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Classic Study Hall: Mizzou 80, Nebraska 78 (1994)

Okay, so that wasn't the happiest way to end the Missouri-Nebraska rivalry.  Before focusing on Kansas, it's time to take a look back at perhaps the most famous moment of the Missouri-Nebraska basketball series.

Image via The Savitar.

They had gotten past Jacque Vaughn, Greg Ostertag and Kansas.  They sprinted by Billy Tubbs and Oklahoma.  They had left Johnny Orr an inconsiderate going-away present by sweeping the Cyclones.  Big Country and Oklahoma State?  No problem.  Donnie Boyce and Colorado?  Please.  Kansas State?  Nope.  Missouri was 13-0, one win away from the first undefeated conference season in the Big 8 since 1971.  All they had to do to finish the run was win at home against a Nebraska team they had beaten by 16 points at the Devaney Center six weeks earlier.  No problem, right?

Unfortunately, Nebraska was peaking at just the right time.  Led by a smoking hot Eric Piatkowski, Erick Strickland and Mikki Moore, the Huskers had won three in a row -- against Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State -- and stood at 17-8 overall.  Piatkowski had averaged 30 PPG in those three games.  Against what would almost certainly be a tight Missouri team, Nebraska was ready and able to pull off what would have been a devastating upset.  Plus, Mizzou sophomore Julian Winfield, who had helped to limit Piatkowski to a season-low nine points in Lincoln, had sprained his ankle in a tune-up game against SEMO and missed two straight games.  He would play 25 minutes, but he was not amazingly productive, either on offense or defense.  Piatkowski would score 26 points this time around ... but thankfully for Missouri, it wasn't 29.

Mizzou 80, Nebraska 78

Pace (No. of Possessions)
Points Per Minute
2.00 1.95
Points Per Possession (PPP)
1.00 0.97
Points Per Shot (PPS)
1.25 1.24
2-PT FG% 52.5% 47.8%
3-PT FG% 20.8% 35.3%
FT% 35.3% 80.0%
True Shooting % 49.3% 54.3%
Mizzou NU
Assists 17 18
Steals 6 4
Turnovers 12 18
Ball Control Index (BCI)
(Assists + Steals) / TO
1.92 1.22
Mizzou NU
Expected Offensive Rebounds 16 13
Offensive Rebounds 12 10
Difference -4 -3

A Dirty Little Secret

Here's a fun fact about the 1993-94 team: statistically, they really weren't very good.  I mean, they were good ... but on a per-possession basis, they really weren't better than other Mizzou teams from that era.  They averaged 1.06 points per possession on offense that year and allowed 0.97, a +0.09/possession.  The 1992-93 team that went 19-14 (5-9 in the Big 8) had the same margin (1.03 to 0.94).  The 1991-92 team that went 21-9 (8-6 in conference)?  A solid +0.13 (1.06 to 0.93).  Overall, they weren't better than other Missouri teams of the time ... but they were better when it counted.

(Of course, losing 120-68 to Arkansas doesn't help your per-possession totals ... but that was still just one game.)

The 1993-94 Missouri team was perhaps Mizzou's best ever in the clutch.  They went 9-1 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime.  If you were going to knock Missouri out, you better have been merciless about it like Arkansas and (soon) Arizona.  Letting Mizzou hang around was devastating to your win-loss record.

Mizzou won so many close games in 1993-94 primarily by doing what they did in this game (albeit in sloppy fashion):: putting the ball in Melvin Booker's hands in crunch time and watching good things happen.  In perhaps the worst, sloppiest game of the season, Mizzou was outshot and slightly outrebounded, but they handled the ball a little better, they benefited from what we will say were some fifty-fifty calls, and ... they had Melvin Booker and Nebraska didn't.

Mizzou Player Stats

(Definitions at the bottom of the post.)

AdjGS GmSc/Min Line
Melvin Booker (Sr) 18.0 0.50 36 Min, 18 Pts (7-14 FG, 0-3 3PT, 4-6 FT), 5 Reb, 4 Ast, 2 TO, 4 PF
Kelly Thames (Fr) 16.6 0.66 25 Min, 15 Pts (5-9 FG, 0-1 3PT, 5-9 FT), 13 Reb (2 Off), 2 TO
Paul O'Liney (Jr) 16.6 0.50 33 Min, 13 Pts (3-12 FG, 3-10 3PT, 4-4 FT), 5 Reb, 4 Ast, 2 Stl
Jevon Crudup (Sr) 12.6 0.53 24 Min, 11 Pts (4-8 FG, 3-8 FT), 5 Reb (3 Off), 3 Ast
Lamont Frazier (Sr) 8.1 0.26 31 Min, 11 Pts (3-5 FG, 5-8 FT), 4 Ast, 2 Reb, 6 TO
Marlo Finner (Jr) 7.3 3.66 2 Min, 5 Pts (2-2 FG, 1-2 FT), 2 Reb
Jason Sutherland (Fr) 1.6 0.16 10 Min, 4 Pts (1-3 3PT, 1-2 FT)
Julian Winfield (So) -1.6 -0.06 25 Min, 0 Pts (0-3 FG)
Mark Atkins (Sr) -3.1 -0.22 14 Min, 3 Pts (1-8 FG, 1-7 3PT), 2 Reb

Unsung Heroes

If Zaiire Taylor was "Mr. Coffee" because of how he closed, the 1993-94 team was full of coffee drinkers.  Throughout the season, basically everybody on the roster contributed something big to the cause, from Kelly Thames to Lamont Frazier to Julian Winfield, Mark Atkins, Jevon Crudup, Paul O'Liney, on down the line.  In this game, perhaps the most unsung of unsung contributions came from little-used freshman Jason Sutherland.  Sutherland averaged just 6.7 minutes per game that season (he was stuck behind an epic logjam of backcourt mates), but he played ten in this game, mostly in the first half.  Why?  Because nobody could stop Eric Piatkowski.  Piatkowski was absolutely terrifying, scoring 14 points in a stretch of just 4:35 early in the game.  Sutherland came in and limited Piatkowski to just two free throws in the half's final ten minutes.  Sutherland even made a 3-pointer to boot.  This was vital, as Lamont Frazier (six turnovers and no early success whatsoever in guarding Piatkowski) struggled for most of the game, and Mark Atkins was not contributing anything (he wasn't making his 3's, therefore he wasn't contributing).

Of course, Sutherland wasn't the only freshman making a huge contribution.  In a game where Jevon Crudup was completely neutralized on the glass, Kelly Thames pulled down an incredible 13 rebounds (11 defensive) in just 25 minutes.  Add 15 points to that equation, and you get Mizzou's best per-minute contributor, aside from...

...another unsung contributor: bench-rider Marlo Finner.  I cannot find record of when Finner was in the game, but my guess is late in the first half. Finner spelled Mizzou's primary bigs with two ridiculously productive minutes, contributing as much from an AdjGS standpoint in those two minutes than Sutherland, Winfield and Atkins did in 49 minutes.  (Of course, Finner presumably did not have to guard Piatkowski at any time...)

Player Usage% Floor% Touches/
%Pass %Shoot %Fouled %T/O
Booker 22% 44% 3.0 54% 32% 10% 4%
Thames 26% 40% 1.7 0% 52% 37% 11%
O'Liney 18% 36% 2.9 61% 31% 8% 0%
Crudup 21% 44% 3.2 56% 26% 18% 0%
Frazier 20% 36% 3.2 59% 12% 14% 15%
Finner 62% 72% 4.2 0% 58% 42% 0%
Sutherland 21% 25% 1.3 0% 55% 26% 19%
Winfield 5% 11% 0.9 66% 34% 0% 0%
Atkins 28% 13% 2.6 40% 54% 0% 6%

The %Pass numbers are particularly interesting here.  Of the seven players who played over ten minutes, only Atkins and Thames had a Usage rate over 22%, while four players had a %Pass of over 50%.  The ball distribution was there (especially when Atkins was out of the game), and somehow, someway, Mizzou kept generating points.

With a cavalcade of Mizzou guards taking turns guarding Piatkowski, the tall, blonde senior's pace slowed up in the second half, at least for a while.  He scored just three points in the first 14:35 of the half but scored seven in the final five minutes.  This was the definition of a gutty performance -- Mizzou staying close despite nothing in particular working as it should.  And it led to an odd, odd ending.  The YouTube video picks up as the refs called a strange double foul with under 30 seconds remaining.

Watching this game at home in Oklahoma, I was actually too shaken to celebrate the ending too much.  Piatkowski's 3-pointer went almost all the way into the basket then rolled out.  As Melvin Booker joked after the game, "I thought it was goaltending on somebody."  An intense, frustrating, grueling first 39:58 all came down to the way a ball and a metal rim interacted.  Regardless of how it happened, Mizzou finished the game 14-0 in the Big 8.


We've joked at times that Mizzou sold their soul for that Piatkowski shot to rim out, and they paid for it with years of bad karma, from Tyus Edney to Ricky Clemons.  But it did rim out, and the 1994 Tigers went down as one of Mizzou's best.  With the undefeated record in the books, Mizzou predictably laid a bit of an egg in the conference tournament.  They barely sneaked by 8-seed Colorado in the first round, then they lost by nine to an annoyed Nebraska team looking for revenge.  (I think we'll take that trade.)  Despite just three losses, Mizzou was given the 1-seed in the West Region (i.e. the final 1-seed) instead of one closer.  They took out Navy (after sleep-walking for a half) and Wisconsin to advance to the tournament's second weekend, then eventually got through Syracuse in overtime in the Sweet Sixteen. They fell to a superior Arizona team in the Elite Eight, however. With a more favorable draw, maybe they'd have found that elusive Final Four, but a) they certainly fell to a team better than them, and b) they still had 14-0.

In 2011-12, Missouri will have six seniors leading the way.  Hopefully they take the lead from this senior-laden squad, which didn't necessarily improve much from 1992-93 to 1993-94, but they improved in just the right ways, to say the very least.





AdjGS: a take-off of the Game Score metric (definition here) accepted by a lot of basketball stat nerds.  It takes points, assists, rebounds (offensive & defensive), steals, blocks, turnovers and fouls into account to determine an individual's "score" for a given game.  The "adjustment" in Adjusted Game Score is simply matching the total game scores to the total points scored in the game, thereby redistributing the game's points scored to those who had the biggest impact on the game itself, instead of just how many balls a player put through a basket.

Usage%: This "estimates the % of team possessions a player consumes while on the floor" (via).  The usage of those possessions is determined via a formula using field goal and free throw attempts, offensive rebounds, assists and turnovers.  The higher the number, the more prevalent a player is (good or bad) in a team's offensive outcome.  As you would expect, someone like Kim English has a high Usage%, while Steve Moore has an extremely low one.

Floor%: Via Floor % answers the question, "when Player X uses a possession, what is the probability that his team scores at least 1 point?".  The higher the Floor%, the more frequently the team probably scores when the given player is involved.

Touches/Possession: Using field goal attempts, free throw attempts, assists and turnovers, Touches attempt to estimate "the number of times a player touched the ball in an attacking position on the floor."  Take the estimated touches and divide it by the estimated number of possessions for which a player was on the court, and you get a rough idea of how many times a player touched the ball in a given possession.  For point guards, you'll see the number in the 3-4 range.  For shooting guards and wings, 2-3.  For Steve Moore, 1.30.  You get the idea.

Anyway, using the Touches figure, we can estimate the percentage of time a player "in an attacking position" passes, shoots, turns the ball over, or gets fouled.