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“Just run the press breaker play,” they said...

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Things are a little complicated when you don’t have ball-handlers.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

I watched virtually zero basketball last week. During basketball season I spend four or five nights watching hoops, but last week the beach beckoned. The only basketball I saw was from clips here and there. Mostly from twitter.

So I didn’t see the Tigers go on the road and beat Ole Miss, and I didn’t witness them meltdown and blow a 12-point lead in 97 seconds. I also didn’t see them gather themselves and make the plays necessary to net the win in the end. Pretty extraordinary events, actually.

Afterwards, you’d think the some combination of relief and excitement would wash over the fanbase.

Somehow this team with just eight scholarship players, no point guard, and a miserable recent history of basketball, has won four in a row in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball. They’re currently 17-8 and have the inside track on a double bye in the conference tournament.

And yet, some fans seem to want to wallow in whatever misery they can find. It’s one of the weirdest parts of most fan bases, those who choose to be eternally miserable. Sometimes, bad plays just happen. Sometimes you can’t fix things midstream.

But yes, by all means, let’s talk about press breakers.

Breaking a press is easy to draw up.

I can prove it: I googled ‘How to break a press in basketball’ and got 34.5 million results in a half of a second. I’ve seen the first 10 recommendations all in practice. They all work well sometimes. And sometimes they don’t.

Essentially, there are two philosophies at work. One is to limit the number of ball handlers in the back court, giving them room to get open. The other is to load up the back court and set a bunch of screens to get guys open.

Here are examples of some basic press-break looks (click to enlarge):

press break figures

As a player, I was often thrown into the two-high version which Missouri runs most often. As a coach, I preferred the three-high version Missouri runs occasionally. And I’m honestly not a big fan of the four high version that’s out there as well.

These are all very basic looks, and you can play the cuts and screens off of the formations quite easily. All of these work in some way as long as you have the right players. Missouri doesn’t have very many of the right players.

Cuonzo Martin and staff seem to fall in the category of the first philosophy — hoping to keep the back court open for players to cut into open areas.

Below is how they set up most of their press attacks, with one inbounder and two ball handlers cutting towards the ball.

Too often Mizzou players get caught in the corner here, despite the coaches notably working towards having them catch the ball higher on the floor. But in this image, there are three Tigers in the shot. Kassius Robertson, Jontay Porter and the inbounder Jordan Geist.

Here’s the reality of the situation:

  • Robertson: 18.5%
  • Porter: 23.6%
  • Geist: 22.2%

Those are each player’s turnover rates. Also on the floor in this specific play were Kevin Puryear and Jordan Barnett, both non-ball handlers with turnover percentages in the 16% range. On the bench was Cullen VanLeer, who has a 25% turnover rate.

I’m just not sure where people expect Mizzou to turn when things get a little crazy. They’re working with a patchwork roster made up of two well-regarded freshmen, a crafty graduate transfer, and the core of a team who won eight games last year. None of these guys are true point guards, and none were intended to be primary ball-handlers.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Watching meltdowns also tends to make us mislead ourselves a bit. Mississippi State indeed went on a 12-0 run to end regulation, but only two of Mizzou’s turnovers came because the press break’s failure. Both were caused more by a poor decision from the inbounder (in both cases, Porter), who threw the ball away both times.

The first throwaway happened with 2-high, the second with 3-high. Both times Jontay took the ball out quickly, starting the five-second clock early, and panicked a bit after three or four seconds ticked off.

In every other instance, the press break worked — the ball crossed half court with Missouri in possession of the ball.

Cuonzo Martin practices breaking presses. Missouri probably spends a fair amount of time running through a hundred different scenarios to cover as many bases as possible.

At this point in the season, the Tigers are what they are. They’re incredibly tough, and they shoot the ball well enough to mask a severe ball-handling deficiency. They defend well at times, but their limited athleticism means that with decent ball movement you can get to the rim pretty easily.

Mississippi State is a tough matchup for Mizzou because they the Bulldogs have good defensive bigs and athletic wings who can attack. Mizzou shot well enough to overcome that.

This is sort of their M.O. at this point: shoot well, turn the ball over, win. Shoot poorly, turn the ball over, lose.

That they’ve reached 17 wins with this team in this league six games to play is simply staggering to me. I’m not sure I could have predicted more with Michael Porter Jr playing all year and Blake Harris still around.

Through everything that’s happened, Martin deserves to be in the conversation for the National Coach of the year with what he’s accomplished at Mizzou. So you’ll forgive me if I give him a mulligan on whether a team with no point guard can handle a press or not.