clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hoops Preview: Missouri vs. Morehead State

A victory over the Eagles would keep the Tigers on schedule as non-conference play wraps up and set the stage for a potentially fast start in SEC action.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NCAA Basketball: Preseason-Morehead State at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Five minutes.

That’s the amount of time I spent poking around the corners of the web for kernel or nugget to use as the starting point for this preview. Kudos to Reed Koutelas of the Missourian for finding a connection on Morehead State’s coaching staff. Outside of Scott Combs, though, there’s just not enough grist to mill.

A victory would run Missouri’s win streak to six games — its longest since opening up 10-0 during Frank Haith’s final season in Columbia — but the arrival of Tennessee to open SEC play may put a cap on that run. Meanwhile, the Tigers rotation has rounded into form. Would it be nice to see Torrence Watson heat up again? Sure. Or let K.J. Santos stretch his legs for extended minutes? That too.

Still, storylines are in short supply.

All that’s really merits mentioning is the Tigers should treat the 256th team in KenPom as a rote chore.

That’s not intended as a slight or dig at coach Preston Spradlin’s bunch, either. But when a successful season ends with eking your way into the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, expectations are already modest. This is a transaction: Mizzou gets a home date and the chance to let its rotational players soak up some more minutes, while MSU leaves with a check.

Coming off a (long-awaited) Braggin’ Rights win, Missouri’s a game away from checking in at the way station we expected them to reach. They appear slightly ahead of schedule in terms of development, while veterans in Kevin Puryear and Jordan Geist have been stabilizing forces. And as we said on Dive Cuts, the early portion of the SEC slate could set MU up for a fast start out of the chute.

The objective is simple: avoid stubbing a toe.

You don’t need Google to help you reach that conclusion, either.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Morehead State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (8-3) Morehead State (4-8)
Position Missouri (8-3) Morehead State (4-8)
PG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) A.J. Hicks (Sr., 6-0, 185)
CG Mark Smith (So., 6-4, 220) Jordan Walker (Jr., 6-0, 185)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) De'Von Cooper (So., 6-4, 190)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) James Baker (So., 6-6, 195)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Lamontray Harris (Sr., 6-7, 220)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | Illinois tried aggressively fronting Jeremiah Tilmon early on to deny post touches, and it doubled when circumstances allowed. Yet Morehead State is in the same position as Xavier and Illinois: it’s not only undersized but also struggles to guard the perimeter.

Now, 3-point defense, Ken Pomeroy will remind you, is subject to more volatility and bouts of randomness. More often than not, regression analyses show 2-point defense is more indicative of a team’s overall defensive ability. Look at how well (or poorly) the Eagles have fared inside the arc. Put simply, Morehead is struggling across the board on the defensive end. If MU can get easy 2s by playing through Tilmon, do that. Should MSU collapse down, odds are they may not be sound recovering to spot-up threats in Geist, Watson or Mark Smith.

I’ll also be monitoring how coach Cuonzo Martin tweaks his lineups. As a refresher, here are the Tigers’ top quintets coming out of last Saturday’s win.

Reliable Rotations

Guard Guard Guard G/F Post Poss Off PPP Def PPP PPP Diff
Guard Guard Guard G/F Post Poss Off PPP Def PPP PPP Diff
Geist Ma. Smith Pickett Puryear Tilmon 139 1.06 0.87 0.19
Geist Ma. Smith Pickett Smith Tilmon 32 1.06 1.12 -0.06
Geist Ma. Smith Watson Puryear Tilmon 31 1 0.77 0.23
Geist Ma. Smith Watson Smith Tilmon 28 0.82 0.8 0.02
Geist Pickett Watson Puryear Tilmon 25 1 0.77 0.23

The biggest takeaway is the drop-off defensively when Mitchell Smith checks in, a move that results in MU allowing 15 more points over 100 possessions, per HoopLens. You can also see why it would be nice for Watson to discover a measure of consistency. MU’s about 10 points better defensively when he’s swapped out for Javon Pickett, but there’s a slight dip on the offensive end. And when you factor Pickett’s ball-moving and rebounding, it’s easy to grasp why the Whitfield product platoons off the bench.

Point being, I’m curious what personnel tweaks Martin might deploy. Or has the window for experimentation closed?

Will he give the lion’s share of minutes to Pinson, letting him have extended periods steering the offense? Will we see less of Puryear and more of Mitchell Smith and Santos at combo forward? We already have a sense of how Martin’s initial substitution pattern works, but this game presents another opportunity to assess the flexibility of his reserve unit.

Morehead State Defense | To me, this is about choosing the least bad option. The Eagles rank worse than 300th nationally in defending spot-ups, pick-and-rolls and post-ups, according to Synergy data. Only forward Lamontray Harris grades out favorably in Synergy’s database, giving up 0.733 points per possession. On the wings, Jordan Walker might be Spradlin’s most reliable option.

Focusing their energies on Tilmon makes sense, too. The added value of a 3-ball overcomes lower shooting percentages from behind the arc, but it might be worth giving up a few uncontested looks in hopes that MU catches a cold. Packing bodies inside might also help Morehead State send more bodies to the glass and limit MU’s chances at creating second-chance points.

Mizzou offense vs. Morehead 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 106.6 (97) 18.8 (320) 52.0 (141) 20.5 (255) 31.0 (102) 32.4 (218) 39.8 (22) 46.8 (267) 67.5 (240) 7.9 (92) 8.4 (136)
Morehead State 107.8 (287) 16.3 (47) 54.2 (284) 18.3 (219) 32.6 (297) 31.8 (129) 48.3 (319) 52.2 (225) 73.2 (316) 10.1 (130) 8.2 (225)

When Morehead State has the ball...

Morehead State Offense | Spradlin’s roster doesn’t lend him much flexibility. The Eagles are undersized and feature a rotation that only goes six deep. The adjustment Morehead can make is how it apportions minutes to James Baker and Malek Green, which is the choice between exchanging defense for offense. Walker can stretch defenses, and Harris is the most consistent producer at the rim. After those two, however, the dropoff is swift. Point guard A.J. Hicks can finish plays in transition and draws fouls at a high rate, but he’s struggled against quality opponents, posting a 65.5 offensive rating in four games against top 100 teams in KenPom’s ratings. De’Von Cooper’s run into the same struggle. Meanwhile, Baker’s primary source of offense is gobbling up misses for putbacks.

When a team sits at 299th nationally for half-court efficiency, it’s hard to find any reason to think they’ll cobble together enough offense to stay in contact. Hicks can distribute the ball, but he’s just as likely to cough it up, which saps touches from Green, whose best source of points is cutting off the ball. For Harris, straight post-ups aren’t ideal, but Mizzou has the size to choke off the offensive glass, forcing the Eagles’ best option to step out to the perimeter. Oh, and Walker is only hitting 32.8 percent of catch-and-shoot jumpers against a set defense.

Missouri Defense | The Tigers are bigger and more athletic at almost every spot on the floor. Sitting down and guarding consistently should be enough to get them through unscathed. Tilmon’s come to dominate backboards, while Mark Smith is Mizzou’s second-best rebounder, and that’s playing at guard. Geist and Puryear aren’t too shabby, either. Deploying Smith on Walker seems like a likely course of action, while Geist takes up the task of slowing down Hicks. Lastly, if Missouri continues to avoid running up its foul count, and main supply of Morehead State’s offense gets cut off.

A workmanlike effort should make it easy for Mizzou to keep the pace where it feels comfortable. Morehead doesn’t force a ton of turnovers, so it’s unlikely the Tigers’ average transition defense undergoes too much stress.

Morehead State offense vs. Mizzou 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%
Morehead State 100.2 (217) 16.9 (130) 45.8 (300) 18.6 (147) 29.7 (145) 29.4 (273) 30.8 (277) 45.6 (297) 69.5 (185) 13.0 (334) 9.1 (218)
Missouri 96.7 (66) 18.1 (325) 48.9 (116) 20.0 (128) 25.9 (78) 29.7 (82) 33.6 (168) 47.9 (100) 61.8 (11) 5.8 (205) 8.1 (230)

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 77, Morehead State 62 | A week layoff allows a thin layer of rust to form, and maybe the Tigers are peeking slightly ahead to a daunting conference opener. So a sluggish start wouldn’t be surprising. But if MU is engaged from the jump, they should close out conference play with a comfortable win and positioned to elbow its way forward in the SEC pecking order.