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Preview: The Paradise Jam finals shapes up as a brawl between old rivals

Billed as a top-15 squad, Kansas State and Bruce Weber are — again — scrounging for offensive consistency. Can Mizzou and Cuonzo Martin pull off an upset?

NCAA Basketball: Kennesaw State at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Aside from the joy on Bruce Weber’s face, you could also spy relief after Kansas State sent Kentucky packing in the Sweet 16 this past March.

Reaching the Elite Eight for the first since 2010 appeared to end the lingering reluctance around Manhattan to embrace Weber, who had arrived in 2012 but only notched a lone NCAA tournament victory and posted a .500 record in Big 12 Conference play. Sure, knocking off Creighton, UMBC and a lackluster UK squad before bowing out to Loyola-Chicago is a soft path to tread. However, none of that was in Weber’s control, and he had to orient that trail without a vital piece in stretch forward Dean Wade.

As is the custom in the weeks after the Final Four, though, recency bias reigns supreme. No one benefited more than K-State, a No. 9 seed whose run papered an average KenPom rating (No. 42) and average offensive output. National writers simply concluded that an Elite Eight team bringing back its entire rotation was a lock-tight top-15 pick for the preseason polls and a projected runner-up in the Big 12 race.

How many paused to look at Weber’s track-record?

ver the past decade, only four of Weber’s teams at Illinois and K-State finished better than 75th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Of that quartet, a lone squad — his first team in Manhattan — finished better than 10-8 in league play. The Gene Keady disciple is phenomenal at building elite defenses, posting an average finish of 27th nationally over his 15 seasons as a high-major coach. Yet he’s only won 57.9 percent of his conference games when he’s been armed with a top-25 team in adjusted defensive efficiency.

The question isn’t whether his veteran core of Wade, Barry Brown Jr., Cartier Diarra, Kamau Stokes, and Xavier Sneed will clamp down. Instead, Weber’s still trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube to unlock a potent offense to match.

How is that effort unfolding? Judge the early returns for yourself.

Kansas State | Offensive Efficency By Game

Opponent Def. Eff. Poss PPP eFG% TOV% OR% FTRATE 3FG% 2FG% FT%
Opponent Def. Eff. Poss PPP eFG% TOV% OR% FTRATE 3FG% 2FG% FT%
Kennesaw State 104.6 (247) 67 0.836 40.8 23.9 41.2 18.3 7.7 51.1 45.5
Denver 102.9 (195) 71 0.901 43.3 12.7 26.8 45.0 22.2 51.5 44.4
Eastern Kentucky 106.3 (286) 82 1.158 58.2 15.9 34.4 34.3 23.5 66.0 73.9
Penn 98.4 (94) 67 0.955 43.9 16.4 31.4 33.3 28.6 44 73.7

This is where we talk about drawing conclusions from small sample sizes, and there’s always the chance Kansas State uses Missouri as a punching bag. Yet we also know the context around those early data points, too. The early slate has been conducive for KSU to bolt out of the starting blocks, but the assumed gains — particularly in perimeter shooting — have been slow in showing up.

After a sluggish win over Denver, Wade said the slow start wasn’t worrisome, but even if you look at last season as a barometer, the Wildcats only shot 34.1 percent from deep. Nobody would accuse Mizzou of putting together a clinic tape of offensive efficiency. Yet Martin, another Keady protege and one coached by Weber, builds his teams on a similar foundation of steady man-to-man defense and sending three bodies to the glass.

Neither coach has shown an inclination to push the tempo, and, as you’ll see, they each have the personnel to make this a 40-minute wrestling match. The finals of the Paradise Jam may not be aesthetically pleasing to the eye — assuming you forked over $30 to FloHoops or hunted down a pirated stream — but it could be a game where Mizzou wears down the Wildcats enough to steal an upset late.

How much goodwill would be extended to Weber in that case?

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Kennesaw State at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (3-1) No. 12 Kansas State (4-0)
Position Missouri (3-1) No. 12 Kansas State (4-0)
PG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) Kamau Stokes (Sr., 6-0, 170)
CG Mark Smith (So., 6-4, 220) Barry Brown Jr. (Sr., 6-3, 195)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Xavier Sneed (Jr., 6-5, 220)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Makol Mawien (Jr., 6-9, 245)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Dean Wade (Sr., 6-10, 228)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Mizzou Offense | After sputtering starts, seniors Kevin Puryear and Jordan Geist have airlifted MU out of peril on this trip. Yes, Puryear is still struggling on post-ups, but he’s found space in the middle of zone defenses, tracked down misses and occasionally knocked in a spot-up 3-pointer. For his part, Geist has gutted out minutes with an aching back and then inflicted pain by attacking the rim — a prudent move given his 17.6-percent clip from behind the arc — and pushed MU to victory from the foul line.

It’s doubtful that strategy pans out against a top-10 defensive team. Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith need to stay on the floor, supplying MU a mobile big and some semblance of spot-up shooting. Using Tilmon as a distribution hub on the block seems risky, given the ability of KSU’s guards to rove passing lanes, and Wade’s ability to body up defensively. Playing from the elbows or in pick-and-rolls — testing the wings’ ability to switch soundly — and getting Tilmon rolling toward the rim might be a start. When the ball enters the post early, MU tends to stall its movement. It’s dead in the water if that habit continues against Weber’s crew.

Sure, MU’s bigs have been turnover prone. And putting them in space carries risk, but it’s also shown early signs of creating space and movement, all while limiting chances to run hard doubles at Tilmon.

Kansas State Defense | Weber’s system isn’t laden with innovation. It’s just sound man-to-man principles drilled to precision. There are no easy ball reversals. Rotations are crisp and limit dribble penetration to the middle of the floor. Guards understand help-side positioning and close out under control. And when hard doubles are sent, they always come from the right direction at the precise moment.

Now, deploy guards in Diarra, Stokes, and Sneed with good instincts and quick hands to hunt passing lanes. The result is a defense that allows just 0.688 points per possession in the halfcourt and ranks 15th nationally in turnover percentage. Gambles by Weber’s guard don’t always pan out — it’s explains how their PPP on spot-up jumpers might be a tick high — but they all do a stellar job forcing poor mid-range looks when guards attack closeouts or turn the corner on pick-and-rolls. In the post, Wade is a sound positional defender and hard to dislodge on box outs, helping him post a 23.4 DR% through four games.

Oh, and K-State does all of this without racking up a high foul count to bail you out.

Missouri offense vs. Kansas State defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 103.0 (137) 17.9 (257) 45.6 (277) 21.3 (262) 28.2 (194) 36.1 (145) 29.1 (273) 46.9 (242) 69.2 (152) 9.2 (178) 9.5 (235)
Kansas State 88.9 (4) 17.6 (262) 40.3 (17) 25.8 (16) 20.3 (27) 26.7 (64) 25.3 (35) 42.1 (52) 65.5 (105) 11.1 (116) 12.6 (27)

When Kansas State has the ball...

Kansas State Offense | Avoiding turnovers turns off the spigot for easy offense. When K-State has to run offense, the Wildcats efficiency plummets (0.763 PPP), and they shoot just 39.6 percent from the floor. Aside from Brown, their backcourt has been anemic against a set defense. Take Stokes, who remains a serious threat as a passer out of high ball screens, but is turning the ball over 28 percent of the time and only knocked in three 3-pointers so far. Sneed is in a similar funk, connecting on a paltry 25 percent of his jumpers, which makes it hard for him to set out defenders to drive toward the rim — a destination where he’s only attempted two shots this season.

Offsetting woeful perimeter shooting is a schedule friendly to Wade and Mawien, but even under the best of circumstances, neither is are getting many direct paint touches. At the moment, Wade is only going to work twice per game on the right block — his preferred locale — and largely been used as a cutter, dump off man and rebounder. We also haven’t seen Wade — a 44-percent 3-point threat last season — spaced to the wing as a catch-and-shoot option. Regardless, Missouri’s displayed an early knack at limiting paint scoring — even if its block percentage is modest — and trying to compete on the glass.

There’s a scenario where KSU’s transition game is choked off, and its wings continue to misfire, putting pressure on Wade, Mawien and Austin Trice — a JUCO rebounding specialist — to bully a way through down low. Given how tightly officiated the games have been so far, there’s always the risk Wade and Co. stumbles into foul trouble.

Missouri Defense | Can Tilmon stay on the floor? How do Watson and Pickett, who have both struggled at times defensively, fair against veteran wings? How aggressively does MU apply ball pressure? Against Oregon State, Mark Smith and Jordan Geist put the Beavers’ Thompson brothers in a vice, allowing 24 points but holding the duo to a 37.5 effective-field-goal percentage. The story was the same against Kennesaw State, where leading scorers Tyler Hooker and Kosta Jankovich were equally inefficient (42.3 eFG%) in pacing the Owls.

Missouri won’t lock up every offensive threat, but they can make it labor-intensive hit your production quota for the day. Maybe Wade and Brown assemble quality stat lines, but if the rest of Weber’s rotation stalls, MU could give itself a puncher’s chance late. Keep in mind, too, that Weber doesn’t deploy a deep bench. Foul trouble and scoring droughts don’t come with easy solutions.

Kansas State offense vs. Missouri defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Kansas State 108.1 (51) 16.1 (98) 47.3 (244) 17.1 (99) 33.1 (85) 32.8 (204) 20.3 (346) 53.3 (106) 60.0 (307) 4.4 (3.3) 9.1 (208)
Missouri 94.4 (36) 17.3 (230) 44.3 (63) 19.1 (162) 25.3 (96) 33.6 (166) 33.3 (169) 41.0 (34) 64.0 (83) 5.8 (279) 8.4 (193)

KenPom says...

Kansas State 69, Missouri 62 | Honestly, the first team to 60 points wins this game. The Tigers have shown moxie, but KSU’s backcourt — unlike Oregon State — is steady in its application of pressure. The Tigers might slow the Wildcats in the halfcourt, but Brown, Diarra and Sneed might be able to generate enough transition opportunties to open up a safe margin. And if MU can’t get perimeter shots to drop or generate second possessions, it’s hard to see how they close a potential gap.