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As SEC play looms, can Mizzou stave off a hard reset?

The Tigers entered the new year sitting lower than 100th in the NET rankings. Making the NCAA Tournament is rare — and potentially prompt a recalibration of expectations.

NCAA Basketball: Central Arkansas at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

New Year’s Day is eternally linked to the bowl season, but for sickos like us, it’s an equally momentous day: new bracket forecasts spring up left and right.

This year, we saw 17 bracketologists drop new predictions, outlooks that expect the SEC to set a record with nine bids come Selection Sunday. Meanwhile, Arkansas finds itself just on the outside looking in. Only a quartet of programs find themselves adrift when conference play tips this coming weekend: Georgia, LSU, Vanderbilt – and Missouri.

The Tigers’ standing, however, isn’t likely to come as a surprise.

Any analysis of Mizzou’s performance in non-conference concludes the Tigers landed at a point between inconsistent and erratic. We’ve detailed the Tigers’ identity crisis not once but twice. A handful of transfer imports appears to be a mixed bag. And aside from Sean East II, a trio of returners – Nick Honor, Noah Carter, and Aidan Shaw – are sorting through their issues. It’s also forced freshmen like Anthony Robinson II to take on a more prominent role than we anticipated.

Before we go any further, it’s also important to reiterate this point: Under the current circumstances, MU’s not dramatically underperforming collective expectations.

Preseason outlooks called for the Tigers to finish ninth in the SEC with a floor of 10th place. However, that assumed MU wouldn’t face poor injury luck, such as Caleb Grill going down with a wrist injury. It also baked in the idea that Colorado State transfer John Tonje would appear in more than six games. And they couldn’t foresee Connor Vanover sitting out the first three games as punishment for participating in the Portsmouth Invitational.

Given those constraints, finishing 8-5 isn’t entirely unexpected – outside of a putrid showing against Jackson State. However, that reality left the Tigers at No. 101 in the NET rankings on New Year’s Eve and owners of a modest 1-2 record in Quad 1 games. Among SEC peers, they were barely holding off UGA.

It also tables any talk of MU’s position relative to the NCAA tournament bubble. As of early Thursday morning, Bart Torvik’s Tourneycast, based on 10,000 simulations, pegged the Tigers at-large odds at zero. Recent history confirms that grim prospect.

Let’s start with 2018 and 2019. Those seasons predate the NCAA’s NET rankings, but we can use KenPom as a proxy. On average, at-large teams sat at No. 32 in late December, and the floor of the normal range settled at No. 54.

At-Large Teams | KenPom Rankings | 2018-2019

Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
New Year's Eve 30.5 (19.8) 27.5 10.7-50.3
Selection Sunday 29.5 (18.6) 25.5 10.9-48.1
Change 1.8 (13.7) 1 -11.9-15.6
n=72 Data Source: KenPom

Notice what happens over the next two months: the typical range contracts. By Selection Sunday, the floor is 46th in KenPom. We can also gauge the movement those at-large teams made. It’s usually no more than several spots, and any team moving up by more than 19 places counts as an outlier.

Currently, Missouri occupies the 88th slot in Pomeroy’s rankings. Even if MU elbows past 20 teams over the next two months, there’s another grim stat: Only three teams rated lower than 65th in KenPom made the field of 68 in ’18 and ’19.

The outlook is similarly bleak when we pivot to NET rankings as a measuring stick. Based on the profiles of 108 at-large teams since 2021, the floor for ranking at the end of December is around 64th – or 37 spots ahead of where MU was slotted.

At-Large Teams | NET Rankings | 2021-2023

Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
New Year's Eve 35.6 (27.9) 28.5 7.7-63.6
Selection Sunday 29.4 (16.5) 28.5 12.9-45.9
Change 6.4 (20.9) 2 -14.5-27.3
n=108 Data Source: NCAA

How many at-large teams ended December ranked lower than No. 100? Five. That’s 4.6 percent of the sample. I’ve included descriptive stats below.

At-Large Teams | NET Rankings | Outliers | 2021-2023

Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
New Year's Eve 87.7 (27.6) 77 60.1-115.3
Selection Sunday 45.4 (17.6) 42 27.8-63.0
Change 41.7 (22.7) 35 19.0-64.3
n=15 Data Source: NCAA

Here’s the number we care about most: 63. That’s the floor for NET ranking among outliers. Only two teams – Michigan State in 2021 and Rutgers in 2022– started conference play lower than 100th, finished lower than 70th, and still made the field. If we apply these findings to MU, the Tigers probably need to move up at least 35 spots even to sniff the bubble. And if by some chance they get in, they’ll likely be ticketed for Dayton and the First Four.

Next, we can aggregate how outliers fared in important team sheet metrics.

  • Quad 1 Wins: Pretty self-explanatory, but when you look at the columns on the page, it cuts off at road wins over teams rated better than No. 75.
  • Quad 4 Losses: On the team sheet, this column starts with home losses to opponents sitting below No. 161 in the NET rankings.
  • Strength of Record: Formulas vary based on outlet, but SOR quantifies a team’s accomplishment based on how difficult it is to achieve their record.
  • Effective Record: A fancy way of saying, “How did a team perform against Quad 1 through 3?”

Why go this rigamarole? Establishing a baseline now will help us know when — or if — it’s worth raising Mizzou’s name in at-large discussions.

Team Sheets | At-Large Teams | Outliers | 2021-2023

Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
Category Average (SD) Median Normal Range
Quad 1 Wins 4.3 (1.8) 5 2.5-6.1
Quad 4 Losses 0.4 (0.6) 0 -0.2-1.0
SOR 37.7 (13.3) 37 24.4-50.0
Effective Wins 14.6 (2.4) 15 12.2-17.0
Effective Losses 10.5 (2.4) 10 8.1-12.9
Seed Line 9.2 (2.1) 10 7.1-11.3
n=15 Data Source: NCAA and Warren Nolan

Another thought might have crossed your mind: Man, the very end of the at-large pool is shallow. The selection committee is also frequently disposed toward using those final spots on mediocre high-majors, many of whom flub numerous chances to build a compelling case — often at the expense of deserving mid-majors.

That said, it hacks out a rough trail for MU to potentially hike its way out of the wilderness.

First, the Tigers absolutely must scrounge up another four or five Quad 1 wins. Along the way, there’s no wiggle room left for underwhelming performances. That means sweeping three games against Georgia, LSU, and Vanderbilt. Third, the Tigers’ effective record — currently at 3-4 — must slide closer to the median. Doing so will require another dozen wins, meaning a 12-6 finish in the SEC. It’s also the only way the program’s SOR (No. 102) reflects any semblance of quality.

Boiled down, the objective is earning a double-bye at the SEC tournament and a couple of wins in Nashville. Mind you, this might only get the Tigers to the fringes of the debate inside a conference room in Indianapolis.

We don’t have to look too far back to find a perfect contrast.

Last season, Texas A&M wrapped up non-con with an 8-5 record that included two Quad 4 defeats. The Aggies were also sitting at 100th in the NET rankings. Turns out, a 15-3 record in conference play squares the ledger and earns you a No. 7 seed in the bracket.

Vanderbilt is on the other side of the coin. The Commodores finished 7-6 in non-con, incurring a Quad 4 loss to Grambling State. Unlike the Aggies, Vandy slumped to a 3-6 start in SEC play before winning eight of its final nine. It also picked off Kentucky at the SEC tournament. On Selection Sunday, the ‘Dores owned five Quad 1 wins and sat at No. 48 in strength of record. None of it persuaded the selection committee. It left Jerry Stackhouse’s crew, the No. 81 team in NET, on the stoop.

Where a team sits in NET rankings doesn’t dictate its tournament fate. Yet, it does influence discussions around seeding. From that vantage point, MU still needs to clamber out of a hole.

What’s deeply ironic is that Mizzou has exceeded expectations in Quad 1 games. It beat the expected margin at Pitt by nearly 16 points. It outperformed forecasts by almost four points at Kansas. Despite getting drubbed in Braggin’ Rights, the Tigers’ scoring margin finished 3 points ahead of what models spit out.

How has Mizzou performed in Quad 1 games?

Opponent Forecast Actual Difference
Opponent Forecast Actual Difference
Pitt -8.7 7 15.7
Kansas -12.5 -9 3.5
Illinois -7.6 -24 -16.4
Total -28.8 -26 2.8
Data Sources: Bart Torvik, Evan Miya, Haslametrics, KenPom

That’s countered, however, by five games where MU underperformed projections by nearly 74 points. That includes a pair of Quad 4 games against JSU and Loyola Maryland.

In what games has Mizzou underperformed?

Opponent Quad Forecast Actual Difference
Opponent Quad Forecast Actual Difference
Jackson State 4 20.7 -1 -21.7
Memphis 2 2.9 -15 -17.9
Illinois 1 -7.6 -24 -16.4
Loyola Maryland 4 17.2 8 -9.2
Seton Hall 2 2.4 -6 -8.4
Data Sources: Bart Torvik, Evan Miya, Haslametrics, KenPom

The not-so-secret rationale in lining up Quad 4 foes is that running up the score can add some juice to your NET ranking. But that upside is limited. If you’re not torpedoing people in buy games, the value of those wins dries up as soon as low-majors start facing each other in conference play. For MU, almost a third of its non-con slate is rendered useless – and an argument for weaning the dose of those contests moving forward.

There is a sliver of optimism, though. MU’s entry to SEC play isn’t a gauntlet. South Carolina, Florida, and Arkansas visit Mizzou Arena in January. Road trips to the other Columbia and Vanderbilt serve as potential pickup opportunities.

It’s not inconceivable that the Tigers claw their way to a 5-3 start. And the apparent depth of the SEC means a pair of games against the Gamecocks might hold more value than anticipated. Pull that off, and we can put chatter about the bubble back on the agenda.

From my seat, I don’t think we’ll need to wait all that long to gauge whether this roster is getting its act together. Georgia visits Saturday, and South Carolina pulls into town a week later. An NCAA Tournament team prevails in both those contests. It also keeps the margin respectable when venturing to Rupp Arena to face Kentucky.

Until then, it’s best to take this season at face value: a harder-than-expected reset.