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A Hoops Game Preview: Boredom is the goal in Tigers opener versus Central Arkansas

The Bears play a perky tempo and have some interesting pieces, but the Tigers should still quickly dispense with any drama.

NCAA Basketball: Central Arkansas at UCLA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri’s season-opening objective: blandness.

When you put a date with Central Arkansas on the books, there’s no other imperative than easing a young roster into the season. Sure, the Bears play with a little pep in their step, but, like Missouri, they’re confronting life without a pair of crucial pieces in the backcourt. All in all, you should be tempted to flip the channel at halftime.

Or at the very least hear the dulcet tones of The Antlers serenading coach Cuonzo Martin to give Adam Wolf ample run.

In a couple of months, we’ll likely look back at some rotations that see the floor and chuckle. A blowout gives Martin a chance to take mix-and-match to some fun destinations, and it’s always intriguing to see what ideas a coach wants to try out live under the lights.

What’s the combination of guards provides a blend of ball handling and jump shooting? Do we see Mitchell Smith as a jumbo wing? Is Jeremiah Tilmon going to pick-and-pop? How large of a role will Javon Pickett play? Do we even see K.J. Santos?

This is Mizzou’s soft opening. Just make sure the dishes are clean, the hors-d’oeuvres are interesting, the meat is actually cooked, and the servers aren’t spilling house wine.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Central Arkansas at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Note: KenPom profiles haven’t populated with data. So we’re omitting those statistical breakdowns for now.

UCA Offense | Last season, Jordan Howard and Mathieu Kamba took turns driving an open-wheel offense and shelling away from behind the 3-point arc. Now, the duo is gone, taking half of the Bears’ scoring — Howard posted 25.1 points per game – and perimeter shooting with them. How significant is the drop-off? Well, UCA averaged 1.07 points per possession with Howard, the Southland Conference player of the year, and Kamba on the floor. When they sat, the Bears efficiency plummeted to 0.85 PPP, including 27.6-percent shooting behind the arc, according to HoopLens data.

Coach Russ Pennell does have the pieces of a solid core, but it’s unlikely they click early. Point guard DeAndre Jones posted a 26.9 percent assist rate – granted he had a 24.3 TO% in pick-and-rolls – and poses enough of a 3-point threat that an expanded role seems natural. Sophomore post Hayden Koval profiles as a modern big man, while senior wing Thatch Unruh is a reliable veteran and shotmaker. Darraja Parnell (38.2 3FG%) can inject some shooting off the bench, while freshman wing and Oak Hill product Eddy Kayouloud could make an early dent.

Mizzou Defense | In Martin’s first season, Missouri largely succeeded in choking off transition possessions and ranked 58th nationally in defending catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy Sports data. An open question is whether a roster with nine underclassmen can match the standard Martin demands. At worst, Jeremiah Tilmon and Reed Nikko rate as above average rim defenders and rebounders, which means UCA’s fortunes will come down to whether they conjure up an outlier of a performance from long-range.

UCA Defense | When it takes four years to top out at 268th nationally in adjusted efficiency, it’s only reasonable for outsiders to conclude slowing opponents isn’t a priority. Of course, the irony is that the attrition of Howard and Kamba improves UCA’s defensive prowess by a significant margin of 0.16 PPP. Unruh is stellar at stalking shooters and contesting jumpers. Koval does a sound job keeping a solid base and contesting shots around the tin. Finally, Jones holds his own in navigating pick-and-rolls. Whether that leads to an overall improvement across the board remains to be seen.

Mizzou Offense | New season, same old question: Will MU knock down enough shots to win comfortably? The status quo prevails until we see the identity of this team begin to form. At worst, the Tigers can pound the ball through Tilmon in the post and hope an inside-out strategy cracks UCA jaw in the early on. An added bit of intrigue is the lineup Missouri deploys out of the Gate. Javon Pickett had been getting some run as a starter, but now Illinois transfer Mark Smith is available. And who gets the start at combo forward? Will it be Mitchell Smith? Or does Martin defer to experience in the opening minutes?

The Matchup

UCA Sports Information

Hayden Koval | Post*

Year Ht./Wt. Pts. Reb. Ast. FG% 3FG% FT% ORTG eFG% TS%
Year Ht./Wt. Pts. Reb. Ast. FG% 3FG% FT% ORTG eFG% TS%
Soph. 7-0/220 8.7 5.3 0.9 45.4 33.3 62.7 99.5 52.9 54.6
*2017-18 statistics Sports Reference, KenPom

Two years from now, MU fans might be able to say they saw Hayden Koval before he became a household name. Yes, Koval’s numbers are modest, but KenPom says his freshman campaign closely matched those by put together Kyle O’Quinn — yeah, MU fans know him — and Mike Muscala. In college, they were versatile big men who went on to carve out roles and solid combo forwards in the NBA, and Koval’s game bears a striking resemblance.

Hayden Koval | Offensive Profile

Play Type Possessions PPP eFG% %TO %SF %Score
Play Type Possessions PPP eFG% %TO %SF %Score
Spot Up 76 0.961 52.9000 9.2000 0.000 35.500
P&R Roll Man 60 0.900 57.3000 8.3000 3.300 35.000
Post-Up 46 0.652 36.4000 17.4000 6.500 32.600
Cut 43 1.095 66.7000 19.0000 21.400 57.100
Transition 31 1.387 63.0000 0.0000 19.400 64.500
Putbacks 28 1.036 52.4000 7.1000 14.300 57.100
Off Screen 4 0.750 37.5000 0.0000 0.000 25.000
P&R Ball Handler 1 0.000 - 100.0000 0.000 0.000
Handoff 1 3.000 150.0000 0.0000 0.000 100.000
Miscellaneous 35 0.343 0.0000 54.3000 0.000 25.700
Synergy Sports

While Koval has the size to play inside, he was more than comfortable stepping out to shot spot-up jumpers, play in pick-and-rolls and exploit rim-runs when the tempo cranked up. Against teams ranked in the KenPom top 100, he took more 3-pointers (17) than he did shots in the paint (5), and those he made were usually the result of going to the glass or layups the stemmed from his making plays on the move.

Improving efficiency and strengths are essential for Koval, but perimeter shooting and mobility are quickly becoming crucial traits for big men. It might take Koval a while to max out his potential, but he could pose a potential wrinkle for Missouri’s frontcourt.

The Breakdown

NCAA Basketball: Central Arkansas at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

God bless, Pennell, who is performing yeomen’s labor at a middle-of-the-pack program in the Southland Conference.

His record doesn’t reflect the stability he’s brought to Conway, but his recruiting ground and budgets leave him shoving a rock up a steep hill. The Bears won 18 games last season, including one in the CBI, and then saw a gaping hole blown in their lineup. A year ago, UCA might have frayed nerves for a half, but now this is a tilt where Pennell likely hopes to see Koval, Unruh, Jones and a newcomer hold their own.

Pennell’s been committed to a scorching pace since he took over in Conway, and that doesn’t figure to change this season. For Missouri, locking down defensively and controlling the glass should be a way to rev the pace down. If there’s one thing Martin-coached teams do well, it’s switch ends and matchup quickly. Long shots tend to produce long misses, so getting solid team rebounding from wings would be a boon.

Offensively, Martin has flexibility. He can pound the ball inside to Tilmon early, using a conventional inside-out approach. Or he can run some actions that get young guards pulling the trigger first. Enough data is telling you UCA will give up points. It really comes down to preference in how you pile them up.

KenPom says...

Missouri 85, UCA 64 | Truth be told, the model and my analysis of what it spits out are going to need time to calibrate. Still, it’s hard to see how Missouri breaks much of a sweat. In six of nine seasons at the high-major level, Martin’s produced a top-40 defense, making it hard to see how UCA gets up to warp speed. Meantime, MU knows it can funnel the ball inside. There’s just not a player ready to shoulder the load or a clear market inefficiency for Pennell’s squad to exploit.