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Hoops Preview: Mizzou’s trip to Arkansas is a meeting of two programs in transition

Missouri’s invested patience in Cuonzo Martin, who is in the early stages of rebuilding the Tigers. It’s another matter in Fayetteville, where Mike Anderson’s eighth season may raise questions about the program’s ceiling.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

In March 2011, Mike Anderson returned home and renewed hope that a familiar face and style revive an Arkansas program gone stale. If anyone had the deft touch to restore the Razorbacks’ luster, surely it was Nolan Richardson’s protege, who had shown he could lift sagging fortunes in previous stops at UAB and Missouri.

There’s little doubt Anderson fits the program and possesses a nuanced grasp of the fanbase.

Yet after a decade on the job, one where the Hogs haven’t ventured past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, there are murmurs — albeit soft — about whether a change might be healthy in Fayetteville.

Objectively, there’s little evidence to suggest Anderson’s seat should be warm. Coming into this season, Arkansas averaged 21 wins each season and made the field of 68 three times under his direction. After slogging through a rough debut campaign, he’s finished lower than sixth in the SEC standings only once, in 2016. Finally, his $2.2 million salary is the definition of affordable.

To move on from the relative stability of Anderson is to raise existential questions: What is Arkansas’ ceiling? Is 40 Minutes of Hell still a blueprint for success in 2018? And if a change is made, what caliber of replacement can athletic director Hunter Yurachek woo to The Hill?

Off to a sluggish 1-4 start to SEC play, they take on more urgency as the Razorbacks start a cycle of rejuvenation, one initiated after 80 percent production exited the program last spring. It’s easy to describe what was left behind: Daniel Gafford and a metric ton of youth. The Hogs are the nation’s 11th youngest team and 334th nationally for its continuity of minutes, per KenPom. Staying the course with Anderson means committing to a multiyear process because Gafford is likely bound for the NBA and none of the Hogs’ six freshmen are rated better than 135th nationally.

And unlike his early years on the job, Anderson’s trying to steer the Hogs through a deeper SEC, one where Missouri, Ole Miss and Georgia may not be safe harbors on the schedule for much longer. How much patience will Yurachek and his fanbase show as they wait for Isaiah Joe, Mason Jones and Desi Sills to become a salty and productive backcourt? Or will Anderson catalyze the process by landing an elite wing such as Moses Moody, a North Little Rock native and the No. 27 talent in the Class of 2020?

Proclaiming Anderson to be in peril is probably too strong, but any Arkansas’ still has memories — however sepia-toned — of standing astride the sport’s summit. Anderson’s mandate was to sherpa the program back to similar heights. Eight years into the project, though, he’s guided them back to respectability.

Whether that’s good enough may soon be a subject of debate.

Tonight, Missouri, which is undergoing is just starting its reclamation work under Cuonzo Martin, arrives tonight. The Tigers’ encounter a Razorbacks squad that’s struggling to replicate the suffocating on-ball pressure of their forerunners and a home court advantage that’s been dulled a bit this season, with Arkansas already taking three losses inside Bud Walton Arena.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (10-6, 1-3 SEC) Arkansas (10-7, 1-4 SEC)
Position Missouri (10-6, 1-3 SEC) Arkansas (10-7, 1-4 SEC)
PG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) Jalen Harris (Jr., 6-2, 166)
CG Mark Smith (So., 6-4, 220) Isaiah Joe (Fr., 6-5, 167)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Mason Jones (So., 6-5, 207)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Reggie Chaney (Fr., 6-8, 222)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Daniel Gafford (So., 6-11, 233)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | You know how vital Jeremiah Tilmon ’s presence is to the Tigers’ chances of success. His meeting with Gafford only underscores it in a brighter shade of highlighter. Both big men are foul prone, carrying equal risk for both when the lock horns in the lane. The Tigers have made a concerted effort to have Tilmon operate in space early on, let his emotions settle and then have him set up shop on the left block.

Arkansas’ guards are young, but they hold their own in pick-and-rolls, while Gafford’s equally comfortable stepping away from the baseline to tag a roller in Tilmon. So how will the Tigers’ move the Arkansas defense and get the ball to switch sides of the floor and create catch-and-shoot chances for Mark Smith or seams for Javon Pickett to exploit?

It will worth keeping tabs on how Missouri navigates heavier on-ball pressure, which may be applied just to speed up their rhythm, in the half court. So far, Jordan Geist’s kept a level head, doling out 4.5 assists per game and sporting a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio in the Tigers’ first four conference tilts. If Geist can hold fast and crack the first of wave pressure, he’ll find find shooters or dumpoffs on the weak side of the floor. And even if Missouri isn’t connecting, Arkansas’ susceptible on the offensive glass.

Arkansas Defense | Five games into conference action, it’s best to describe the Hogs’ style as 40 Minutes of Pestering. They rank eighth in the turnover percentage and ninth in steal percentage — all while being the fourth most foul-prone team in the SEC.

Over time, Arkansas moved away from Richardson’s original conception of the system. In fact, over the past five seasons, the Hogs haven’t ranked higher than 313th nationally for possessions spent pressing in a game, per Synergy. They still extend their man-to-man defense and trap at times in the halfcourt, but the Hogs’ approach has evolved.

They can still force roughly 16 turnovers a night, but Anderson’s crew isn’t a roving band of marauders. What he does have is a promising trio of guards on the defensive end. Harris is the Hogs’ best perimeter defender. While Joe grades out well, he has a tendency to lose track of shooters and give up two to three uncontested jumpers. Of the three guards, I’d target Jones, who gives up 38.2-percent shooting on spot-ups.

There’s no way Bailey or Reggie Chaney would see the floor unless they could hold up defensively, and each has shown a knack for closing out on shooters and helping Gafford thwart drivers around the rim. Speaking of Gafford, he rates as the SEC’s best defensive player (0.667 PPP) in the low block only slightly behind Tilmon when it comes to defending post-ups. While you have to respect Gafford’s presence lurking on the back line, he’s only been average protecting the rim (3.9 block percentage) in SEC play, which is problematic in the event a young backcourt breaks down and allows dribble penetration.

Missouri offense vs. Arkansas 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 106.5 (120) 18.8 (332) 51.6 (147) 20.9 (290) 30.9 (99) 31.1 (247) 39.2 (15) 46.6 (281) 68.9 (221) 10.1 (237) 8.2 (110)
Arkansas 97.1 (60) 17.4 (204) 47.2 (45) 21.1 (68) 32.6 (314) 39.1 (288) 31.3 (55) 47.5 (71) 70.4 (192) 15.3 (9) 10.7 (63)

When Arkansas has the ball...

Arkansas Offense | The Razorbacks can’t quite get on the same page. After a slow start, Joe, is shooting the cover of the ball (42.2 3FG%) the past two games. Unfortunately, it’s come after Jones, who averaged 23.3 points Florida, LSU and Tennessee — cooled down. Yet the bigger issue may be Gafford’s average play. Outside of a 32-point performance against LSU, the sophomore’s only average 9.8 points in SEC games.

By now, Anderson likely knows that Harris is his chief distributor, while Bailey’s job is to defend, rebound, block shots and track down the occasional miss for a putback. For the Razorbacks to have any chance at success, they need Joe, Jones and Gafford all reading from the same sheet music.

If they can find a measure of consistency, Anderson’s attack will have some semblance of balance. Harris can pick out shooters or hit Gafford on lob plays out of pick-and-rolls. You need to run Joe, a 42.2 3-point shooter in the half court, off the line and be aware that he can smoothly drive the ball into a mid-range pull-up. Meanwhile, Jones brings a slashing element against a set defense but is truly built to assault the rim in transition. All the while, Gafford’s expanded his array of moves and counters to create offense once he gets a feed from the wing.

Missouri Defense | Controlling the pace starts on this end of the floor, where Mizzou is 221st nationally in transition defense, according to Synergy Sports. If the Tigers can wrestle the game into the half court, this becomes a matchup between a top-70 defense and the nation’s 246th offense. Assuming Tilmon can stay on the floor, MU has a potential speed barrier for Gafford, while Martin can task Mark Smith to Jones.

Arkansas’ stumble out of the chute makes sense when you consider their last four opponents are among the SEC’s top six defensive teams. In that context, Missouri, which is ninth, is a breather. Yet Missouri showed us in College Station that when they put their mind to it, they wring the life out of an opponent when they can set up, sit down and make them work for 30 seconds.

Winning the ball-handling battle is crucial. Choking off Arkansas’ transition game can minimize the harm inflicted by Jones and Gafford, while the Tigers can use a drop coverage on pick-and-rolls to keep Joe in front and try to force Gafford into taking floaters when on the move. Mizzou holds its own when guarding spot-ups and defending the block, but executing its coverages in ball screens is another way to turn the vice.

Arkansas 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%
Arkansas 107.8 (98) 15.0 (13) 51.1 (178) 18.4 (145) 30.1 (121) 41.6 (26) 33.2 (211) 51.8 (138) 64.6 (323) 7.5 (63) 8.2 (108)
Missouri 97.8 (71) 18.1 (314) 49.0 (101) 19.5 (149) 27.4 (125) 34.8 (212) 32.0 (78) 49.6 (147) 66.3 (39) 5.2 (337) 7.2 (295)

The Match-Up

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Daniel Gafford | 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. 6-11/233 16.5 9.4 0.8 64.7 0.0 59.1 108.2 64.7 64.1
Sports Reference, KenPom

The fact Gafford came back as his supporting cast hollowed out was among the biggest surprises last spring. For Arkansas, it’s a bright spot in what would otherwise be a dull start to its retooling.

What makes Gafford exceptional is his leaping ability, explosiveness and fluidity in transition. When Daryl Macon floated a lob out of a pick-and-roll, the modus operandi was easy to remember: Just put it in the airspace around the rim, Gafford will take care of the rest. That’s still the same today, as are Gafford’s instincts playing in two-man games. He can rumble down the lane to snatch an alley-oop, softly drop a floater if an opposing big drops back, and he even makes reads out of short rolls.

Put simply, there’s a reason Gafford ranks in the 97th percentile nationally for finishing plays around the rim, per Synergy Sports Data.

Obviously, his absence is felt when he settles onto the bench. Arkansas’ efficiency slides off a cliff from 1.09 PPP and lands with a thud at 0.94 PPP — or the same as 15 points per 100 possessions, per HoopLens. At the same time, they become a sieve on the other end, giving up 1.10 PPP, a raw efficiency that would land around 310th in Division I.

When Gafford does go to work with his back to the basket, he splits his time equally between the right and left block. All things being equal, though, he’s more effective on the left side of the lane, capable of making players over either shoulder but often pounding out a dribble and flowing into a hook shot. He’s fluid and can bully smaller defenders, but his first step isn’t the quickest. He’s also adept at sealing his defender off for a high-low play.

KenPom predicts...

Arkansas 72, Missouri 67 | Missouri finds Arkansas in much the same place as Texas A&M: a relatively young team looking to arrest a slide. The Razorbacks, though, have a bulwark in Gafford and stronger sense of identity and a consistent culture cultivated by Anderson. The question is which program is able to exert its will and, as a result, dictate the tempo. Normally, I’d defer to Arkansas’ home court advantage — the third best in Division I, according to KenPom — but the Razorbacks lack defensive bite and are still hunting for offensive consistency. I think Mizzou pilfers another win from home.