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Hoops Preview: UCF is healthy — finally — and the AAC favorite

After injuries torpedoed Johnny Dawkins squad a year ago, the Knights are experienced and tough. Oh, and Tacko Fall is still around.

NCAA Basketball: Wichita State at Central Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

If anyone is in a position to understand Cuonzo Martin’s ill-timed injury plight, Johnny Dawkins is a good candidate.

Coming off a run to the NIT semifinals, Dawkins’ second year in Orlando appeared poised to end an NCAA tournament drought stretching back to 2015. Then bodies started dropping. First, a preseason shoulder injury sidelined Aubrey Dawkins, a 6-foot-6 wing and Michigan transfer. Next, B.J. Taylor was hobbled by a foot injury, costing him half his junior campaign. And just as Taylor was on the mend, gargantuan big man Tacko Fall underwent shoulder surgery to repair a lingering injury and missed the back half of UCF’s season.

All total, Taylor and Fall shared the floor just once for Dawkins.

Given the attrition, the fact UCF rallied to finish 19-13 and in the middle of the AAC, which was headlined by Cincinnati, Wichita State and Houston, is a testament to the program’s tenacity. Ironically, they also created an opportunity.

The AAC’s top three teams from a year ago are all in the midst of retooling, while Memphis and UConn are in the first year of rebuilds under Penny Hardaway and Dan Hurley. The power vacuum should be short-lived, but the Knights are ideally positioned to exploit it.

Knuckling down defensively is how the Knights figure to elbow their way through the pack. Even with blows to their depth, UCF still finished eight nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. And through six games, they rank 46th in efficiency (0.763) when guarding opponents in the half court, with Taylor grading out as the AAC’s best defender — at least based on Synergy Data. Meanwhile, Fall continues to patrol the paint and swat shots, sporting a 13.3 block percentage.

The open question is whether Dawkins can assemble an offense than hums consistently. Over eight seasons at Stanford, four of Dawkins’ teams finished in the top-60, according to KenPom. Early on, UCF has shown signs it can be formidable on that end of the floor, but its jump-shooting remains slightly erratic and the Knights are one the country’s worst teams at the free-throw line. For now, the formula is easy: strangle opponents into submission.

A year ago, Missouri walked out of Orlando with a three-point victory, but the Tigers who topped scoring column — Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett — have left the building. The Knights were also without Taylor, while Fall’s 27 minutes were somewhat sporadic due to foul trouble. Finally, if you subtract the 14 points tallied by Jeremiah Tilmon, the Tigers roster features returners who amassed a mere dozen points.

Put another way: Who can the Tigers turn to for offensive production? Aside from Tilmon, Missouri got zilch from Kevin Puryear in last season’s meeting, while Jordan Geist provided some steady ball-handling. The victory included a dud of an outing from Jontay Porter, which, in a morbid way, is a reasonable proxy for how MU could look today.

There’s a path, albeit narrow, can Missouri can trod to victory, but it’s one that might test your tolerance and the constraints of watchable basketball.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Wichita State at Central Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (3-2) UCF (6-1)
Position Missouri (3-2) UCF (6-1)
PG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) B.J. Taylor (RSr., 6-2, 195)
CG Mark Smith (So., 6-4, 220) Terrell Allen (RJr., 6-3, 185)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Aubrey Dawkins (RJr., 6-6, 205)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Collin Smith (RSo. 6-11, 240)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Tacko Fall (Sr., 7-6, 310)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | Looking over the box score after Tuesday’s loss against Temple was heartening in some respects. Mark Smith continues to be efficient. Jeremiah Tilmon tallied up 14 points and managed to avoid long, foul-induced absences. And Kevin Puryear is providing the kind of production — and perimeter shooting — to help MU bridge the considerable gap created by Jontay Porter’s injury.

UCF will test how strong those gains really are. No, the Knights don’t generate scores of turnovers, but they can sit down and guard consistently in the half court. And with Fall roaming the baseline and paint, they don’t cede uncontested shots at the rim. When MU has had success, it’s come when Jeremiah Tilmon moves to the perimeter as a screener, roller and weakside cutter. Those pick-and-roll based possessions not only create middle penetration and get Tilmon on the move, but they allow kickouts — starting a kinetic chain of swinging the ball and moving defenses.

Or, as we saw in the second half, Missouri moved Puryear to the low block and allowed him to survey the floor, freeing up Tilmon and easing hard double teams that have continually frustrated the sophomore on the left block. Regardless, forcing Fall and Smith to play in space and move laterally is the first step to cracking UCF open.

UCF Defense | If you attack UCF in ball screens, the hope is that a big man botches the coverage because Taylor and Dawkins are adept at forcing contested pull-ups from mid-range spots on the floor. Now, some teams have found success driving the ball out of closeouts against Dawkins, but by-and-large he’s been excellent on the perimeter. As for Allen, the harshest critique you can make is that he occasionally allows an open spot-up jumper.

Where teams have found some success is putting Fall or Smith in a ball screen. On Thursday, Alabama ran high pick-and-rolls that forced Fall to step out and cut off the dribbler, while Donta Hall would hang out on the short corner for dumpoffs. Teams have also had success slip screenings toward the rim, while Smith occasionally forgets to tag a big man rolling off.

For Missouri, the question is whether they have the kind of guards who can make the right reads and deliver solid passes. While UCF doesn’t generate a ton of transition possessions, they’re stellar at finishing plays in the open floor.

Missouri offense vs. UCF 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 106.4 (112) 18.1 (269) 50.2 (196) 21.7 (292) 29.8(145) 37.3 (115) 37.5 (71) 46.4 (265) 68.4 (202) 7.2 (83) 9.7 (255)
UCF 93.7 (19) 16.6 (108) 43.5 (19) 18.4 (199) 29.2 (194) 29.3 (96) 30.6 (90) 42.1 (19) 53.6 (1) 13.2 (45) 7.9 (230)

When UCF has the ball...

UCF Offense | Until its win over Alabama, Dawkins’ squad is the epitome of average with the national median efficiency for halfcourt efficiency. It’s no frills, either. They generate quality 2-point shots, don’t cough the ball up, mash the offensive glass and draw a ton of fouls. Those traits make sense given their size up front.

Taylor splits his time between jumpers and driving the ball, but he’s struggled to finish plays around the rim early on this season. Dawkins, meanwhile, relies on his jumper, which makes up almost 70 percent of field-goal attempts. It’ll be interesting to see how much Dawkins deploys Terrell Allen in pick-and-rolls, where he’s a stellar finisher at the cup and deft at setting up quality kickouts (1.0344 PPP) for his buddies on the wing.

On the block, Fall splits his touches evenly on either block, but he’s more efficient on the left block. When he plays over the right shoulder, he deploys a drop step. Working on the left side, he tends to wheel into a hook shot. As for Smith, he’s a jack of all trades, but his best source of offense is a stick back and getting out to rim run.

Missouri Defense | Shoring up ball-screen defense would be a boon for the MU, which ranks 245th nationally in defensive efficiency in pick-and-rolls. On Dive Cuts, we talked about MU’s struggles against Temple, which mashed the Tigers in pick and rolls and had easy dumpoffs once they got downhill. You can see those issues reflected in Jordan Geist’s defensive numbers. The senior is allowing around 1.6 PPP when his man gets going to the rim in those plays, and almost two-thirds of the shots he allows at the rim result from a pick-and roll.

UCF’s offense hums in those situations, where Allen can exploit a rotating defense for kick outs, Taylor can get to the rim or Fall rolls off and is a large (and easy) target to hit on the move.

Hemming in UCF in ball screens is also one way to limit the Knight’s from running up the foul count and heading to the line. Taylor’s shooting at a 44.6-percent clip from behind the arc and using that jumper to help set up drives and get to the line (77.6 FT Rate). And while Allen is a facilitator when operating out of pick-and-rolls, he’s still adept at getting whistles (41.3 FT Rate). Once you take Tilmon, Geist and Mark Smith off the floor, MU’s defensive efficiency slides to 1.14 PPP, and you wind up rotating in youth off the bench that’s been prone to give up open jumpers.

UCF 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%
UCF 107.5 (93) 18.3 (290) 53.9 (79) 16.0 (41) 29.8 (146) 49.6 (10) 35.4 (123) 54.3 (78) 57.4 (344) 8.2 (123) 7.5 (80)
Missouri 99.4 (84) 18.0 (295) 50.4 (178) 16.5 (295) 24.6 (55) 28.1 (62) 36.6 (274) 47.6 (91) 64.6 (54) 4.3 (336) 7.0 (294)

The Match-Up

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at Central Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Tacko Fall | 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%
Sr. 7-6/310 11.4 7.0 0.9 77.8 0.0 27.0 103.3 77.8 63.9
KenPom, Sports Reference

While Fall arrived at UCF as unformed clay offensively, his ability to swat shots and snag rebounds has been fully formed.

So far, the senior’s 13.3 block percentage ranks among the top-15 nationally and his work on the defensive glass (22.3 DR%) is as steady as ever. Given how the Tigers have struggled in recent games to finish plays around the rim, seeing Fall lurking in the lane isn’t exactly heartening.

Offensively, Fall’s immensity on the block is his best weapon.

Once he gets deep post position, the matter of whether he’ll finish a play is mostly settled. He’s at his best when setting up shop on the left block, where he can make plays over either shoulder and is reasonably sound with the ball (18.2 TO%) in his hands. As I mentioned earlier, though, he splits his roughly six post-up touches per game between the blocks and flashing to the middle. He’s also a far better passer working off the left block.

His size is also an obvious boon when going to the offensive glass, where putbacks are his most efficient source of offense. He can also be used in the two-man game to slip a pick and snare a lob tossed into the vicinity of the rim.

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 65, UCF 64 | This is where I tend to think KenPom can be slightly off. There’s still some data from last season sitting in the model and can skew its outputs. By comparison, here are the projected spreads using other outlets:

  • Bart Torvik: UCF -2
  • Sagarin: UCF -6
  • Haslametrics: UCF -12

Setting stats aside it’s hard to envision Missouri finding enough steady offense to pull off a win. UCF is content playing at a snail’s pace. There’s size along the front line. And the Knights have veteran guards who tend to stay locked in on the perimeter. Now, maybe UCF gets into early foul trouble and the paint opens up. But there’s an equally like scenario where Tilmon is hit with whistles, sits and lets Fall maraud the lane. If there’s a roster constructed to counter how Martin and Mizzou want to play, Dawkins has assembled it.