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Heightened Need: Taking stock of Mizzou’s big-man search as portal season winds down

Making defensive progress meant landing a veteran presence inside. Have options and time dwindled? Yes. But help is available — if the Tigers want it.

NCAA Basketball: San Jose State at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Two months ago, no one that cares about Missouri basketball would have reason to know Ibrahima Diallo.

Few of us stay up until the wee hours watching games unfolding on the West Coast, especially those involving San Jose State. And even if you stumbled across a tilt featuring the Spartans, it’s equally unlikely you’d pay much mind to a 6-foot-10 center coming off the bench.

Since arriving from Ohio State, Diallo almost anonymously spent the last two seasons carving out a desirable niche. The Senegal native is rugged on the defensive glass, yanking down 25 percent of misses. He’s agile enough to play an array of ball-screen coverages. And he’s quick enough off the floor to swat 9.5 percent of shots.

Three weeks ago, on May 3, Diallo, a redshirt junior, jumped into the transfer portal, using it as insurance in case he couldn’t start earning a professional paycheck abroad. It wasn’t a move that caused many ripples. Back then, high-major programs desperate for size could still pursue players befitting bold ambitions.

Now, most of the options are gone. And at the end of. recruiting dead period, which lifted Friday night, Diallo finds himself among the better options on the board. There’s also a program in Columbia that could potentially use him as a reinforcement.

The question is whether Diallo — or any big — piques the interest of MU coach Dennis Gates.

Publicly, Gates has professed the roster remains “under construction.” Technically, MU can play hosts to official visitors, but that requires targets. On that front, the board appears empty. Since Jimmy Bell Jr. committed to Mississippi State, the Tigers have only been linked with Ernest Udeh Jr., a former five-star recruit that decamped from Kansas, and that seems to be a cursory phone call.

The program could also be biding time until Wednesday’s deadline for players to withdraw from the NBA draft and retain their eligibility. Theoretically, it could push some quality veterans to enter the portal and grad-transfer option start instead of scratching out a career as an undrafted free agent. This past Thursday, for example, Richmond hybrid Tyler Burton, who posted 19.4 points per game, took that route.

It also brings some clarity. Gates will know whether Kobe Brown intends to stick around and collect a sizeable NIL commitment. Should Brown remain in the draft, where he’s forecasted to land in the middle of the second round, it would free up resources to go with a quality roster and ample playing time.

But at this point in the calendar, there’s a reasonable argument that pursuing and securing a rotation player might be prudent — an option like Diallo. Frustrating as it was to miss on Kadin Shedrick, he was just one of at least 90 viable candidates, ranging from proven veterans to high-upside underclassmen, to hit the portal this spring. With June fast approaching, it’s hard to frame Jesus Carralero, who committed on April 30, as a solution.

Almost 50 post players with a recruiting service ranking as a transfer have committed to high-major programs this spring, and we can gauge their collective quality by looking at net rating, their impact on their former team’s net rating, and their potential impact via forecasted Bayesian Performance Rating. It’s also possible to see where Carralero would fit by using his data from the 2021-22 campaign, his last full season at Campbell.

Quality of Post Player Transfers | High-Majors

Category Average (SD) Normal Range Median Carralero
Category Average (SD) Normal Range Median Carralero
Duration 24.6 (12.8) 11.8-37.4 26 38
Net Rating 7.6 (17.2) -9.6-24.9 6.7 1.49
Net Impact 2.5 (12.4) -9.9-14.9 4.6 -4.76
BPR 1.78 (1.2) 0.58-2.98 1.71 -5
N = 47. Sources: (BPR), Synergy Sports (Net Rating), Pivot Analysis (Net Impact)

Undoubtedly, the top 10 or so bigs in the transfer portal move the needle, but collectively, its a group players who were solid but unspectacular last season. Looking ahead, the average BPR (1.71) isn’t much better than the baseline (which is zero) and sets the bar at level we’d expect from a steady rotational piece. Without a doubt, half a dozen schools — Ole Miss, Kansas, Indiana, Cincinnati, Xavier, and Texas — noticeably upgraded their front courts, but remaining programs are tightly clustered.

Take a look at Carralero, too. While his skillset might mesh with Gates’ preferences, he wasn’t all that efficient individually, might have acted a slight drag on the Camels’ when on the floor, and is expected to lag slightly behind the average impact of a transfer.

That’s why it’s easy to get fixated on this subject. Indeed, Mizzou won 25 games using an undersized group blitzing the pace a year ago. It reinforced its guard rotation and shooting, which might allow the staff to shrink lineups and force opponents to adjust.

And on a macro level, you could argue going small doesn’t damn a team to be sieve defensively.

KenPom’s ever-trusty data includes the effective height, defined as the average height of a team’s power forward and center. Using that measuring stick, we can single out the 10 smallest groups among high-majors for each of the last 10 years. Of those 100 teams, around half finished in the top 50 nationally for adjusted defensive efficiency. Calculating correlations also reveals there’s no relationship at all between effective height and defensive prowess.

What matters is how you deploy your scaled-down rotation.

Sorting our sample by adjusted tempo reveals about a quarter of undersized high-majors play at a breakneck pass. Doing so means generating more transition possessions, which is moderately related to how good those teams are at forcing steals.

Creating turnovers is a conscious choice that can entail switching almost every screen, hedging pick-and-rolls, heavy denial to prevent easy ball reversals, and aggressive help rotations. Wreaking havoc also means giving players latitude to gamble on the ball and in passing lanes.

Embracing that stylistic approach also means accepting a tradeoff: you’re prone to getting crushed on the glass. Switches create mismatches, whether pulling a post into space or having your guard fronting a big. Extending a defense and scrambling box-out duties makes it imperative that guards chip in on the backboards to at least keep the rebound margin respectable.

Annoying? Sure. But it’s not fatal because math still favors transition. Per Synergy Sports’ data, allowing a putback was worth 1.080 points per possession last season in Division I, but open-floor chances were valued at 1.082 PPP.

Mizzou illustrated the concept perfectly. The Tigers finished second in steal percentage and led the nation in transition possessions. Despite ranking dead last in defensive rebounding, MU’s uptempo attack helped it to a plus-404 point margin between transition offense and second-chance defense.

Importing one big to the roster won’t stanch the flow of offensive rebounds, either.

Mohamed Diarra, for example, sported a respectable 21.1 defensive rebound percentage. Still, MU was worse on the glass when he checked in. Solving the problem requires MU’s guards to pick up the slack and get contributions from underclassmen in Aidan Shaw, Trent Pierce, and Jordan Butler.

Adding a reliable big man would help shore up one area: better rim protection.

An undersized rotation applying heavy doses of pressure can be susceptible to savvy and timely cuts. That demands a deterrent around the restricted area to force contested attempts at the rim. Anecdotally, smaller high-major teams that play fast and grade out well defensively finish with a block percentage north of 10.0.

For its part, MU only blocked 8.4 percent of opponents’ shots, and it ranked 267th nationally by allowing 1.231 PPP on point-blank attempts. Based on Synergy Sports data, that figure only gets worse (1.281 PPP) after you strip away putbacks from the tally and would have ranked 331st in the country.

Unfortunately, the best remedy will be suiting up in burnt orange and playing in Austin next season. At Virginia, Shedrick embodied flexibility guarding roles in ball screens: hard hedging in the middle of the floor, trapping those on the side, and even reverting to conservative drop coverage.

Oh, and he’s exceptionally good at turning away weak...stuff.

But again, MU wasn’t up a creek without a paddle after Shedrick spurned the Tigers. Arizona State’s Warren Washington had a similar repertoire. Instead, he’s headed to Texas Tech. Udeh is capable, but the Tigers are outside of that recruitment. But do you know who is a reasonable proxy? Ibrahima Diallo.

Carralero, a facilitating combo forward with a 3.6 career block percentage against mostly mid- and low-major opponents would hardly qualify. Targeting Bell was equally curious because Big 12 teams routinely hunted him in pick-and-rolls. At the same time, his block percentage (2.5) ranked 18th in the conference.

Maybe there’s a universe where MU’s supreme patience pays off. Maybe hyper-skilled bigs like Utah’s Branden Carlson, Toledo’s Enrique Freeman, or Tulane’s Kevin Cross exit the draft pool looking to ply their trade elsewhere. (Shouts to Matt Watkins for due diligence.) Far-fetched as that sounds, it’s a scenario that played out a year ago and set up Isiaih Mosley’s homecoming. Should it repeat, all this handwringing, nail-biting, or any other nervous tic will seem alarmist.

Recent history also suggests there could be a cap on Mizzou’s potential if it stands pat.

Small, Speedy, and Steal-Needy | 2014-2023

Season Team Eff Hght Adj. Tempo Trans. Poss. Adj Def. Eff. Stl% DR% BLK% Wins NCAAT
Season Team Eff Hght Adj. Tempo Trans. Poss. Adj Def. Eff. Stl% DR% BLK% Wins NCAAT
2017 Iowa State -1.43 68.4 17.6 96.3 10.8 68.4 8.9 25 Second Rnd
2021 South Carolina -0.65 74.6 19.1 98.9 11.1 68.7 10 6 None
2021 Georgia -1.07 73.2 22.4 99.2 11.3 67.7 6.3 14 None
2019 St. John's -1.29 70.8 16.5 101 12.1 68.6 9.8 21 First Four
2023 Missouri -0.79 68.7 17.1 105.3 14.5 62.8 8.4 25 Second Rnd
Effective height is the average height of the center and power forward position. Source: KenPom, Synergy Sports

Out of our sample, the Tigers were among a handful of undersized teams that relied on steals, struggled on the defensive glass, and lacked rim protection. Three made the NCAA tournament, but none advanced to the second weekend. Two teams — MU and St. John’s — went a combined 17-3 in games decided by two possessions or less.

Without a doubt, Mizzou’s offense and late-game grit can’t be undersold. But it shouldn’t let us gloss over the margin between a No. 7 seed and staying home were late makes by DeAndre Gholston and Nick Honor. And what happens if this offseason’s departures mean manufacturing turnovers take a slight dip? Or shooting drops off a tad?

Landing a big wasn’t going to solve every issue, but it could ease the strain elsewhere. We’ll see if the build continues — or if MU put its tools away for the summer. If it’s looking for an extra set of hands, it could do worse than Mr. Diallo.