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Jeremiah Tilmon (and the left block) is the early focal point for Missouri

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No one expected replacing Jontay Porter to be easy, but his absence literally changes the shape of the Tigers’ offense. Case in point: Jeremiah Tilmon orchestrating from the paint.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Missouri vs Florida State Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Minutes after Missouri polished off a season-opening win against Central Arkansas, Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin doled out praise for Jeremiah Tilmon keeping a level head.

A year after hard-double teams stymied and frustrated the Tigers’ post, the sophomore displayed poise under pressure, splitting defenders to finish softly around the rim or routing passes to the appropriate destination on the floor.

“I think again the biggest growth for him: passing out of the double,” Martin told assembled reporters in his post-game presser. “A year ago, he passed that thing quick, (got) it out of his hand as opposed to being strong.”

For Missouri, Tilmon’s preferences take on more weight in the algorithm that dictates the balance of their offense now that Jontay Porter is shelved for the year. While Tilmon toiled to expand his repertoire over the summer, his game is still defined by quickly converting speed to power on the block, camping out in the short corner or steamrolling down the lane out as a roll man.

Against the Bears, though, the sight of Tilmon was quickly processing plays and zipping passes over the floor stirred a notion: Maybe the low-block can remain a playmaking factory.

Then Mizzou packed up and hit the road to Ames, where Tilmon tallied five of the Tigers’ 25 giveaways. If it seemed each was simply a single highlight playing on a loop, well, that’s not entirely off base. The circumstances for each were carbon copies: an entry pass from the left wing and a guard — usually Nick Weiler-Babb — creeping over to annoy the big man.

The odds MU posts another 37.5 turnover rate — its highest single-game mark since KenPom came online in 2002 — are remote. Yet the Cyclones tactics revealed how the geometry of the Tigers’ offense has shifted, and how the personnel is trying to find a fit as MU jets to the Virgin Islands for a weekend of neutral floor tilts at the Paradise Jam.

Tilting the floor to Tilmon

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

After Porter’s injury, Martin rejected the idea that Missouri’s offense would be remade whole cloth.

It was evident early on, though, the orientation of the system might shift directions. Losing the sophomore robbed MU of a player whose innate vision and feel as an initiator of offense on the interior and whose face-up allowed Martin and his staff to invert the floor and warp spacing to induce stress. You could cobble together the lost points and rebounds with a committee of Tilmon, Kevin Puryear, and Mitchell Smith.

Last season, almost 56 percent of Porter’s post-ups resulted in pass-outs from the low block, and 80 percent (44 possessions) of those kickouts went to spot-up shooters. Only Georgia’s Yante Maten and Tennessee’s Grant Williams were used more often as low-post passers. While Porter’s efficiency (0.932 PPP) lagged behind two of the SEC’s premier big men, an offseason spent refining his game could have ticked the number closer to 1.1 PPP — easing pressure on Jordan Geist and Xavier Pinson to spread the ball around.

Early on, though, we’ve seen Martin’s gone about replacing his best ball-mover by promoting Tilmon. The tempo has whirred down — the Tigers are 300th in adjusted pace — and Martin’s play calls have matched the East St. Louis product’s preference: a post entry on the left block, where Tilmon takes a dribble, shoulder fakes and works toward a right-handed hook shot over his left shoulder.

Lacking a dynamo at lead guard, MU has also scaled back its use of staples from last season. For example, the Tigers have only run three pick-and-pop actions in two games. (A year ago, the Tigers averaged almost three per game.) At least against Iowa State, we saw MU big men setting early drag screens near the top of the key and rolling off. But the roll-and-replace action where Porter would pop out for pitch back and a 3-ball? It’s gathering a bit of dust.

Instead, MU has entrusted Tilmon with a larger facilitating role. Two games is a small sample size but look at the early spike in kickouts coming from the low block, per Synergy data.

Distribution Hubs

Pass Out Situation 2017-18 Poss 2017-18 PPP Poss 2018-19 PPP
Pass Out Situation 2017-18 Poss 2017-18 PPP Poss 2018-19 PPP
Isolation 1.4 0.717 1 1.5
Pick-and-Roll 12 0.947 10 1.2
Post-Up 3.4 1.099 8.5 1.294
Synergy Sports

Tilmon’s possession data also paints a clear picture of how the Tigers’ offense has shifted. In two games, he’s primarily camped out inside, spending 66.7 percent of his time jostling and bumping on the left block.

Jeremiah Tilmon | Shifting Priorities

Play Type 2018-19 Poss/Game 2018-19 PPP 2017-18 Poss/Game 2017-18 PPP
Play Type 2018-19 Poss/Game 2018-19 PPP 2017-18 Poss/Game 2017-18 PPP
Post-Up 8 0.5 4.2 0.732
Cut 1.5 0.667 1.8 1.052
P&R Roll Man 1 1.5 0.8 1.077
Putbacks 1 1 1.4 1.196
Transition - - 0.5 1.267
Spot Up - - 0.2 0
Synergy Sports

Finally, Synergy’s analytics shows a nearly seven-fold increase in Tilmon’s passes to shooters out of the low post. Taken together, the data paints a picture of MU relying heavily on one of its few known assets. At times last season, feeding the ball to Tilmon was a tertiary option on a play call after two initial actions failed to spring a shooter free. Now, those paint touches are — to a degree — powering the offense.

Jeremiah Tilmon | Post-Up Point Guard

Play Type Poss/Game PPP Poss/Game PPP
Play Type Poss/Game PPP Poss/Game PPP
Overall Post-Ups 12.5 0.96 5 0.793
Pass to Spot-Up 4 1.778 0.6 0.895
Pass to Cut 0.5 1.75 0.2 1.714
Synergy Sports

Tilting the balance of the floor to Tilmon is a defensible rationale, too.

First, Tilmon’s comfortable around the rim. You’re not introducing new tasks— hand-offs or passing out of short-rolls — that might risk sapping confidence. Second, the offense already builds those touches and actions into the mix, avoiding the task of teaching tweaks on the fly. Punishing opponents for doubling him was always the next step in Tilmon’s development.

Heading into a Big 12 reunion against Iowa State, the strategy looked even more sound given the Cyclones attrition along the front line. With Solomon Young, Cameron Lard and Zoran Talley Jr. sidelined, the conventional wisdom held that Tilmon would wreak havoc in the lane.

Instead, ISU and coach Steve Prohm conjured up a solution that left Tilmon flummoxed and frustrated.

Getting by with timely help

Since arriving in Ames, Prohm’s defenses haven’t feasted on turnovers to power an uptempo offense, never ranking better than 109th nationally in turnover percentage. Instead, the Cyclones dictate pace by thriving on secondary breaks and early-clock offense.

On Friday, though, the Cyclones placed a reasonable bet: send a long-limbed or quick-handed guard to see whether Tilmon would remain unflappable.

The starting lineup gave a hint at their intentions. Inserting freshman Tyrese Haliburton, a 6-foot-6 swingman, who has length and is rangy, gave the Cyclones defensive flexibility on a night where they switched practically every screen. Paired with Marial Shayok and Talen Horton-Tucker, Prohm put a lineup on the floor of bigger wings that could lend help to Michael Jacobson.

In trying to play through Tilmon early, the Tigers quickly saw how their old Big 12 rival would short-circuit an offense where off-ball movement was stiff and the ball had a tendency to stick.

During the opening four minutes, the Tigers used variations of this set, which hinges on Pickett sprinting in from the left corner to set a cross screen. The ball swings to the left side, and Geist maneuvers to get an angle to throw an entry pass.

Keep an eye on the right side of the floor, though. See how Pickett sprints vertically up the lane after screening. Where is his defender? Instead of trailing the freshman, Nick Weiler-Babb hangs around the restricted area, jumping to help Michael Jacobson with hard double-team as soon as Tilmon turns to his left shoulder.

The scene was much the same four possessions later.

Instead of posting up, Tilmon trots out to set a screen. Look at where Jacobson’s positioned. The Nebraska transfer hangs back and hems in Geist while Haliburton recovers. No one tags Tilmon as he rolls off, but there are three Cyclones camped out around the restricted area.

Usually, Weiler-Babb and Talen Horton Tucker might be a step outside the lane on the weak side, making it easier to close out and contest jumpers. However, the scouting reports on Pickett and Puryear wouldn’t classify either Tiger as a spot-up threat.

Unable to feed Tilmon, Geist starts a ball reversal, but it’s too sluggish — allowing Weiler-Babb and Horton-Tucker ample time to recover. Next, Puryear puts the ball on the deck, which is far from an ideal possession, as Weiler-Babb stunts in and jars the ball loose.

A staple of Missouri’s offense are split cuts by guards on the weakside of the floor, movement that unfolds as the ball switches sides. Pickett and Mark Smith swap places, with Geist setting the second of two staggered screens. Ideally, Tilmon could make a catch on the block, take a dribble and see Smith curling open at the top of the circle as a safety valve.

Weiler-Babb’s freelancing chokes it off.

Earlier in the possession, he slipped away from Geist when the Tigers’ combo guard stepped in to screen for Smith. At the same moment, freshman Zion Griffin camped out under the rim, all but abandoning Pickett in the right corner. Once Tilmon puts the ball on the floor, Weiler-Babb gets big and helps hem the Tigers’ post into the corner, forcing an errant heave that sailed into the Tigers backcourt.

Last season, the tax for slanting so much help toward the ball was painful: Porter would whip a cross-court pass to Jordan Barnett. Or Puryear would slice down the lane — exploiting an open lane created by defenders sticking close to shooters — for an easy dumpoff.

Obviously, circumstances have changed.

Is it too soon to panic?

So far, Mizzou has coped by trying to use the left block as a base of operations and play through Tilmon. Iowa State, though, showed how teams will counter. The Cyclones didn’t discover a new tool — plenty of teams ran extra bodies at Tilmon last season — but did prove its still useful.

The character of the offense can also change as Martin homes in on a nine-man rotation he feels comfortable deploying. For now, though, the Tigers are fairly predictable from possession to possession. The early direction of the offense has made it hard for Puryear to get relief, because he’s not getting favorable switches to exploit — outside of three minutes in the second half against the Cyclones. Meanwhile, Smith’s transition to a more perimeter-oriented role has hit some early snags.

Not only is the floor spacing more conventional, but the Tigers — as of yet — don’t have guards capable of putting the defense in rotation or punishing them for slanting so much help toward Tilmon. After two games, Mark Smith looks like an emerging source of jump shooting, but getting Geist on track and Watson will help clear up the middle of the floor.

The only thing that, as of now, could solve the problem: flood the floor with shooting. Lots of it. It needs to be a scramble drill on kickouts. But no one besides Mark Smith is hitting jumpers. Maybe Torrence Watson gets percolating. Or the return of K.J. Santos could break the logjam.