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Pourover: Expectations give way to reality for Mizzou Men’s Basketball

The latest loss should have Dennis Gates and his staff giving themselves a serious re-evaluation on their approach to winning basketball games.

Missouri guard Tamar Bates walks to the locker room after a 91-84 loss to Arkansas on Jan. 31. Bates scored 29 points in the loss. (Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation)

I run a little poll each summer, mostly out of fun and boredom, trying to see what people think the top 8 players in the basketball rotation will look like. Here’s the link from the most recent version if you’re interested in going back to a much simpler time.

The expectations were consistent from voters: Nick Honor, Noah Carter, John Tonje, Caleb Grill, Sean East, Tamar Bates, Aidan Shaw, and Connor Vanover received the most votes by a wide margin. Most thought this would be a deep team, with consistent minutes getting down to 10 or 11 guys.

But in early February, this is the pecking order.

  1. Sean East II: 704
  2. Nick Honor: 647
  3. Noah Carter: 562
  4. Tamar Bates: 506
  5. Aidan Shaw: 328
  6. Anthony Robinson II: 269
  7. Jesus Carralero Martin: 225
  8. Connor Vanover: 218

If you had told me that during the summer, my analysis would be simple: this is a team destined to play on Wednesday at the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

Therein lies the rub.

I’ve said recently that this isn’t a bad basketball team. It’s more like 80 percent of a good one. The remaining 20 percent is just a healthy John Tonje and Caleb Grill. But at this stage, I’ve seen enough to switch up what my expectations might have been and acknowledge what this team really is.

Whatever expectations we had for Tonje are gone. He’s not a part of this team. Caleb Grill is much the same way. A recovery timeline projected to last seven weeks at most is now entering Week 9 — a span where MU has gone 1-12. Assessing what this team could have been with one or both of those guys is no longer viable. It’s like a hypothetical that weaves in what Caleb Love, Matthew Cleveland, or Kadin Shedrick might have meant. It’s a fantasy. And you don’t win conference games in fantasy land.

Missouri isn’t winning conference games in any land this year. In nine attempts, it’s winless. Moreover, they entered Saturday facing the only team rated lower in the KenPom. With their best remaining chance at a conference win, the Tigers came up empty just days after wasting an opportunity to clip a floundering Arkansas team at Mizzou Arena. Analytic models forecasted MU to go 2-0 with a scoring margin of seven points. It whiffed and underperformed those projections by almost 21 points.

If Mizzou were a good team but simply unlucky, they’re not 0-9 in SEC play.

The reasons they’re 0-9 are extensive. You don’t reach the bottom like this without some serious issues. The biggest cause is the roster mismanagement that came out of last season.

Nobody could have foreseen the injuries to Grill and Tonje. But there has been a level of hubris from this staff this past offseason after stepping into year one with so much success. All you needed was a few mid-major transfers who could pop the 3 to pair with a deep bench, and you could win 11 league games.

That’s not what I took away from last season.

The lesson I took was it’s helpful to have a skilled and powerful 6-foot-8 forward who made 45 percent of his 3-pointers. It was helpful having a wing who was freed to be a gunner on leak-outs and drilled 40 percent of his 3s. Add a dash of late-game luck, and you could paper over a poor defensive unit that couldn’t rebound enough.

While we picked Mizzou to finish sixth in the SEC, we left a breadcrumb trail of caveats this offseason. We explored the void left by Isiaih Mosley’s exit. We noted the boom-bust nature of Connor Vanover’s shooting. We dove deep to examine the pros and cons of MU’s by-committee approach to offense. And we underscored how often MU defied the odds in Year 1 under Gates. Almost every player preview for returners like Nick Honor, Sean East II, Noah Carter, and Aidan Shaw noted potential defensive and rebounding issues.

As for Gates, here’s the view he shared with The Field of 68’s Rob Dauster ahead of the season: “Would you rather win 25 games or win the rebounding battle?”

That remark hasn’t aged well.

Yet this team doesn’t shoot the ball nearly as well — the spot on the floor hardly matters — and gets to the free-throw line less. So there’s no way to make up those lesser shooting numbers. The offensive rebounding numbers have improved slightly. But the turnover rates aren’t big enough to make a difference.

The math for being a poor rebounding team can make sense — if you handle other parts of the game well. It flips our traditional view of the possession battle on its head. Some teams, like Wisconsin or Virginia, give up on offensive rebounding to sprint back, set their defense, and eliminate any transition chances. However, MU willingly concedes some second possessions to force turnovers. That takes an opportunity away from your opponent and gives you — in theory — a high-value shot at the rim.

Last season, the math worked because Mizzou ranked ninth nationally in offensive efficiency and sixth for turnover rate. Sure, the Tigers might get murdered on the glass, but they would win because they shot the ball better and gave the other team fewer shots.

This offseason, Gates emphasized this roster was built to emphasize shooting, which would only make it harder for opponents to offset the possessions swiped by Mizzou. But in early February, the Tigers are 219th nationally in 3-point shooting and No. 90 in attempt rate. And that’s with significant improvements by East (46.6%) and Tamar Bates (44.4%). If anything, that’s where the absences of Tonje (37.1%) and Grill (33.7%) leave a bruise.

Without that shooting, MU’s approach is like a collapsing Ponzi scheme.

Not only is MU making fewer 3s, it’s not turning opponents quite as often. After ranking as the country’s most efficient transition attack, MU’s only 155th this go-around. There aren’t enough threes and easy layups to cover up for the risks being taken on defense and failing to keep teams off the glass.

So, what did Mizzou, in desperate need of a win, do at Vanderbilt? It played Mabor Majak 47 percent of the minutes at the post. No offense to Majak, who plays hard and with energy, but he’s only grabbing 10.0 percent of defensive rebounds this season— well behind Vanover (19.6%) and freshman Jordan Butler (18.2%). His block rate also trails those considerably. If you’re digging into the bench that hard for a guy who has played 222 minutes in his career, there’s a bigger issue.

Let me be clear: this post isn’t about calling for a firing or even warming a coach’s seat. It’s merely asking for clear-eyed re-evaluation.

What does Dennis Gates believe he needs to do to get where he wants to go? I assume he wants to win SEC titles and a national championship and be enshrined into the Hall of Fame. That’s the ideal scenario for every coach while “touching the lives of young men” and whatnot. If so, is this style suitable for this approach to roster construction?

Maybe last season was a red herring for Gates, while this is a slap in the face. Gates is still a very smart young coach. But there are lots of intelligent young coaches in basketball. What separates the best from the rest is the ability to self-evaluate. This season has been a disaster. Even if the next 4-5 weeks are moderately better, it’s still a disaster.

What will Dennis Gates learn from it? And how will he adapt?

Those are the questions that need answers now.