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After two years in the doldrums, does Missouri have any hope?

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Missouri has finished 14th in the SEC two years in a row, and TSK is picking them to do that again.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Louisiana State Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

For most of the last forty years, Missouri has been a pretty consistent, top-40-ish program, with occasional peaks (Elite Eight runs in 1994 and 2009, finishing the 2012 regular season ranked #3 in the AP poll... but, uh, don’t remind Mizzou fans what happened after that) and occasional short-lived dry spells (the tail end of both Quin Snyder and Norm Stewart’s tenure).

All of that is why it’s so jarring to see Missouri not only be bad, but to be this bad. Kim Anderson’s two seasons at Missouri have been the Tigers’ two worst seasons, per Ken Pomeroy, since 2002 (which is as far as his ratings go back.) Per Massey ratings, prior to 2016 Missouri hadn’t had back to back seasons outside the top 100 since 1966 and 1967 -- a pair of three-win seasons that immediately preceded the hiring of Norm Stewart.

But while Missouri has had down spells in the past (not of this magnitude, but they’ve had down years), they generally haven’t lasted long. You had to squint to see it, but Missouri did improve from 2015 to 2016. They jumped from 192nd to 160th in KenPom, and they went from being outscored by 18.6 points per 100 possessions in SEC play in 2014-15 to 13.9 per 100 possessions last year — Auburn’s per-possession margins were actually worse. The record was the same, but there was some minor improvement.

Baby steps.

The other reason to be optimistic about the future? Youth. Missouri ranked 340th in the country (per kenpomeroy.com) in experience in 2015-16; seven of the Tigers’ top nine players were freshmen or sophomores. Missouri self-imposed a postseason ban in January, though that was a fait accompli by that point. With the team essentially playing for the future, Kim Anderson spent most of the season experimenting with different lineups in an effort to find a combination that worked. Over the course of the season, ten different players started at least one game, and those same ten players averaged at least ten minutes per game in SEC play.

After an 8-7 start, Missouri closed the season by losing 14 of its last 16 games. But while there were a couple of blowouts – the Tigers lost by 33 to Arkansas (immediately after the postseason ban came down) and by 34 at Kentucky – for the most part they were competitive, with seven of the losses being decided by ten points or less. All of this was hardly inspiring, but with only one senior on the roster, it was at least something to build upon.

At least... that was the theory. Then the offseason happened. In two years at Missouri, Kim Anderson has had twice as many players depart the program with eligibility remaining (12) as conference wins. Wes Clark was dismissed from the team in February, and then four more players – D’Angelo Allen, Namon Wright, Jakeenan Gant, and Tramaine Isabell – announced plans to transfer after the season ended.

Those five players, along with Johnathan Williams III and Montaque Gill-Caesar, could have formed the core of this year’s Missouri team. Instead, the roster features seven players who are new to the program, six of whom have never played Division I basketball before. Of the 12 scholarship players on the roster, five are freshmen and five are sophomores. The two upperclassmen on the team have played a grand total of 591 minutes of Division I basketball between them, and one of them won’t even be eligible until semester break. Missouri is losing 59 percent of its scoring and 53 percent of its minutes played (SEC play only) off last year’s team.

Average player ratings from 247 Sports.

Now, here is a good time to point out that for bad teams, losing a bunch of players isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. After all, if the team went 3-15 in the SEC, and 10-21 overall, those players couldn’t have possibly been all that good, right? But that assumes that the players you’re replacing them with are better, and Missouri’s 2016 recruiting class ranked 64th nationally – and 13th in the SEC – according to 247 Sports. The 2015 class ranked 48th nationally, 8th in the SEC (Missouri’s 2013 and 2014 classes, ranked 16th and 11th respectively, are already completely gone from the program).

But there is a positive spin to put on all of this. Of the players who have left the program under Kim Anderson, all but one were either Frank Haith recruits or they were added by Anderson immediately after he took the job in 2014 (The only exception is Martavian Payne, who left the program without playing a game). Some of the holdovers from the previous regime had off-the-court issues, and it’s worth pointing out, too, that most of the players who left the program have wound up at mid-majors, potentially indicating that they weren’t really SEC-level players.

But Anderson’s first full recruiting class remains intact, aside from Payne, so at the very least Anderson is getting players to buy in so long as he had a full recruiting cycle to evaluate and recruit them. To be sure, this isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement of Anderson, but he also wouldn’t be the first coach who had issues with players left over from his predecessor.

With all of that said – this is still a very inexperienced team, and one with loads of question marks and few answers. You could probably talk yourself into this team being pretty good, or at least decent, in a year or two if everybody stays with the program and the youngsters develop. But as for 2016-17, Missouri still has a long way to go.

Backcourt

Missouri Backcourt
# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG SPG WS Notes
Wes Clark 26.5 9.8 3.0 2.9 2.1 0.9 1.0 Dismissed from team
Tramaine Isabell 16.3 6.2 1.7 1.3 1.5 0.8 0.3 Transfer (Drexel)
Namon Wright 26.5 9.6 5.2 1.3 1.8 0.5 1.2 Transfer (Colorado)
1 Terrence Phillips 5’11” 180 SO. 0.8949 26.2 7.8 4.2 3.5 2.3 1.3 1.3
33 Cullen VanLeer 6’4” 208 SO. 0.8193 17.2 4.0 1.2 0.8 0.5 0.3 0.3
11 K.J. Walton 6’3” 200 SO. 0.9195 13.8 5.3 1.9 0.9 0.7 0.5 1.1
3 Frankie Hughes 6’4” 192 FR. 0.8709
15 Jordan Geist 6’2” 180 SO. NR Transfer (Ranger JC)

Missouri has a lot of question marks, but the Tigers do have a good lead guard in sophomore Terrence Phillips. As a freshman, Phillips started all 31 games (one of just two Missouri players to do so) and played the second-most minutes on the team in SEC play. His assist-to-turnover ratio (107 assists, 71 turnovers) was fine for a freshman in a power conference, and he should only get better from here. With more scoring punch, he might even emerge as an All-SEC player, but his shooting percentages as a freshman (42.6 percent on two-pointers, 32.2 percent on three-pointers, 72.2 percent from the foul line) suggest he’s got a long way to go in that regard.

But it’s fine if he remains a pass-first point guard so long as other scoring threats emerge in the backcourt.

And that’s the real question mark. Fellow sophomore K.J. Walton appeared in all 31 games as a freshman and started 7, but only averaged 13.8 minutes per game and his offensive production as a freshman was inconsistent, to put it mildly. Walton did show an impressive ability to get to the foul line, though; he attempted 78 free throws and 115 field goals in 2015-16.

Where Walton is mostly a slasher, Cullen VanLeer came into Columbia with a reputation as a shooter. But he struggled with his jump shot (to put it nicely) as a freshman, shooting just 27.3 percent on three-pointers – and that percentage declined to 20.3 percent against better competition in the SEC. And like pretty much everybody at Missouri, VanLeer’s minutes varied wildly as Kim Anderson tried to experiment with rotations well into the season; in one stretch, he played over 30 minutes against both South Carolina and Arkansas before playing just three minutes in a late February game at Ole Miss. Obviously, 27.3 percent isn’t going to cut it for a shooter, but if VanLeer can even shoot 35 percent from three-point range on a consistent basis it would go a long way to make Missouri’s offense functional.

And that’s it for the holdovers. Phillips will absolutely have to stay healthy and be effective, because nobody else on the team is really a point guard. Missouri does have a pair of newcomers in the backcourt who should be able to get minutes here. Freshman Frankie Hughes, from Cleveland, is 6’4” and was the highest-rated recruit in Missouri’s recruiting class per 247 Sports. Hughes averaged 19 points and 5 rebounds per game and was named first-team All-Ohio as a senior in high school. Hughes’ main attribute is his shooting stroke, but he also has good length for a guard and could develop into a solid perimeter defender. That’s something that has been lacking for Missouri in the past couple of years.

Jordan Geist is new to the SEC, but he’s played for an SEC coach – he’s a 6’2” sophomore transfer from Fort Wayne, Indiana, via Ranger (Texas) College where he played for Billy Gillispie of all people. Geist averaged 15.1 ppg and 2.8 apg in his lone year at Ranger; Ranger advanced all the way to the semifinals of the NJCAA national tournament. Both Hughes and Geist should find plenty of playing time available if they’re ready, particularly since this isn’t a very deep group.

Frontcourt

Missouri Frontcourt
# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG BPG WS Notes
Ryan Rosburg 19.8 7.5 3.8 0.5 0.8 0.5 1.9
Jakeenan Gant 15.6 5.1 3.8 0.2 0.7 1.0 1.1 Transfer (UL Lafayette)
D’Angelo Allen 8.4 2.1 2.0 0.4 0.4 0.3 0.3 Transferred
24 Kevin Puryear 6’7” 243 SO. 0.8193 24.7 11.5 4.6 0.4 1.6 0.1 2.0
25 Russell Woods 6’8” 236 SR. 0.8900 13.4 2.8 2.7 0.3 0.4 0.2 0.6
2 Willie Jackson 6’6” 212 FR. 0.8651
4 Jakoby Kemp 6’9” 215 FR. NR
5 Mitchell Smith 6’10” 210 FR. 0.8687
14 Reed Nikko 6’10” 250 FR. 0.8469
21 Jordan Barnett 6’7” 215 JR. 0.9288 8.5 1.9 1.3 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.4 Transfer (Texas); eligible midseason

Like Phillips in the backcourt, Kevin Puryear started every game as a freshman and was Missouri’s leading scorer at 11.2 ppg. Aside from the fact that it’s pretty sad that Missouri’s leading scorer barely averaged 11 a game, Puryear is much more of a polished low-post scorer and second scoring option than he is a guy with a ton of potential to do more than this.

But so long as Missouri can get some scoring punch elsewhere, Puryear should be fine holding down one of the forward spots.

The only other holdover in the frontcourt is 6’8”, 230-pound senior Russell Woods, who averaged 2.8 ppg and 2.7 rpg in just 13.4 minutes a night. Woods is an okay depth guy, but Missouri probably shouldn’t be hoping for much more than that.

But Missouri does have some more experience here. Jordan Barnett has the length and athleticism to be a defensive presence on the wing; he’s a former four-star recruit who transferred from Texas, and the St. Louis native will be eligible at semester break. The question here is offense: while Barnett could be a disruptive defender that Missouri lacked last year, his struggles on the offensive end were why he couldn’t find the floor at Texas. Missouri’s in a position where they can use the defensive help and hope for more offense, though, so expect Barnett to see the floor a lot once he’s eligible.

This was an area that Kim Anderson addressed on the recruiting trail in the offseason, as the Tigers brought in four freshmen in the frontcourt. Willie Jackson, a high school teammate of guard Frankie Hughes, is 6’6” and athletic. His size screams that he should play the three, but he’s a good enough rebounder to function as an undersized four and should provide depth at both forward spots.

Anderson also brought in a trio of big men, all 6’9” or taller, in hopes of shoring up the frontcourt, though it’s not clear how much immediate help any of them will provide. Mitchell Smith, at 6’10” and 210 pounds, could probably stand to add some strength but he’s athletic and has a fairly polished low-post game. Reed Nikko has SEC-ready size at 6’10” and 250 and also has some polish, but his athleticism is a question mark. Jakoby Kemp, who signed with Missouri in July, has an impressive highlight tape and looks pretty athletic and polished — but, well, there’s probably a reason he was available in the middle of the summer (and also why he wasn’t even rated by some of the major recruiting services). There aren’t any guaranteed contributors in this group, but at the very least Anderson has several bodies available.

Schedule

Missouri Basketball Schedule
Date Opponent Time (CT) TV
11/4 Central Missouri (exh.) 7:00 PM SEC Network+
11/13 Alabama A&M 7:00 PM SEC Network
11/17-20 Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Orlando, FL)
11/26 Northwestern State 2:00 PM SEC Network+
11/28 North Carolina Central 7:00 PM SEC Network+
12/3 Western Kentucky 2:00 PM SEC Network+
12/6 Miami (Ohio) 7:00 PM SEC Network+
12/10 Arizona 11:00 AM ESPN2
12/17 Eastern Illinois 2:30 PM SEC Network
12/21 vs. Illinois (St. Louis, MO) 6:00 PM ESPNU
12/29 Lipscomb 7:00 PM SEC Network+
1/4 LSU 8:00 PM SEC Network
1/7 at Georgia 12:00 PM SEC Network
1/10 Auburn 6:00 PM SEC Network
1/14 at Arkansas 5:00 PM SEC Network
1/18 at Alabama 6:00 PM ESPNU
1/21 Ole Miss 2:30 PM SEC Network
1/25 at Mississippi State 6:00 PM SEC Network
1/28 South Carolina 7:30 PM SEC Network
2/2 at Florida 6:00 PM ESPN/ESPN2
2/4 Arkansas 5:00 PM SEC Network
2/8 at Texas A&M 7:30 PM SEC Network
2/11 Vanderbilt 2:30 PM SEC Network
2/15 Alabama 7:30 PM SEC Network
2/18 at Tennessee 12:00 PM SEC Network
2/21 Kentucky 8:00 PM SEC Network
2/25 at Ole Miss 2:30 PM SEC Network
2/28 Texas A&M 6:00 PM SEC Network
3/4 at Auburn 2:30 PM SEC Network

Missouri will get an early test in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (confusingly being played in Orlando due to Zika concerns), where they’ll play Xavier in the first game, but aside from that the Tigers won’t leave the state of Missouri at all in November and December. Incredibly, a January 7 trip to Georgia — the Tigers’ fourteenth game of the season — will be their first true road game.

That said, while the nonconference schedule is clearly designed to build confidence for a young team, the SEC schedule is a bit more daunting. It’s also heavily backloaded, with two games with Texas A&M, a visit from Kentucky, and a trip to Florida in February. If Missouri’s youngsters are coming on late in the season, it might not be reflected in the record just because the back end of the conference slate looks tougher than the front end.

Outlook

Is there any reason for hope here, other than blind faith? While the current state of Missouri’s basketball program is not entirely Kim Anderson’s doing — it’s pretty clear by now that Frank Haith didn’t really leave much behind — it’s also hard to see any positive direction right now. The scholarship cut won’t help matters, either.

Not only was Missouri picked 14th in a poll of seven TSK contributors, but it was nearly unanimous: Only one contributor picked them higher than that, and that person picked them 13th. With all of that said, you can start to see some potential here if you squint hard. Terrence Phillips could be a good SEC lead guard, Kevin Puryear is a solid low-post scorer (albeit one who’s limited defensively). K.J. Walton has some upside, and if either Cullen VanLeer or Frankie Hughes can hit some jump shots, Missouri could manage to pull out a few wins.

Of course, the defense is an issue, too, but some of the newcomers — particularly Barnett, but also perhaps the freshman bigs — could help in that regard. But there are so many unknowns with this team, and it’s easy not to have faith in Anderson as a coach or in a bunch of three-star freshmen and sophomores to be contributors on an SEC team. With this many question marks, it might be a significant accomplishment just to squeeze out seven or eight SEC wins and maybe avoid the first night of the SEC Tournament or threaten for an NIT berth.

Would that be enough for Kim Anderson? If Missouri finishes last again, it’s going to be hard to make an argument for him, but if Anderson can finish 11th or so, then you might be able to talk yourself into this team being pretty good in a year or two. At the very least, by the end of this season Missouri will have some idea whether those three-star recruits were diamonds in the rough or fool’s gold. It has to be the former for the Kim Anderson era to work.