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How has injury luck factored into a Mizzou season gone wrong?

The Tigers’ starting five hasn’t racked up this many DNPs in several years, but where attrition ends and flawed design begins remains murky.

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

Pinpointing when a game goes awry isn’t always a precise exercise. Unfortunately, the postmortem from Missouri’s loss to Texas A&M turns up potential causes relatively easily. We can sum one up succinctly: minus-15 in six minutes of floor time.

That’s the handiwork of one lineup featuring Nick Honor, Tamar Bates, Curt Lewis, Aidan Shaw, and Noah Carter.

Late in the first half, MU trailed by four and needed to stanch a 6-0 spurt. To halt it, coach Dennis Gates swapped in Carter for Jordan Butler to get a sputtering offense some more juice. Sure, it shrank the lineup. But Shaw could supply some vertical pop to crash the glass and protect the rim on the weak side.

It failed. The Aggies’ run reached 16-0, putting the Tigers in a 13-point hole at halftime.

Now, we might expect Gates to avoid rolling out that group again. Yet after the break, it took the floor again — and allowed a 6-2 run to morph into a 19-4 surge that snuffed out the MU rally. And it made one more appearance with 5:36 left to go. The Aggies used that 93-second spell where A&M tore off a 7-0 jag to take a 21-point lead.

Why go back to that group not once but twice?

Well, Gates’ menu of alternatives was short. With Sean East II absent, six Tigers were out of action, eliminating almost 92 percent of the lineups Gates has tried in a campaign gone awry. More perversely, the lineup that got hammered was the most-used one among the 23 left for him to choose from.

Injury luck is so extreme that trying to steal a break for still-upright key cogs becomes perilous. If a media timeout doesn’t arrive as scheduled, the result can be a calamity, a risk Gates acknowledged to the media on Wednesday night.

“When you got guys playing as hard as our guys did, you have to give them sort of a break at some point. I tried to get subs in between certain timeouts, but we got caught in a couple situations where I had to get the fresh guy in, and sometimes the lineup wasn’t a conducive lineup for some of our offensive rotations because we were limited.”

Listen, there are plenty of valid critiques around roster construction, defensive philosophy, or sub-patterns earlier this season. But at this point, Gates isn’t choosing the best alternative when tweaking schemes or personnel. He’s simply trying to avoid the worst of them.

Untangling how much of this woebegone season owes itself to flawed design or dire circumstance means answering whether injury luck has indeed been horrendous. The answer, sadly, is unsatisfactory and muddled.

As it stands, the Tigers have racked up 60 DNPs. That’s 18.7 percent of potential appearances. Both are behind the raw tally (116) and percentage (25.5) from the Gates debut campaign. And when we look back at MU’s history since joining the SEC, it doesn’t look particularly egregious.

How many games do Tigers miss? | 2010-2024

Season GP Total DNP %DNP Win%
Season GP Total DNP %DNP Win%
2024 262 322 60 18.7 0.348
2023 339 455 116 25.5 0.714
2022 308 396 88 22.2 0.364
2021 253 286 33 11.5 0.615
2020 320 403 83 20.6 0.484
2019 319 416 97 23.3 0.469
2018 298 363 65 17.9 0.606
2017 295 384 89 23.2 0.25
2016 319 341 22 6.5 0.323
2015 309 352 43 12.2 0.281
2014 323 385 62 16.1 0.657
2013 316 374 58 15.5 0.676
2012 256 280 24 8.6 0.857
2011 331 340 9 2.6 0.676
2010 338 374 36 9.6 0.676

But look closer, and the matter gets murky.

Not all DNPs are created equal. It’s helpful to isolate missed games among a team’s key cogs. Through that lens, last season wasn’t all that bad. MU’s starter-caliber players only sat out 23 games, most of them racked up by Isiaih Mosley. Yet most of the rotation’s fixtures – Honor, Carter, D’Moi Hodge, and Kobe Brown – only missed two games. When MU was stretched, there was an acute shortage of bench options.

That’s not what is happening this season.

John Tonje’s foot injury torpedoed his season, and Caleb Grill smashed his wrist against Wichita State. It has resulted in 29 missed games. Then, East suffered a knee contusion, holding him out against A&M. That’s 30 DNPs among three likely starters — or almost half of MU’s total – and a 15-fold spike from last season.

The meter is still running, too. Shutting Tonje down ensures another eight games will get added. If Grill’s rehab doesn’t wrap up soon, it could reach the mid-40s. When you look back at MU’s recent history, it ranks among the worst since early in Cuonzo Martin’s tenure.

How many games do starters miss? | 2018-2024

Season Starter DNP All DNP Games %DNP Starters/All DNP
Season Starter DNP All DNP Games %DNP Starters/All DNP
2024 30 60 322 18.7 0.500
2023 21 116 455 25.5 0.181
2022 6 88 396 22.2 0.061
2021 2 33 286 11.5 0.253
2020 21 83 403 20.6 0.277
2019 47 97 416 23.3 0.485
2018 31 65 363 17.9 0.484
All 158 542 2641 20.5 0.292

This is all a way of saying that MU is trending toward one of its worst periods of injury luck. Gates has only had a full deck for a six-game stretch between a trip to Minnesota and a home win over Wichita State. It’s attrition you can’t waive off, especially for a team picked ninth in the SEC and reasonably expected to contend for the NIT.

The only season that compares to this one is 2018-19, and it can also be instructive in how a program copes with its lineup getting riddled with buckshot.

That year, Jontay Porter shredded ligaments in his knee, nuking his sophomore campaign before it began. Next, a foot injury forced Mark Smith to sit out 13 of the Tigers’ last 15 games. And while it’s not part of our formal count, Dru Smith missed that season after the NCAA denied his application for a transfer waiver. How did MU fare without three starters? It went 15-17 overall and finished 11th in an SEC that put eight teams in the NCAA Tournament.

That team leaned hard on Martin’s first principles: defense and rebounding. The Tigers ranked 51st in adjusted defensive efficiency, playing a style that shrank the floor, gave up on forcing turnovers, and created contested jumpers. When a shot went up, MU sent bodies to the backboard, ranking fourth in the SEC for defensive rebounding. Doing so also slowed the pace to a crawl.

It didn’t make for a compelling watch, but Martin’s approach laid cover fire for a mediocre offense. Without Porter or Dru Smith, the Tigers lacked reliable facilitators and were turnover-prone. The absences of Porter, Dru Smith, and Mark Smith — all of whom shot better than 35 percent from 3-point in their careers — allowed the defense to compact the floor, constrict gaps, and dare MU to beat them from distance.

MU operated as a sit-and-kick team, hoping to make the game enough of a slog to stay in contact and close in the waning minutes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always up to the task.

This season, Gates’ offense ranks 115th in adjusted efficiency and on par with how the ‘19 group (127th) performed. What he lacks is a respectable defense to keep a lid on margins and limit second possessions.

Not that he hasn’t gotten creative. MU’s tried several iterations of zone defense. It’s sitting big men deeper in drop coverage. And there have been periods where it uses triple or scram switching to keep smaller guards from getting buried in the paint.

However, drop coverage still requires a guard to recover, and a player like Honor routinely gets hung up fighting over ball screens. Opponents still try dummy actions to get East stationed as the low man in the restricted area. Compensating means Shaw or Carter cheat closer to the mid-line, complicating rotations on the backside. Sometimes, MU’s post players get caught out in modest hedging. And even when the zone stifles first shots, it makes it harder for a team already struggling on the glass to snatch misses.

The question is whether those problems — which existed last season — would have been entirely resolved if the Tigers were fully fit.

At Iowa State, Grill was part of an aggressive no-middle approach and often asked to put out fires off the ball. For his part, Tonje was never asked to create havoc at Colorado State, where he only mustered a 1.2 steal percentage. But he was vigilant as a weak-side defender, especially in minding shooters in the corner while also rotating toward the mid-line just enough to help.

Together, they might have served as an insurance policy as other Tigers tried to gin up takeaways. If point-of-attack defense broke down, they could rotate and recover, curbing some of the unguarded 3-balls opponents hoist up when MU over-helps after Honor or East get picked off on the perimeter. A guy like Tonje was also sturdy enough to three-quarter front or fully front a post to deny an entry pass, taking some of the sting out of big-little switches. Oh, and each boosted excellent rebounding rates for guards.

Or at least that’s the theoretical case.

Gates is the same coach who has shown he’s willing to sacrifice some rebounding at the altar of getting out on the break. His teams have consistently ranked in the top 100 nationally for turnover and steal percentage while never finishing higher than 319th in defensive rebound rate. And you can steadily see his programs climb the rankings in transition possessions.

Ready to Run | Turnovers, Steals, Rebounding and Transition | National Ranks

Season School TO% STL% DR% Transition Poss
Season School TO% STL% DR% Transition Poss
2024 Missouri 67 44 349 195
2023 Missouri 6 2 362 102
2022 Cleveland State 28 25 319 22
2021 Cleveland State 96 96 320 13
2020 Cleveland State 73 47 336 94
Data Source: KenPom and Synergy Sports

Adding Tonje and Grill helped but didn’t represent a fundamental shift in Gates’ outlook. In practice, Tonje’s mobility and confidence were never at a level where we could gauge his impact. He only appeared in 25 minutes during the six games where MU supposedly had its entire roster. During that span, MU only allowed 0.969 points per possession, but on top of Tonje’s scant minutes, three of those games were against low majors.

Wear and Tear | How Mizzou’s defense has eroded | 2023-24

Span Points Possessions PPP
Span Points Possessions PPP
Games 1-3 149 168 0.887
Games 4-9 383 395 0.97
Games 10-16 490 437 1.121
Games 16-23 493 430 1.147
All 1515 1430 1.059
Data Source: EvanMiya.com

But we do know where the floor settled. In the first seven games after Grill went down, MU allowed 1.121 points per possession in normal time, per data from EvanMiya.com. Over the last six outings, as the rotation took more body blows, it’s worsened to 1.146 PPP.

MU’s staff might have tried to add fail-safes in Tonje and Grill, but injuries took them out of commission. However, that doesn’t fully explain how the rest of this roster hasn’t filled the niche it was built to match. It also limits the retrofitting that can be done on the fly.

Moving forward, though, MU will hope that a top-five recruiting class imports the kind of positional size and athleticism to make the system work. Starting mid-March, they’ll peruse the portal for veterans who can serve as a buffer again. Still, we won’t know if new personnel comes with a philosophical evolution until next season.

Until then, a slapdash approach — and the inherent risks — might be the only technique Gates has left.