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Against Iowa State, Missouri struggled to get out of its own way

The Tigers turnovers and issues in ball screens cost them against the shorthanded Cyclones. But now isn’t the time to panic.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Around 4 p.m. Friday, word filtered out that Iowa State would be without leading scorer Lindell Wigginton, and the tenor around Missouri’s trek to Ames changed in pitch.

On Monday, the Tigers seemed poised to meet a potential NCAA tournament team. Then before the Cyclones season-opener on Tuesday, coach Steve Prohm announced the seven-game suspensions of Cameron Lard and Zoran Talley Jr., punching a hole in ISU’s frontcourt rotation. Finally, news of Wigginton’s absence meant Iowa State was relying on just a sole returning starter in Nick Weiler-Babb and a pair of transfers in Marial Shayok and Michael Jacobson and offset the Tigers’ advantage in the paint.

If coach Cuonzo Martin was hoping for circumstances to cut his young roster a break, the fates had seemingly obliged.

Then we saw how it played out live.

For much of the first half, Mizzou couldn’t get out of its own way, fumbling and bumbling possessions away as the Cyclones stripped down their offense its ball-screen basics. With three minutes left in the first half, Iowa State popped off a 12-2 run to take a 34-25 lead into the locker room. A quick five points from Shayok early in the second half let the Cyclones sit on lead and trade buckets with the Tigers the rest of the way.

No doubt, MU had an opportunity to escape Hilton with a victory, but a roster with nine underclassmen and only one veteran in the backcourt wasn’t equipped to exploit it.

Let’s turn to the box.

No. 1: Don’t Panic

Before delving into turnover woes and ball-screen defense, let’s all take a collective breath.

No, there isn’t a savvy take for an 18-point road loss to Iowa State, a drubbing inflicted without two starters and key reserves.

Instead, we saw what happens when a young team of mostly developmental recruits takes its first road trip into a hostile environment. Iowa State had enough experience in Weiler-Babb, Shayok and Jacobson – a trio that went 50 percent from the floor – to hold serve at Hilton Coliseum. Unlike MU, the Cyclones freshmen only had to fill in the margins of the box score.

For a little more than two hours, we saw what a transition year looks like: cramped spacing, shoddy screening, stilted movement and botched rotations. On top of that, Shayock found himself in early foul trouble and relegated to the bench midway through the first half, opening the door a little wider for Mizzou, which couldn’t stop stepping on its own toes.

Now comes a week off and a soft opening against Kennesaw State, which is rated No. 323 in KenPom, at the Paradise Jam.

When the Tigers tipoff in the Virgin Islands, it will be on the one-year anniversary of its ill-fated expedition to the Wasatch Mountains. On Nov. 16, 2017, Utah walloped the Tigers by 18 points. Jeremiah Tilmon fouled out in six minutes. Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett only made one of the dozen 3-pointers they launched. And the Utes used an 8-0 spurt in the last minutes of the first half as a finishing blow.

A week later, Missouri emerged from the rubble a put together a solid run at the Advocare Invitational. By the end of that trip to Orlando, we had a loose sense of that team’s personality. Two stats largely dictated success: 3-point shooting and turnover percentage.

The Tigers aren’t going to be older or sprint up learning curves in the next week, but we’ll get a cluster of data that helps us figure out if what we saw on Friday is a feature or a bug.

No. 2: Errors of Effort

How do you explain a 35.5 turnover percentage – Mizzou’s worst performance in the KenPom era?

Iowa State isn’t a team that extends its defense or applies heavy on-ball pressure. The Cyclones did run hard-doubles at Jeremiah Tilmon and selectively press after free-throws. But the intent wasn’t to force turnovers. Instead, Prohm and his squad simply tried to speed Mizzou up or heave a socket wrench into the gears of the offense.

On Tuesday, Tilmon deftly handled low-post pressure, but ISU is a different order of magnitude. The Cyclones lacked size, but Weiler-Babb had quick hands when digging off the wing. Tyrese Haliburton is only 6-foot-6, but the freshman is long and active. And Jacobson did a sound enough job bodying up Mizzou’s big man for help to arrive. The result: a mistimed cross-lane feed to Kevin Puryear and a trap in the left corner that led to Tilmon heaving a kickout over the halfcourt line.

But let’s run through some of the others:

  • Javon Pickett traveled after he curled to the left wing and caught a pass
  • Tilmon was whistled for an illegal screen as he went to set a side pick-and-roll
  • Reed Nikko booted the ball out of bounds after Xavier Pinson through a low pass on a pick-and-roll
  • Pinson stepped on the baseline after forced a drive straight into rotating help
  • Pinson simply dribbled it off his foot 25 feet from the basket
  • Pinson plowed into Talen Horton-Tucker on another forced drive – missing an easy dumpoff to Tilmon – to the rim
  • Mitchell Smith throws an ill-conceived high-low pass to Tilmon that’s tipped away
  • Mitchell Smith picked up his pivot foot on a botched handoff on the right wing.
  • Nikko is called for an illegal screen late in the first half

Without a doubt, Haliburton and Weiler-Babb deserve credit for the steals the racked up, but a lot of Mizzou’s turnover woes were simply the byproduct of a young team getting its bearings. Pickett and Pinson are two games into their careers. Mitchell Smith has only appeared in 13 games with a knee injury sandwiched in between. Finally, no one would say Nikko’s forte is playing outside the paint.

What I saw was a team still trying to get the timing down for the offense it’s being asked to run. For example, Missouri runs an action I’ll call Fist and another that bears a vague resemblance to an old Fred Hoiberg action dubbed Double-Zipper Rip. On the weak side of the floor — or the backside of the play — Picket would start in the corner or on the block, but immediately hunt for Tilmon’s defender to set a cross screen. Ideally, the ball reverses as Tilmon cuts over, making for an easy post entry play.

Often, though, the ball would be late in switching sides of the floor, allowing Jacobson to recover. Then, Halliburton, Weiler-Babb or Zion Griffin would dig — usually from the free-throw line — once Tilmon used a power dribble. Normally, Tilmon would have a shooter spotting up at the top of the key and a guard curling or spotting up on the weak side. But MU’s guards were also a tad stilted in their off-ball movement.

It’s how you wind up with the ball dying in the low block.

Meanwhile, Pinson struggled with decision-making in pick-and-rolls. Mitchell Smith is apparently adjusting to life where he’s handling and having to run handoffs. Lastly, Kevin Puryear forced two drives that led to easy steals, including a baseline drive where he tried to throw a jump skip pass — a play few would say is the senior’s strong suit.

No. 3: Iowa State found a formula

With most of its frontline sitting, Iowa State kept its attacking simple: mash MU in ball screens and see if the Tigers guards could hold up.

Weiler-Babb thrived in those situations, snacking on freshmen in Pickett and Pinson. When it was Geist’s turn in the barrel, the senior would use Jacobson for two screens, often rejecting the second and attacking down the left side of the lane. The Cyclones also hunted for switches to get Shayock, who was able to get downhill and draw contact against Geist, Watson and Mark Smith. After hitting an elbow jumper and 3-ball, Shayok then scored seven of his next nine points at the line.

Finally, Prohm figured out that playing small and using Jacobson as a screener would be better than trying to get him post touches. Once the Nebraska transfer set a screen, he’d flare and have an open jumper or the chance to drive the ball against Tilmon or Puryear, especially in the second half when he scored 10 of his 15 points.

Stray thoughts...

  • Martin experimented with some four-guard lineups on Friday night, although a couple looked like they were stopgaps until he could sub in a combo forward. They also tended to counter to ISU rolling will small-ball groupings.
  • Puryear cobbled together a nice little stretch in the second half, scoring nine points over three minutes after the Cyclones extended their lead to 42-27. Keep in mind, though, the mini-run came on post-ups against Griffin and Haliburton, freshmen swingmen who are more at home on the wing. No, Puryear shouldn’t apologize for exploiting switches. It’s what he should be doing. However, the senior has still struggled early in more traditional post-ups.
  • Looking over the stat box, you’ll see Mark Smith logged 34 minutes, but the sophomore’s spot at combo guard seems cemented. Friday night, he posted 15 points and, crucially, didn’t log a turnover. Martin has spent most of the first two games shuttling Pinson in for Geist, holding a runoff between Watson and Pickett on the wing and trying to see whether Puryear or Mitchell Smith can get traction at combo forward. So far, he’s found stability in Smith’s jump-shooting and stability on the defensive end.
  • Speaking of combo forward, I’ll be curious how much run K.J. Santos gets at that spot whenever he’s able to suit up. At this point, the Tigers could use some more spot-up shooting, and the early grades for Puryear and Mitchell Smith on the defensive end are a mixed bag.
  • At wing, Watson appeared more at ease on the wing. He knocked in a corner 3-pointer, exploiting Horton-Tucker stunting in too far to stop a drive by Pinson, and he had two nice drives attacking defenders rushing to contest on the perimeter. Getting seven to 10 points a night from the Whitfield product only does more to settle out Martin’s evolving nine-man rotation.