The Unholy Alliance lives! There were some jokes between writers of this blog when Mark Smith’s transfer to K-State became official that DaJuan Gordon could complete the trade, but I’m not sure any of us thought it would actually happen. It’s especially fun for me, as a Mizzou grad who’s maintained a lifelong allegiance to Kansas State athletics. Most of you, though, probably didn’t watch a lot of Tigers basketball this season and I would really be concerned about any Mizzou fans who watched this version of Bruceketball, so we’ve invited Rock M Nation basketball guru Sam Snelling for a conversation assessing what these transfers mean for their respective teams.
Luke Thompson: Well, Sam, the first thing you should know about DaJuan is you’ll probably pronounce his name wrong if you haven’t heard it yet. It’s DAY-schwann. The 6-foot-4 sophomore guard from Chicago can be counted on to always play hard, whether that means diving on the floor after loose balls or fighting for every rebound. He’s been one of the Big 12’s top rebounding guards (his 138 rebounds actually led the team this season despite missing four games due to injury) and stands out as an energetic defender. Gordon didn’t always get the toughest assignment (that was often Selton Miguel’s job) but he does a solid job of helping out and staying in front of guys.
Offensively, Gordon can be useful as a combo guard so long as you’re not expecting him to be one of your top scoring options, as K-State unfortunately needed him to be at times this season. He’s best when driving to the basket, and I regret to inform you a lot of those 83 3-point attempts were quite open, since defenses tend to not worry so much about closing out on 22 percent shooters. Excellent athleticism combined with a decent handle means Gordon can catch some alley-oops and find his way to the rim fairly well, although I wouldn’t call him an elite finisher. Kansas State mostly used him as a shooting guard since the Cats already have Nijel Pack to run the point and Gordon’s more likely to commit a turnover (60 this season) than dish out an assist (35).
Overall, Gordon proved himself to be a very likable player, so I think most K-State fans were disappointed and a little surprised to see him go. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d love to see him succeed in Columbia, so how do you think he’ll fit in? As for Mark Smith, what will he bring to Manhattan?
Sam Snelling: Ha, We’ve already taken to calling DaJuan “Athletic Javon” because he appears to just be a more athletic version of Javon Pickett. Pickett is good at a lot of the same things, he’s the consummate little things guy, but not really a guy you can count on to be a high flier. And Cuonzo Martin LOVES Javon Pickett, so why wouldn’t he love DaJuan? But Missouri has needed to upgrade it’s athleticism, as even far too many of their options off the bench were just lacking in explosiveness and it looks like there’s been a concerted effort to upgrade. So I think a reset for DaJuan might help him.
I actually like the match between Mark and Kansas State. I think he’s ready for a scene change. He’s been mostly good for Missouri but a little streaky, and he’s frankly underappreciated by Mizzou fans for that streakiness at this point. Sometimes it’s better for all parties to just hit reset and try again, because he certainly has the ability. What he can do consistently is defend, and rebound, and attack the rim... not always with effectiveness but he attacks it! But that streakiness can be cured, and if Mark finds his three point stroke he can carry an offense. He was a lights out shooter as a sophomore and struggled through injuries as a junior, we expected a little more from him this year and it was just streaky.
Oddly enough I did catch a few K-State games, mostly checking on the progress of Luke Kasubke and Davion Bradford, who are St. Louis natives and guys I watched in high school. Not a lot, but probably more than you can consider healthy for a somewhat well adjusted adult man with no rooting interest. They looked like a team trying to figure things out, and hopefully Mark Smith can help them along the road. But I’m not sure what K-State fans are expecting themselves?
LT: Well, I’d be a little careful with that comparison because Javon appears to be a better shooter than DaJuan, particularly this past season. But then again that could be a result of defenses more focused on DaJuan and him wanting to carry more of the load on an offensively challenged team. Even coming out of high school the belief was that DaJuan had the potential to develop into a good shooter, not that he’d gotten there yet, so I suppose it’s never too late if he finds the right fit and the right coaching.
I agree with you that just like DaJuan, Mark could be a great fit at Kansas State, where his defense and 3-point shooting will definitely be appreciated. The biggest concern I have is definitely his declining percentages, so hopefully you’re right and that’s just the result of injuries and some bad luck streaks. If he’s near 40% K-State would be thrilled and if he shoots 45% again like he did as a freshman, the Cats might consider retiring his number. Incidentally, one of the last two Wildcats to shoot 45% from 3 in a season with a minimum of 5 attempts/game was a guy named Mitch Richmond in the 1987-88 season, but the wildest part of that is he wasn’t even the best 3-point shooter on his own team (Will Scott shot 49.6% from 3 that same season).
A reliable outside shot would be a huge boost to a team desperate for shooters. By the way, did Luke Kasubke leave his shot in St. Louis? We were expecting to see a lot better than 5 of 27 from 3 for him, so hopefully it’s just a matter of recovering fully from his injury. The defense picked it up enough at the end of last season to give K-State something to build on, and if transfers like Smith and Markquis Nowell can live up to their offensive billing, I really believe this team could rise all the way into the top half of the Big 12. One thing that stands out right now is the talent appears to be very guard-heavy outside of Bradford, so it got me wondering, could Mark Smith play the 4 in a small-ball lineup? We know Bruce doesn’t like to go that route very much but it could be interesting. Similarly with Mizzou, I was a little surprised to see St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Dave Matter suggest this week that DaJuan might play some 4 for the Tigers. Could you Cuonzo trying that? What are Mizzou’s expectations for next season after a roster restructure not unlike the one we’re seeing at Kansas State?
SS: Regardless of conversion rate, I’m sure every Missouri fan holds their breath when Pickett shoots from 3-range, and I’m guessing that’s how K-State fans felt about Gordon. I don’t think Gordon needs to be an elite shooter, but better, and just enough of a threat, I like to talk about improvement around the margins, so for Gordon I’d like to see closer to 1 of 3 vs 1 of 4. There are multiple guys coming in for the Tigers who we feel like can be a more reliable shooter. But Mizzou still needs someone who can attack and convert around the rim, and are hopeful Gordon can contribute there. And I’m not sure about the four for either Gordon or Smith. At Missouri, they have a lot of long freshmen coming in who I think will make more sense there, and their only returning starter at this point played the four. I’d expect he’ll see the bulk of his minutes at the wing.
One thing about Mark is he’s strong. So while I don’t love him playing the four, you can do a lot worse. He’s certainly switchable defensively and can guard just about everyone. One thing you probably want to make sure of is that you have him on the floor with two other ball handlers. Lineups which featured Mark as the secondary ball handler were some of Missouri’s worst. Some of that may come from his inconsistency shooting the ball so if Mark can be a little more consistent making 3s that may improve, but i think he’s better as a catch and shoot threat than attacking the rim. I do think he’ll break out often enough his percentage should be better next year. He was 13 of of 37 in the final 8 games, which is a respectable 35%, and that feels to me where you can expect him to land. But any hope beyond that comes from the fact he was 13 of 26 in 5 of those games, and 0 for 11 for three games in a row during that stretch, so simply going 2 for 11 in that stretch bumps him up further to 40%. I think you can probably expect more of the 35-37% range and not the 31% it dipped to over this past season. He started off really hot, then just went cold over a long stretch, and rebounded late. Smooth some of those edges and he’ll be a big boost offensively.
As for Kasubke, he was never an elite shooter in High School, my guess is most folks see a lanky white kid and think he’s automatically a shooter... but reality is he was far better attacking the rim and being crafty and drawing contact in high school. The mechanics of his shot are good so I think he’ll eventually become a more consistent shooter, but I wouldn’t expect to mistake him for the next JJ Redick or anything.
And yes, we’re enduring a fairly big overhaul of the roster and the staff is making some gambles, and not that I don’t think they can work... I’ve actually come to believe Cuonzo Martin is really an underrated coach. We’re looking at 8 new faces so far, with two more spots still open. And I think how I feel about the reset depends on the last two spots. But so far Gordon is the only other High Major transfer, and when you transfer up, as Mizzou’s two other additions are (From Ball State and Green Bay) it’s kind of hit and miss whether things work out. Obviously for Missouri it worked out with Dru Smith and Kassius Robertson who both were All SEC guards from Evansville and Canisius, respectively. But they’ve also had guys not work out. I think reasonable expectations for next year can be close to .500 in conference play, with the main goal of not falling off a cliff with a solid incoming freshman class coming in.
I think that’s just the mystery, what sort of expectations are acceptable for both teams? I know things have been rockier for Bruce the last few years but is there enough to keep him around if next year is a tough one?
LT: The consensus among Kansas State fans (excluding those who want Bruce gone no matter what) seems to be NCAA tournament or bust and honestly, that’s where I’m at as well. It remains to be seen whether Gene Taylor and others who might influence that decision agree, but certainly there will be a lot more grumbling if the Wildcats miss the Big Dance for the third straight season.
It’s good to see that breakdown of Smith’s shooting and it reminds me a little of Nijel Pack, who shot worse than 30% from 3 in conference play thanks to a dismal 4-game stretch when he hit just 5 of 27. But he still ended the season above 40% overall and everyone recognizes he’s the team’s best shooter. Hopefully Smith has more hot stretches than cold next season and can find them at the right time.
Gordon can definitely be a guy who finds success around the rim as a slasher. The trick will be convincing him that’s usually his best option, even if defenses watch some film from this past season and decide to sag off him a little bit on the perimeter.
To wrap this up, who do you think benefits more from these respective transfers? My inclination is to say it’s about even since both players seem to fit their new team’s needs well and should immediately step in as solid contributors, so an edge goes to Missouri since Gordon could play for up to three more seasons compared to just one remaining for Smith. Either way, good luck to the Tigers next season and may the Unholy Alliance never die.
SS: Yeah, I think Bruce is a really good basketball coach, and I was kind of on board with more of a rebuild because I liked their recruiting, but losing as many guys via transfer as they have makes me feel like it’s a little bit more of spinning the wheels than building. Which is kind of the opposite in how I think Cuonzo is doing. I don’t think they’re a tournament team next year but I think he’s build a solid roster which can be the foundation for a return to the NCAAs in two years. If they can get close this year I think it’s a positive season. For K-State, I just have a hard time imagining they’re an NCAA team next year. If they brought everyone back a case could be made for the bump up closer to .500 in conference, which in the Big12 is a tournament team.
I hope they’re better, but I’m not sure if Mark Smith is the answer they’re looking for. A lot of it depends on how he’s used, and if he can consistently shoot it. I think this brings me to your last point about who wins... if I had to pick I’d say Missouri. My real answer is that you just have to wait and see how they play, but right now I’d say Missouri because they weren’t expecting Mark back next year and it seems like the coaches were surprised he still wanted to play collegiately. In Gordon, Mizzou may not get a polished player, but they get a top 100 level athlete and two-three more years of trying to develop that. But really it just comes down to how each guy plays. If Mark plays well and DaJuan doesn’t and transfers again... then you have a different answer.
But the good news is we each have a reason to watch more of the other, I know I’m really curious to see how it works out for Mark in Manhattan. And we’ll always hate those rotten cheaters in Lawrence together, may Mark drop 50 on them in a big NCAA tournament berth clinching in at the Phog.