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Mizzou avoided a blowout but missed an opportunity

Arkansas’ press stymied the Tigers early, but Mizzou nearly stole a road win anyway.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The fact Missouri fans are grousing about a missed opportunity on Saturday is a testament to the Tigers’ mettle in a game that had all the makings of a wipeout at Bud Walton Arena.

Late in the first half, the Tigers trailed Arkansas by 18 points, and one win probability model said the Hogs had a 96 percent chance of claiming a win. Yet with seven minutes to play, the script had flipped. Mizzou had not only rallied, but Cuonzo Martin’s squad now had a 77-percent chance of grabbing a critical road win.

Then the Tigers went cold over the final four minutes again, and the Hogs escaped with 65-63 victory.

Objectively, this was the likely outcome. The game was a toss-up, and the Hogs’ style of play exploits Mizzou’s weakness at lead guard. In the end, those advantages were the difference.

Let’s take a look at this one, starting with the box:

Kassius, we know you tried

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is famous for saying we should shoot the inventor of the box score. Well, on Saturday, it did reveal one truth about Mizzou’s performance: Kassius Robertson dragged the limp body of his team around for long stretches inside Bud Walton Arena.

The graduate transfer racked up 26 points on 9-for-16 shooting (6-for-11 from the 3-point line) and tracked down eight rebounds. The rest of his compatriots? They scored 39 points, shot just 34 percent from the floor and went 5-for-18 from behind the arc.

We’ve grown accustomed to Jordan Barnett bolting from the gates and going dark down the stretch. That’s when Robertson tends to step forward, carrying Mizzou in crucial moments and filling in the spaces around Barnett. Against the Razorbacks, though, Barnett was mostly quiet, save for two five-minute spans in each half.

During the preseason, it was easy to wonder what Mizzou could expect from a player who cut his teeth in the MAAC. Well, here’s Roberson’s KenPom line after four games — as a major part of opposing scouting reports — in the SEC.

Robertson is among the most efficient offensive players in this conference. And in a game where Arkansas’ pressure stifled Missouri for the bulk of the first half, Robertson is a chief reason the Tigers were running a final play to steal a win on the road.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Arkansas
Arkansas guard Anton Beard and the rest of the Razorbacks made Mizzou uncomfortable with its press.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Arkansas tweaked its pressure and released Mizzou

With a little more than six minutes left in the first half, Missouri was shooting just 20 percent from the floor and had turned the ball over on 29 percent of its possessions. Often, the Tigers initiated their offense nearly 10 seconds after the start of an offensive trip. The ball was stagnant. And Arkansas would selectively trap Mizzou’s primary distributors, hounding Jordan Geist on the sidelines or sending a double team to Jontay Porter.

Over the years, Mike Anderson’s press has evolved with the game, but its core remains nagging a ball-handler as soon as he catches the ball in the backcourt. And for long stretches of the first half, they used a run-and-jump press. One of its chief benefits is unpredictability.

The Run and Jump defense doesn’t have predetermined traps and rotations, it’s incredibly hard for the opposition to prepare to play against your team. It’s unpredictable. And without the knowledge of how to run it, it’s nearly impossible to simulate in practice.

Toss in some average-at-best Mizzou point guards, and you can understand what happened early in this game. Martin can show his guys film. He can run more bodies at them in practice. Cornell Mann, Chris Hollender, or Michael Porter Sr. can assemble a perfect scouting report. And it still doesn’t give you a proximate experience to the real thing.

Now, if you’re like me, you can’t notice when Anderson toggles his press in real time, it’s helpful to have Sam Snelling around.

It’s easier to run press breaks for this type of zone pressure because you can exploit a tendency for teams to trap the sidelines and create voids in the middle. See below for one example.

The tweak by Anderson eased some pressure on Geist, who sometimes struggles with passing out of traps. But, just as important, it allowed Mizzou to get up the court, initiate its offense earlier, and do so from the spots it wanted on the floor.

Meantime, Martin tweaked his rotation, sitting Porter and Tilmon, rolling with four wings on the floor and alternating his primary ball-handler. On top of that, Robertson also became the primary receiver on the in-bounds pass.

Porter was sitting with two fouls, so Martin went small. And it paid off.

In some ways, this game was a redux of what we saw during Braggin’ Rights: a team applies heavy pressure to throw off timing, something very important to Mizzou’s offense. But once the Tigers started stringing together quality possessions, the psychic effect of seeing the ball go down steadied this group.

Out of the locker room, Jaylen Barford popped off a quick eight points, but Mizzou got back to its core identity: sound defense, winning the rebounding battle, and, most importantly, knocking in high-quality looks from the 3-point stripe. Over the final 26 minutes, Mizzou averaged 1.18 points per possession and posted a 69.4 eFG%.

On Twitter, which is always a dangerously small sample size, it’s become common in some quarters to gripe about how Martin doesn’t have his team ready against pressing teams. But as I mentioned earlier, there’s only so much you can do given the ball-handling options at his disposal.

And all the charts and tables above should illustrate a central takeaway: When Anderson gave Martin an opening, he made a smart in-game move with his team down 18 points and facing a blowout in one the SEC’s most hostile venues.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Arkansas
Jordan Geist is doing the best he can at point guard.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

...but point guard remains an issue

Clawing your way back into a game on the road is hard. Stringing together stops, limiting second possessions, and running good offense bleeds a team’s energy reserves, especially when you only have nine scholarship bodies.

Mizzou somehow had a six-point lead with 4:43 to play. Then the Tigers went dark, failing to make a shot the rest of the way and going scoreless in the final 2:49. In fact, MU only lofted up two shots, both in the last minute — Barnett’s misfire from the left wing and Geist’s last-second, contested 3-pointer from the other side. Both of the two trips prior ended with turnovers.

Now, it might seem harsh—once again— to use Geist and Terrence Phillips as punching bags. However, the past two losses have illustrated how essential having a top-tier point guard is when you're in a league like the SEC. Chris Chiozza’s timely shooting, sound decision-making, and on-ball defense lifted Florida past Mizzou. And on Saturday, Arkansas’ Daryl Macon made a similar impact.

No, it wasn’t a great day shooting for the senior, who tallied only eight points and went 2-for-7 from the floor. But he doled out eight assists and grabbed eight rebounds.

Go back and watch the final four minutes, too. Yes, Gafford was a monster, scoring seven points and torturing the rim. But look at who’s dishing him the ball. It’s Macon, who assisted on all three of Gafford’s buckets. With the game in the balance, Anderson used on a two-man game based on a high ball screen for Macon. The action wasn’t fancy, but Macon’s ability to read out situations was essential.

That brings us to Mizzou’s final possession. Watching the play live, my initial impression was Mizzou was trying to overload a side of the floor, use Barnett to clip Geist’s defender and then run him off a flare screen. It could let Geist take a clean look or pitch the ball to Barnett for a shot at the top of the key.

Instead, Geist may have pushed the ball a tad too quickly, and Barnett couldn’t get a solid screen set — having Macon sweep his leg didn’t help — and stumbled.

After the game, though, Martin laid out his logic for the final sequence.

Geist is doing his able best. After a rocky start, he didn’t turn the ball over in the second half, scoring seven points in the process. But solid outings (as we saw against Georgia, a team that is press-averse) don’t wipe away the fact that MU doesn’t have a point guard whose presence can catalyze a team for wins in close games.

Odds and ends

  • On Wednesday, we thought Kevin Puryear broke out of his funk. The revival was short-lived. The juniors scored six points, all of them coming at the free-throw line, and went 0-for-2 from the floor. He also wasn’t a factor on the backboards or as a ball mover. Count me as someone who thinks a move into a sixth-man role can help Puryear, but Saturday certainly was disheartening.
  • During December, we thought Jeremiah Tilmon turned a corner. No, he wasn’t going to avoid whistles. But the freshman appeared to have found a way to stay on the floor for 25 minutes a night. Then SEC play started:
  • Through four games, Tilmon is committing 11.9 fouls per 40 minutes. Yes, that leads the SEC. Does Tilmon earn some calls on reputation alone? Probably. But as we saw when he was called for a moving screen on Anton Beard: he won’t get the benefit of the doubt, and opponents will try to sell calls.
  • Bench mob, where are you? In its first 14 games, Missouri’s bench supplied roughly 26 points per game. Over the last three, that’s dipped to 12. Now, Mizzou ran up that average during non-conference play, but the trend line had been headed the wrong way. Dating back to the loss to Illinois, when the bench went scoreless, Mizzou’s reserves have supplied just 11 points a night. Could shifting Puryear to a reserve role eventually provide some punch?