.

Noah Carter began the season as a consistent presence, pouring in 10-15 points per game and stabilizing the interior. But, his production dropped in December, as he lost his touch from behind the arc and failed to score in double-figures in four straight games. He’s shown flashes of great offensive potential through his career, and Carter needs to find a rhythm for this team to have any hope of making a run during conference play.

Aidan Shaw, after being challenged openly by Gates throughout the offseason and early in this campaign, has become a stronger presence on the glass and in blocking shots. His continued development is another major key for this team, and he needs to stay out of foul trouble overall.

Connor Vanover has settled into his role as a shot-alterer, lob-catcher and occasional shooter, but it remains to be seen if he can carve out more minutes for himself and begin to make a bigger impact on the game. His 11-point, three steal performance against Central Arkansas was a promising sign.

Will another player step in and demand minutes with their play? The main rotation appears to be solid at eight guys as of now, but Gates is always willing to go deeper. Trent Pierce has cracked the starting rotation as of late but generally does not player starters’ minutes. Jordan Butler, Jesus Carralero-Martin and Curt Lewis have each shown flashes at times, but consistency is key.

This team isn’t popping up on any NCAA Tournament projections right now. The résumé is overall somewhat weak, and the eye test hasn’t done much to contrast that. The ceiling of this group is still fairly high, as we’ve seen in select moments against Kansas, Wichita State, Pittsburgh, etc. But, we’ve also seen a fairly low floor against Illinois, Jackson State, Memphis and Seton Hall.

“This non-conference, we’ve been unable to take advantage of playing ranked opponents and coming away with wins,” Gates said. “I truly believe that we have been going in the right direction, but we have yet to play a truly great game this year.”

Mizzou will have to get hot at some point during conference play and pick up 2-3 upset victories that can headline its résumé. That will happen when this group can find more consistency on the offensive end and become more committed to holding serve on the glass and defensive end as a whole. They’re behind the 8-ball, but they certainly aren’t out of the game.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Arkansas at Memphis
He hasn’t been the happiest camper thus far.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

SEC Outlook

The rest of the SEC has also been playing basketball over the past two months.

The Leaders

Within this group, there’s some teams that look the same as always. Tennessee is a tough defensive squad that, despite finding some offensive help in the portal via Dalton Knecht and Jordan Gainey, still struggles to close out games. In recent wins over Illinois and NC State, however, the Vols have shown improvement in that regard. Zakai Zeigler settling back in following offseason surgery has appeared to help with that, and the emergence of Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka down low has been a major plus for Rick Barnes.

Kentucky is ultra-talented to nobody’s surprise, but the ‘Cats are also playing some solid defense and are well-balanced on the offensive end. This looks like one of John Calipari’s better teams of the past five years, evident by its dominant win over Miami and victory over a great UNC team. The loss to UNC-Wilmington stands out, but the Seahawks look like a quality mid-major that could be playing in March.

Reed Sheppard has become the name to know amongst an skilled group of Wildcats:

Rob Dillingham, D.J. Wagner, Tre Mitchell and Austin Reeves aren’t too shabby either (*cough* all future NBA players *cough*).

Alabama is still incredibly talented albeit lacking on the defensive end, which has led to the Crimson Tide beginning this season at 8-5. Granted, this came against a gauntlet of a schedule (losses to Ohio State, Clemson, Purdue, Creighton, Arizona), and this offense is fully capable of keeping Nate Oats’ squad in any game.

Meanwhile, Texas A&M is equally as talented with a far stingier defense. Wade Taylor IV is an early candidate for player of the year in the conference, and he leads the Aggies with 17.9 points per game. Henry Coleman, Tyrece Radford and Henry Hefner join him to spearhead perhaps the most complete roster in the SEC. Their only losses came at the hands of No. 7 FAU (neutral), Virginia (road), No. 19 Memphis (home) and No. 3 Houston (road).

Bruce Pearl’s Auburn squad, behind the services of bruising forward Johni Broome and freshman phenom Aden Holloway, figures to be in the mix as well, although consistency has evaded them. Wins over Notre Dame, St. Bonaventure, Virginia Tech, Indiana and USC were encouraging, but a 5-point loss to Appalachian State is tough to ignore.

The Surprises

Ole Miss has been the story here, jumping out to a 12-0 start and picking up high-quality wins over Memphis, NC State and UCF. That is in large part thanks to the services of Auburn transfer Allen Flanigan, who is leading the team with 7.3 points per game and adding on 6.4 PPG. Matthew Morrell and Jaylen Murray are dangerous on the offensive end in their own right as well.

Mississippi State has certainly been a surprise, as the Bulldogs managed to survive without star forward Tolu Smith early in the season by going 2-0 at the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off with wins over Washington State and Northwestern. A two-game skid against Georgia Tech and Southern dampened the hype, but MSU rebounded to take down Tulane and Rutgers. Smith is ahead of schedule in his return to the floor as well, as he may be back by mid-January.

Even South Carolina, who has resided in the basement of the conference for years, has looked like a threat in the league with a 12-1 start behind a defense that only allows 63.2 points per game. The Gamecocks lone loss came at the hands of 11-1 Clemson.

The Disappointments

Despite pulling in one of the nation’s top class of transfers this offseason, Arkansas has stumbled to an 8-4 start to the season. An early loss to UNC Greensboro was damning, and a 1-2 showing in Atlantis left much to be desired. That Duke victory, however, will shine brightly on the résumé and proves that the Hogs have a high ceiling, although there is still much work to be done.

In Todd Golden’s second season at the helm, Florida was looking to qualify for its first NCAA Tournament since it fell to Oral Roberts in 2021. Well, they have plenty of work to do in that regard, with the Gators sitting at 10-3. Wins over Pitt and Michigan were solid, and UF was competitive in losses to Baylor and Virginia. But, an 11-point loss to Wake Forest stings, and there isn’t a ton of meat on this résumé in general.

LSU is in a slightly worse spot in terms of treading water, and the Bayou Bengals will need to pick up some major wins in conference play to make any form of push for the tournament. The only power team they took down was Wake Forest.

Vanderbilt was looking to build off a successful 2022-23 campaign under Jerry Stackhouse, but the Commodores fell to Presbyterian in the opener and went 0-2 at the Vegas Showdown. They’ve since dropped games to Boston College, San Francisco, Texas Tech, Western Carolina and Memphis.

Georgia also thought it would experience more success this season following a promising first year with Mike White at the helm. The wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech were promising, and I will say that losses to Providence, Oregon and Miami won’t look bad on paper, but none of those games were within six points. The Bulldogs will need to pick up some marquee wins during conference play.

NCAA Basketball: Marshall at Kentucky
This surprise duo has helped the ‘Cats out to a solid start to the season.
Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

The Upcoming Schedule And Its Opportunities

The beginning to the conference season provides Mizzou with plenty of opportunities to bolster its NCAA Tournament résumé, or it may lead to a deeper hole being dug.

The Tigers will open SEC play with a winnable game against Georgia at Mizzou Arena. A triumph there is almost mandatory, because the Tigers will next take a trip to Rupp Arena, and it’s safe to assume that the Wildcats will be hell-bent on exacting revenge for Mizzou’s dominant 89-75 win in COMO last season.

Following that will be a date with a tough South Carolina team at Mizzou Arena, the first of two meetings with the Gamecocks in January. Trips to Tuscaloosa and College Station will be great measuring sticks for where this team stacks up in the SEC, while home dates with Florida and Arkansas will serve as pivotal swing games.

That wraps up opening month of 2024. February is a gauntlet in its own right, but the Tigers first need to put themselves in a position for those future games to mean something.

At this point, going 4-4 in January would allow Mizzou to tread water in the conference standings and pick up some quality wins for the résumé. Winning the four home games would be the most logical outcome, but there is the possibility that none of those victories would carry much weight by season’s end.

Thus, stealing one of the road games may be needed. Walking away from Rupp with a win is incredibly difficult, and winning in College Station may prove to be even tougher. So, taking one from either South Carolina or Alabama away from home is the best bet for the Tigers to make a significant move that could keep them in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament berth.

There is plenty of work to be done for Mizzou to put itself within striking distance of a postseason berth. The non-conference slate was by no means a complete failure, but this team will have to make up some ground over these next two months in order to reach the annual goals this program has. For these Tigers, the journey to March now begins in January.