Thursday, February 22, 2007

What If, Part I: What If Ricky Clemons Didn’t Choose Mizzou?

Welcome to the first part in what will likely be a relatively long series of “What If...?” posts. This isn’t meant to be some rose-colored fantasy so much as a chance to do two things a) satisfy some curiosity, and b) prove my ultimate nerddom in front of the entire blogosphere.

I can pinpoint the exact moment where I was most optimistic about Mizzou basketball and the Quin Snyder Era. It was the morning of September 28, 2002. A few hundred Tiger fans and I attended a basketball scrimmage that morning before the epic Mizzou-Troy State football game that afternoon, and things couldn’t have gone better. Mizzou was coming off an Elite Eight appearance, Luol Deng was visiting, and it was the first chance for a lot of people to get a look at Ricky Clemons, a JUCO point guard whom Quin Snyder had spent a good portion of the offseason wooing. What happened? Well, Clemons made something like 9 of 10 3-pointers, Deng scored at will and looked extremely happy to be in Columbia and comfortable around the other players (this came on top of news that Deng and his father were not happy with the negative way Coach K and Duke were recruiting him), and I could hardly contain myself. I breathlessly reported back to people at our tailgate just how great Clemons and Deng were, and how great this could be for Mizzou basketball.


Like I said, that was the zenith of my optimism. Almost everything that happened from that point on represented a trip down a downward slope. First, Deng signed with Duke, negative recruiting or no negative recruiting.

And then Clemons assaulted his girlfriend because she didn’t want to watch Roots.

And then Vahe Gregorian of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch decided to try and win a Pulitzer with heavy exposes of the dark side of the Mizzou program.

And then Mizzou bowed out in overtime in the second round of the NCAA’s.

And then Clemons crashed an ATV on the school president’s lawn while out of prison because of a lie and got officially kicked off the team.

And then Mizzou got put on probation because, among other things, Quin gave Clemons some flip flops and made a recruit (who didn’t even end up coming to Mizzou) a burger.

And then the 2003-04 Mizzou team, a possible Final Four contender with or without Clemons, became possibly the worst underachiever in Mizzou history, losing to the likes of Belmont and missing out on the NCAA’s altogether.

And then the 2005-06 team missed the postseason altogether, resulting mercifully in Quin Snyder’s firing.

(Yes, that was a relatively selective look at the last 5 years. Sue me.)

It appears now that Mike Anderson has righted the ship, and things have turned back to an upslope. But what might have happened if Ricky Clemons had selected Florida State, or N.C. state, or Mississippi State instead of Mizzou? Would things have actually ended up any better? Granted, I would not have been nearly excited about Mizzou basketball on September 28, 2002, but would two years of Wesley Stokes and no recruiting sanctions have saved the Mizzou program? I really don’t know the answer, but let’s take a look.


Never mind the personal aspect—Ricky Clemons’ 2002-03 season with Mizzou was a roller coaster in and of itself. He scored 25 points in his debut against American. He followed up a solid December with a fantastic beginning of January, almost single-handedly beating Iowa on 1/4 (scoring 27) and keeping Mizzou competitive on the road against Syracuse on Big Monday on 1/13 (scoring 26). It was later that week when all hell broke loose with the Roots incident. He was suspended for the trip to Gallagher-Iba (walk-on Ryan Kiernan played 10 minutes, and Mizzou got slaughtered), but when he was reinstated (innocent until proven guilty, after all), he continued to play well until he broke his hand against Colorado on 2/22. He didn’t miss a game (in fact, he scored 13 points in an upset of Oklahoma the very next game), but his production from that point on degraded quickly. In fact, by the postseason you could have almost convinced me he was throwing games. He finished the season going 2-for-15 against Marquette (albeit with 7 assists) in a game the Tigers somehow lost despite getting a combined 64 points from Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson. He was 7-for-39 (17.9%) with 22 points, 12 assists and 10 turnovers over his last four games in a Mizzou uniform.

On July 7, 2002, Wesley Stokes announced he was transferring from Mizzou to play for San Diego State. Part of his announced reason was that he was homesick and wanted to play close to his family. You have to figure that was indeed part of the decision, but you also have to figure that, if Ricky Clemons hadn’t committed to Mizzou and hadn’t been forecasted to steal quite a bit of Stokes’ playing time, Stokes wouldn’t have felt quite as homesick, no? So let’s pretend that Clemons instead committed to his second choice, whoever that would have been, and Stokes decided to stick it out for two more seasons at Mizzou.

2002-03 Season

Here’s a comparison of Wesley Stokes and Ricky Clemons in their junior seasons. I determined Stokes’ numbers by combining his sophomore stats at Mizzou and his junior stats at San Diego State. Stokes emerged as a scorer (and turnover machine) at SDSU, but I balanced that with his Mizzou numbers simply because of the level of competition (Stokes also probably benefitted from having a year to hone his skills while sitting out at SDSU for transfer rules).

Wesley Stokes: 28.0 MPG, 8.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.9 APG, 2.8 TOPG, 1.17 PPS, 0.26 ShPM, 0.08 RPM, 0.17 APM, 0.10 TOPM

Ricky Clemons: 34.0 MPG, 14.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 3.8 APG, 3.3 TOPG, 1.14 PPG, 0.37 ShPM, 0.09 RPM, 0.11 APM, 0.10 TOPM

(MPG = Minutes Per Game, PPG = Points Per Game, RPG = Rebounds Per Game, APG = Assists Per Game, TOPG = Turnovers Per Game, PPS = Points Per Shot, ShPM = Shots Per Minute, RPM = Rebounds Per Minute, APM = Assists Per Minute, TOPM = Turnovers Per Minute)

What you see here is two completely different point guard styles. Ricky Clemons had a lot of Clarence Gilbert in him. He did enjoy better assist numbers than Gilbert ever did, as he really was a bit more of a true point guard, but Stokes was pretty much the definition of a “true” point guard. He was by no means great at what he did, but he was a distributor first, whereas Clemons was a shooter.

When I first started this comparison, I figured what I would see was a dropoff of 3-4 PPG in the tradeoff between Stokes and Clemons, but now I’m not so sure. For one thing, taking NEP (Net Equivalent Points) into account, Stokes had a better per-minute average in 2001-02 than Clemons did in 2002-03. Clemons took 14.8 shots per 40 minutes (for an avg of about 16.9 points per 40), Stokes 10.4 (12.2 points per 40). (Honestly, it seemed like Clemons took a lot more shots than that...he was Gilbert-esque in his possession-wasting shot-jacking.) On the other hand, Stokes averaged 6.8 assists per 40 minutes, while Clemons only averaged 4.4. If Stokes were point guard, somebody else would be taking the 3-4 extra shots per game, and considering Stokes’ assist rate, they’d have probably made two of those shots (especially considering most other players on the team averaged more PPS than Stokes or Clemons did). So do Stokes’ assists make up for Clemons’ points scored? Surprisingly, I say yes, even when you take into account the fact that Clemons played more minutes than Stokes likely would have, meaning guards Jimmy McKinney and Josh Kroenke would have ended up with a smidge more playing time.

There’s something else to take into account here—Clemons’ roller coaster ride. He was All-Big XII caliber until mid-January, a competent PG until late-February, and a liability after that, when he was playing with a broken hand (and still shooting a lot). So you have to figure that, even though Mizzou would likely have averaged roughly the same PPG with Stokes, it would have been distributed a bit differently. For the purposes of this experiment, I say we would have been about 1 point worse with Stokes the first month of the season (Nov-Dec), 2 points worse the second month (Dec-Jan), no different the third month (Jan-Feb), and 3 points better the fourth month and beyond.

So what about defense?

Wesley Stokes averaged 2.8 steals per 40 minutes during his simulated junior season, while Ricky Clemons only averaged 1.6. However, if memory serves (and there’s a chance it doesn’t—this is four years ago, after all), Clemons was a better on-ball defender (Stokes took more risks), and combined with Clemons’ slight advantage in the rebounding category, it’s hard to assume that Mizzou would have been any better or worse defensively. (If anybody has any different view of Stokes v. Clemons in the defensive category, feel free to share.)

So...keeping the opponents’ scoring the same and making the offensive adjustments I listed above, how does the season shake down? Well...exactly the same, actually. However, my own recollection of that game is that there is absolutely no way we would have won without Ricky Clemons, so we lose that one. Our conference record is exactly the same, and we reach the post season 17-10, or one game worse than the 18-9 we managed with Clemons. If you remember correctly, we made quite the run in the Big XII tourney that year.

3/13 vs Nebraska
Old Result: MU 70-61
New Result: MU 73-61

3/14 vs Oklahoma State
Old Result: MU 60-58
New Result: MU 63-58

3/15 vs Kansas
Old Result: MU 68-63
New Result: MU 71-63

3/16 vs Oklahoma
Old Result: OU 49-47
New Result: MU 50-49

Clemons really was a liability by this point, and Stokes probably could have contributed more than Clemons at this point in the season. So while we made the tourney finals with Clemons, we might just have beaten OU with less of a point guard liability. So there you go. 21-10, Big XII Tournament Champions. That’s the same record we had going into the NCAA Tournament in Reality, so for the sake of continuity, let’s say we got the same tourney placement in Clemons-less Reality. The committee loves strong finishes, so there’s maybe a chance we’d have gotten a 5 seed, but we’ll say we got exactly the same draw.

3/20 vs Southern Illinois
Old Result: MU 72-71
New Result: MU 75-71

3/22 vs Marquette
Old Result: Marquette 101-92 (OT), 80-80 end of regulation
New Result: MU 83-80

Keeping the same 3-point adjustment (which might or might not be fair), the SIU now does not come down to a 3-pointer at the buzzer (damn, did we come close to losing that game...and being that my father-in-law went to SIU, and my wife and I had just started dating at that time...yeah, that would have been utter hell). As for the 2nd Round game against Marquette...the mere fact that Wesley Stokes wouldn’t have gone 2-for-15 is probably worth at least a point. So let’s say it’s 81-80 Mizzou when Dwayne Wade misses a pull-up jumper with under 10 seconds left, and Marquette has to foul Rickey Paulding on the rebound. Paulding, who couldn’t miss for most of the game, makes both FT’s, and it’s 83-80. Marquette misses a desperation heave, and Mizzou is on to the Sweet Sixteen for the second straight season.

Honestly, that’s pretty realistic, isn’t it? Considering how far we got with nothing from the PG position, getting a bare minimum from our PG in a game where Rickey Paulding outplayed Dwayne Wade could have possibly resulted in what was 80-80 after regulation swinging ever-so-slightly in our favor.

Of course, now we get into some serious conjecture (but hey, that's what I'm best at). After defeating Missouri in the 2nd round, Marquette disposed of Pittsburgh in the Sweet Sixteen. Instead of just saying “That means Mizzou also would have beaten Pittsburgh,” let’s look at it this way. The 2002-03 Pittsburgh Panthers were 28-4 (13-3 in the Big East) when they played Marquette. They did not have a go-to scorer (five guys—Julius Page, Brandin Knight, Chevon Troutman, Jaron Brown, and Donatas Zavackas—averaged between 10 and 12 points a game). They were a team that took lots of 3-pointers (17.3 per game) and lots of free throws (22.7 per game). They averaged a strong 36.4 rebounds per game. Of all of Mizzou’s 2002-03 opponents, Pittsburgh’s combination of physical inside play and 3-point shooting makes them most like the Oklahoma Sooners. If you average out the Marquette-Pitt score with Mizzou's battles with OU (Marquette 77-74, Mizzou 67-52, Mizzou 50-49), you get a 65-58 Mizzou win. If you have WhatIfSports simulate it (with Clemons), you get...well, you get an 85-82 Mizzou win one time and a 75-59 Pitt win another.

But considering how hot Rickey Paulding had gotten, considering Mizzou was battle-tested and capable of physical play (just ask OU), and considering Mizzou had peaked in mid-March for three straight seasons, it's not out of the realm of possibility that they could have made it to the Elite Eight, where they would have played Kentucky. We know what happened in the real Marquette-Kentucky game—Marquette destroyed UK—and while it’s possible that UK would have laid just as big an egg against Mizzou, it's not a given.

As a whole, UK didn’t shoot quite as many 3-pointers (though they made a strong 35.6% of them) or FT’s as Pittsburgh did. Their strength was mostly in rebounding (36.8/game) and FG% (48.9%). They were led by sharpshooters Keith Bogans (15.7 PPG) and Gerald Fitch (12.3 PPG) with a strong interior game led by Marquis Estill (11.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.8 BPG). In all, just looking at the general strengths of the team and the quality of the team overall, I guess you’d have to compare them to Kansas from Mizzou’s list of opponents. Marquette whipped UK (83-69, though it didn't seem nearly that close), and the (adjusted) scores of the three MU-KU games averaged out to a 73-73 tie, so it's also not out of the realm of possibility that a Clemons-less Mizzou team could have beaten them too and advanced to a Final Four matchup with Kansas.

However, I wanted to prove that I wasn’t just out to say that “If not for _____, we’d have made 30 Final Fours and won 10 National Titles,” so in my first experiment, I can't have Mizzou making its first ever Final Four. Let's just say they bow out in the Elite Eight for the second straight year. That's still a more successful 3-year tourney run (9-3 record, 2 Elite Eight's) than Mizzou has ever had.

That suggests that 2002-03 could easily have been better without Ricky Clemons. So what about the future?

2003-04 Season

You have to figure that, after averaging 18+ PPG (taking more shots because of Clemons' absence) and wreaking havoc in 4 NCAA Tournament games, Rickey Paulding would have declared for the 2003 NBA draft. It would have been stupid not to. The tournament would have clouded teams’ collective judgement enough that he probably would have gone in the #15-25 range. As a point of reference, Louisville’s Reece Gaines went #15 to Orlando, Aleksandar Pavlovic went #19 to Utah, Duke’s Dahntay Jones went #20 to Boston, and Carlos Delfino went #25 to Detroit. Knowing what his stock would have been at with a Final Four run and great stats, that seems pretty realistic. Arthur Johnson would not have declared, as I don’t really see much of anything that would have bumped his draft stock into the first round whether he was a junior, senior, senior citizen...whatever. Unathletic 6'9 centers who can't even fake PF skills don't go in the first round, no matter how good they are (disclaimer: I loved Arthur Johnson).

Also, after being suspended for the first semester games for academic reasons, Wesley Stokes was dismissed altogether from San Diego State in January of his senior season. We’ll assume the same thing would have happened at Mizzou.

In other words, with a lineup sans Rickey Paulding (and Randy Pulley, who we wouldn’t have recruited) and plus no additional point guard help (since we wouldn’t have known Stokes was out until the school year started), 2004 would most certainly not have been any better.

Being extremely conservative, I would say there would be about a -3 PPG difference between 2003-04 with Paulding and without him (think of it as a 6-point deduction for losing Paulding and a 3-point addition for not having to go through Rootsgate). Subtracting 3 PPG from the offense and keeping defense the same (Paulding was great on the ball, but he didn’t force many turnovers), only one game result would change: we’d lose to Oklahoma State 92-91 in 2 OT’s, making us 15-14 after getting destroyed by Kansas in the Big XII tourney. You have to figure we’d have still played (and lost to) Michigan in the first round of the NIT as well. All in all, the 15-15 season would have still been disappointing (especially for a team that went to the Final Four the previous year), but with a thin bench (7 players getting PT once Kleiza went down) and no proven scorer aside from AJ, the disappointing season wouldn’t have been nearly as surprising.

And, chances are that on November 4, 2004, the program wouldn’t have been put on three years of probation.

2004-05 Season

Really, the way things shook down, the 2004-05 Mizzou roster might have ended up looking exactly the same with no Clemons and no probation. The 2004 recruiting class (Jason Horton, Marshall Brown, Kalen Grimes, Glen Dandridge) was large and highly-touted. Being that the case, we assume no change in results—this would have resulted in the second straight NIT bid after the 2003 Final Four. However...

2005-06 Season

Here’s where things might have changed, depending solely on the decision of a high school senior from Poplar Bluff, MO. As any Mizzou fan who follows Missouri athletics and recruiting knows, Tyler Hansbrough’s first season at North Carolina was 2005-06. He committed to North Carolina in late-August 2004, and it was presumed (by Mizzou fans, at least) that the single biggest reason he didn’t choose Mizzou had to have been the lingering NCAA punishment. What big-time recruit was going to come play for Mizzou when they might be banned from the postseason? Well, without the specter of NCAA punishment, Mizzou stood a much better chance of landing Hansbrough.

And if he did come to Mizzou? Well, that would considerably change things up for 2005-06, not only for what Hansbrough would have added (scoring), but what he would have taken away (worthless minutes by Kalen Grimes, Leo Lyons, and Kevin Young).

Granted, a team with Tyler Hansbrough would still have defined weaknesses—namely, depth and point guard play. Four players would have averaged close to 30 minutes per game and with only a couple other even remotely capable of giving quality minutes off the bench, there was no room for error. And let’s face it, every point guard that Quin recruited was worse than the last one. And Tyler Hansbrough, for all of his strengths, can’t play point guard.

And when you think about how amazingly bad this team was through much of late-January and early-February, no one player could have totally prevented some sort of collapse.

For the sake of putting numbers to things, let’s say that Tyler Hansbrough was worth an 8-point improvement. It might not have been that much, but who knows? First of all, this means Mizzou avoids embarrassing itself and beats Sam Houston (and then Drexel) and advances to the Preseason NIT semis in New York. Assuming Mizzou is two points better than Drexel we’ll say Mizzou finishes third, losing to Duke and beating a UCLA team that only beat Drexel by 1, and even with a loss at Davidson and a blowout loss to Illinois, they cruise into conference play at 11-3.

After defeating Kansas, Mizzou is 15-3, 4-0 in conference, and ranked probably in the #12-18 range. However, not even Tyler Hansbrough is enough to prevent the wheels from falling off at this point. I do realize that part of the reason for this gigantic slide (in real-life) was that the team quit on Quin and the firing rumors were too much to ignore. That always magnifies slides. But there’s just really no way measure that, and besides that, of the 10 games Mizzou lost following the Kansas game, only three were by less than 10 points. So we’ll say that a massive slide still took place. Mizzou loses 6 in a row, then rights the ship, finishing 4-2 (including huge wins against ATM and at Iowa State) and saving their fading NCAA hopes for now. Mizzou is 19-11 (8-8 in conference) with wins over Kansas, Texas A&M, Arkansas, and UCLA, an RPI of roughly 60-65, and it’s on to the Big XII tournament.

An 8-8 finish would have put Mizzou right back in the place where Quin Snyder felt most comfortable—tied for 5th in conference, this time with Colorado. Mizzou would win the tiebreaker due to a 5-5 division record (CU’s was 4-6), meaning they’d get a rematch with 12-seed Baylor in the first round. Let’s say they indeed get revenge on Baylor, then lose to 4-seed Texas A&M in the quarterfinals. That puts them at 20-12, RPI of roughly 55-60. Considering in real-life, Colorado was left out of the tourney with a 20-11 record and 59 RPI, logic dictates that Mizzou would have been left out too. Maybe they sneak in because of Quin’s success in the tourney, but maybe not.

So you add the best power-forward to come out of Missouri in who knows how long, and it puts you squarely on the tourney bubble.

And what if Quin hadn’t landed Hansbrough? Well, he would have extra scholarships to give out, and maybe he’d have landed somebody like Chad Millard or Luke Zeller (or maybe Brandon Rush), but this team had too many fatal flaws, particularly at PG, for anybody other than Hansbrough to lead them back to respectability.

2006-07 Season

So that leads us to the present day. Assume that Quin would have brought in roughly the same class he was looking to bring in last year before his firing (plus maybe Ben Hansbrough). Assume also that, with Quin staying, Thomas Gardner stays for his senior season. So you have a starting five of something like…

PG – Jason Horton/Armon Bassett (who is doing well at Indiana)
SG – K. Lawrence/M. Lawrence/Ben Hansbrough
SF - Thomas Gardner
PF – Marshall Brown
C – Tyler Hansbrough/Kalen Grimes

With Tyler, you probably come up with a 4th place finish in the Big XII, better than K-State/OU/Tech but probably not nearly as good as KU/ATM/Texas. Without Tyler, Mizzou is fighting it out with OSU for 7th or worse.

Summary (finally)

Okay, so roughly 30,000 words later, what can we conclude? Well, what I thought I’d find by doing this was a 2002-05 dropoff followed by a decent resurgence in the Tyler Hansbrough era, where Quin firmly established Mizzou as an annual 4th-6th place finisher and NCAA threat. What I actually found is that comparing Clemons to Stokes was a lot more favorable to Stokes than I would have remembered. There’s nothing saying we would have made the Final Four that year or anything, and that definitely wasn’t the conclusion I was looking for, but another year of postseason success probably would have taken place in 2003, followed by a significant dropoff in 2003-05 following the departures of Paulding and AJ (that Echols/Ferg/John class killed this team’s depth, didn’t it?) and the complete lack of a point guard (Jimmy McKinney not developing into the hero everybody thought he would be didn’t help).

Say all of this actually took place in the best-case scenario. Say we did actually make the Final Four in 2003. Hell, say we beat KU and made the NCAA Finals in 2003. Come 2005, we’d still have been betting the future of our program on Tyler Hansbrough. If he chose UNC, then we’d have ended up with the same mediocre team we had in 2004 and 2005, only Quin’s cachet of a Final Four berth and no probation might have kept him here at least a couple years longer.

To me, this What If game has shown that, really, Quin’s fatal flaw was recruiting and the lack of point guards, not Ricky Clemons. Missouri was set up to succeed in 2002-03, and they actually might have more without Clemons than with him. But no matter how much weight you put into the black cloud that shrouded the team in 2003-04, that team was going to disappoint with Jimmy McKinney and Spencer Laurie (and Randy Pulley) at the helm. And when they lost the class of Paulding/AJ/Travon, they had not recruited enough talent or depth to sustain the program to even the point where point guard was their sole weakness.

In his first few years, Quin had his teams peaking in mid-March, and that was always great to see, but you don’t continue to overachieve in the NCAA’s—you either improve your program as a whole or you regress to the mean. Ricky Clemons or no, Quin’s Duke-esque style of freedom and autonomy would never have worked with the second-tier players he drew to MU. Quin was always known as some recruiting dynamo, and he recruited some good talent, but the Duke system needs either 5+ McD’s AA’s, or the best point guard in the country (Coach K’s three titles came with Bobby Hurley and Jason Williams at the helm...anything less, and they didn’t win).

Now that I’ve seen what Mike Anderson is doing here, I suggest that we’re better off having lived through Clemons and probation just for a fresh start. Mike Anderson’s system is exciting, and it’s built to succeed in the Midwest. His system is built on speed and execution, not pure basketball talent. You can recruit top-shelf talent here, but you’ll never recruit as much of that talent as KU and Texas will. You have to, like Billy Gillispie at Texas A&M, have a system in place that maximizes the talent around you instead of just displaying it. And while we had to live through years of embarassment (“Them crackas shakin’!”), the long-term payoff will end up better simply because of everything that happened that forced us to move on in 2006 instead of waiting until 2007 or 2008 or later.

Next up: What if Kelly Thames hadn't torn up his knee? That's right, stay tuned to Mizzou Sanity...where I'll take all of those old festering wounds and rub the salt in real nice.