Last Saturday, shortly before 11 am, one of the top post prospects in the 2024 class committed to Florida. Under any other circumstances, this wouldn’t register much as news on this site, but the prospect was 7’3” John Bol, a top-30 recruit and one of coach Dennis Gates' top targets in the class.
Bol found himself in St. Louis after immigrating from South Sudan, playing at CBC before transferring to Sunrise Christian Academy. Bol was targeted by Gates and his staff early, and each time Bol was asked about his relationship with the staff, he glowed. If you compared his statements about Missouri versus the other programs, it gave the impression the Tigers stood out to him.
So then, why didn’t Mizzou land their target?
As of this writing, it remains to be seen whether Florida is hiring Marcus Wilson, Bol’s mentor and adoptive parent, to its staff. If it does come to fruition, that would seem to be an extra step that put them over the top.
However, we still have to look beyond the idea of “the Gators just hired his dad” as a convenient explanation. Or whether a player like Bol is worth that kind of addition. After all, Mizzou hired Michael Porter, Sr. to secure a top-five talent in Michael Porter, Jr. Several years ago, Oklahoma State hired Cade Cunningham’s older brother to its staff. At the same time, however, Wilson’s track record is excellent and not really of the same variety as Porter Sr. or Cunningham. (No disrespect to either, but Wilson’s CV is extensive and accomplished).
More than the hiring of a relative, this came down to prioritization.
Bol is an intriguing prospect, but he’s also very raw. Gates and his staff desire skill and, in particular, bigs with a certain degree of polish before they arrive in Columbia. When you set up that parameter, suddenly the pool gets shallow. Elite bigs are rare enough already, but wanting those with a skillset to play out on the perimeter means you’re hunting for an even scarcer commodity — and a highly coveted one, too.
While MU recruited Bol, it also turned heavy attention to top-20 prospect Jarin Stevenson. In early March, the staff managed to get the North Carolina legacy on campus for an official visit, but on Friday the Tigers were nowhere to be found when Stevenson trimmed his list to three schools.
It’s unfortunately become a bit of a theme.
Last October, MU hosted Peyton Marshall only to see him pick Auburn in December. An opening seemed to appear when Marshall backed off his commitment, but it now seems likely he’ll follow his lead recruiter, assistant coach Wes Flanagan, to Ole Miss. The Tigers also played host to James Brown, yet Brown picked North Carolina in early January. The staff also put in legwork with Lathan Sommerville, an Illinois native potentially underrated by scouts. Instead, he opted for Rutgers.
Bol was also one of those big men to visit Columbia last fall. Yet, Florida got Bol on campus in late April, and it pitched a cohesive vision for how it would flesh out his offensive toolkit.
The options are wearing thin. But no worries, you say; Mizzou can just survey the transfer portal in the spring! Most of these players are likely to land there anyway, right?
If you read most of what Matt Harris wrote about this spring, the answer is much more complicated. Hunting for bigs in the portal is difficult. You can find specialists in there, but it’s become very hard to find the kinds of guys who are more of an all-around answer. The easiest and best answer is to recruit, land, and develop the bigs you need. The problem so far has been Missouri’s inability to really accomplish the second part of landing the talent. Except for one. Thank your lucky stars for Jordan Butler.
How important are bigs these days anyways?
After all, last season Missouri used unconventional lineups to pulverize opponents offensively and they successfully played Tennessee and Kentucky big men off the floor! And that’s true. However, I’m not talking about guys like those pictured above. Uros Plavsic and Oscar Tshiebwe are a little bit of a throwback to a different era. And I’m not writing this because I want to see Dennis Gates move away from what he wants to do. Quite the opposite, in fact. I love the offensive approach.
Rather, I’m wondering if the staff should make some compromises in what they’re looking for and take on prospects who might require development once they hit campus.
Bol isn’t ready to carry a chunk of your offense, but he is ready to defend the rim. He’s also long and athletic and can switch onto a lot of players defensively. These are the types of things the staff has stated they want from their defense. Maybe he never becomes the shooting threat that a player like Jarin Stevenson does, but he can anchor your defense and provide necessary defensive rebounding.
Because while the offense was fun last season, the defense was decidedly not. MU ranked 180th in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom.com. They were the worst team in the country at keeping opponents off the offensive glass, letting them grab 37.2% of their misses. Someone or something needs to change to improve those marks.
Size alone can’t get those rebounds, but it sure helps! Overall, Missouri needs better rebounders, and most of the roster additions this past offseason speak to those needs. The rebounding needs to be better throughout the lineup, and not just at the center spot.
To get where Dennis Gates wants to go, he has to improve the defense
In his introductory press conference, Gates said a lot of things a whole slew of coaches have said before. But he also talked about things like landing in the Hall of Fame and sending players to the NBA Draft Lottery.
Typically, Hall of Fame-level coaches have a healthy amount of success in conference play in the postseason. Any number of offensive approaches can work come March, but teams that make deep runs in the NCAA tournament do one thing well: defend.
Among the teams with single-digit seeds, MU was the worst at that end of the floor. Next came Iowa, which ranked 168th, and fit a long-standing trend of the Hawkeyes running fun stuff on offense and going home after the opening weekend. Next, Baylor (No. 107) and Pitt (No. 103) were the only teams seeded higher than ninth to finish lower than 100th in adjusted defensive efficiency. None of them made it to the second weekend.
Heading into the Big Dance, MU had more in common defensively with the likes of Furman (a No. 13 seed), Grand Canyon (No. 14), and Texas Southern (No. 16).
The picture doesn’t look better when we expand our scope, either. In the last decade, 36 at-large teams entered the NCAA tournament rated lower than 100th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Just four reached the second weekend. Seven didn’t make it out of the First Four in Dayton, and 16 more packed their bags after the first round.
You don’t have to be elite defensively if you’re elite offensively. But you still have to be solid. Miami (99th in AdjD) proved that in making a Final Four run. Florida Atlantic wasn’t elite defensively, checking in at No. 34 nationally. They still made the trip to Houston. The examples are all over the place for Gates and his staff to know that last season's recipe isn’t good enough to get them to where Gates wants to go.
The defense has to be better for them to take that next step, and based on who they’ve imported, things should improve. Longer term bets like Jordan Butler and Trent Pierce will help on the interior, but they can’t do it alone. And so far the plans haven’t exactly been working out when it comes to answering those questions.