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Turning over Missouri’s ball-handling woes

What went wrong in a game where the Tigers coughed the ball up 24 times against Arkansas? And how abnormal is the problem?

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

What muse whispered in Jordan Geist’s ear as he curled around a converging Daniel Gafford, leapt with his left foot and took flight?

Hanging aloft underneath the backboard early in the second half Wednesday, Missouri’s senior guard violated a cardinal rule of ball-handling: leaving terra hardwood without an exact flight plan filed in his mind. At the top of the key, though, a bailout appeared. Guard Mark Smith slid toward the top of the key and into Geist’s field of vision. So as Geist descended, he unfurled a pass that was a hybrid of a scoop shot and wraparound.

It arced along a doomed trajectory, falling into the hands of Arkansas guard Mason Jones — the 14th entry in a ledger of 24 turnovers during a 72-60 loss to the Razorbacks.

By now, you know the obvious: The Tigers gave the ball away. A lot. As in the second worst turnover percentage in program history since Ken Pomeroy starting tracking analytics ahead of the 2001-2002 season. As of Thursday, MU ranked 312th in Division I, and it doesn’t get a reprieve when No. 25 LSU — currently 40th nationally in creating takeaways — pulls into Columbia on Saturday.

Seventeen games into the season, the die is likely cast, too.

Point guard Dru Smith can only look on seated near the end of the bench. Coach Cuonzo Cuonzo Martin cant trawl a waiver wire for another set of steady hands. And only time and nights like the one MU endured earlier this week can impart experience and age a youthful roster.

All we saw in the Basketball Palace of the Mid-America was a team whose tensile strength reached a breaking point. A quick scroll through Synergy Sports data quantifies what we already know: You can browbeat the Tigers into mistakes. Right now, MU ranks 332nd nationally in offensive efficiency (0.661 PPP) against the press, with a turnover rate (23.2%) to match.

Under Pressure | Missouri vs. Full-Court Press

Poss/Gm Rank PPP Rank %TO Rank
Poss/Gm Rank PPP Rank %TO Rank
6.2 95 0.661 332 23.2 252
Synergy Sports

Naturally, you might wonder: What steps can MU take to steady shaky hands?

First, though, we need to take another look at the evidence — and it is ample — of what went awry on Wednesday. That starts with a rough accounting and cataloging of MU’s mistakes.

The final turnover tally induces winces, but a review reveals that only half were live-ball takeaways, a dozen transition opportunities the Razorbacks cashed in for 21 points. Out of 12 dead-ball turnovers, poor execution accounted little more than half of them: five offensive fouls, a shot-clock violation and a five-second call.

What was opportunity cost did Martin’s club incur? Given that MU was averaging 1.02 points per shot attempt in the half court, the calculation is straightforward. By eliminating its errors, the Tigers could have sliced the final margin in half. Squandering possessions also tossed a lifeline to Arkansas, which only shot 36.2 percent during the 47 possessions it had to run its offense after MU was able to match up.

Speeding up Mizzou radically alters the caliber of defense a foe encounter. Despite having nine underclassmen on the roster, the Tigers are among the nation’s best when tasked with the job of guarding in the half court, ranking No. 53 by ceding just 0.89 PPP, according to Synergy Sports.

Scramble Mode | Missouri Transition Defense

Poss/Gm Rank PPP Rank eFG% Rank
Poss/Gm Rank PPP Rank eFG% Rank
11 80 1.056 269 61.3 303
Synergy Sports

Once the game gets into the open floor, though, Martin’s team can be leaky. Yet the Tigers — turnovers woes and all — aren’t often caught out having to defend on the run. The difference is playing at a level resembling a bubble team and one of the worst high-majors in the country.

So what led to Wednesday’s calamity?

Taxonomy of Turnovers

Branding aside, Arkansas’ slowly mutated since Mike Anderson brought 40 Minutes of Hell back into fashion on The Hill eight years ago. Over the past five seasons, the Razorbacks haven’t ranked higher than 313th nationally for time spent pressing. Instead, they deploy an aggressive man-to-man scheme that selectively traps in the half court.

Now, Anderson hasn’t entirely abandoned the influence of Nolan Richardson. Instead, he’s just more selective about when to roll various press looks. How often Arkansas’ presses is also a function of the opponent.

In MU’s case, the indicator light blinked, telling Anderson all the systems were go for deployment. Assessing how the Tigers performed leaves you filing turnovers into four categories.

Wilting against the Press

Fundamental rules undergird almost any system for breaking a press: Don’t turn your back to the trap, aggressively step through to split the double team, make quick passes, and meet the pass if the ball if your teammate finds you. Both of MU’s turnovers against the press failed to heed the advice about decisive hit aheads and meeting them in the air.

On the second takeaway, Torrence Watson isn’t under duress, but his decision still goes awry. Instead of rifling a chest pass ahead, he opts for the slower bounce pass. At the same time, a backpedaling K.J. Santos doesn’t come forward enough to shrink the gap — easy pickings for Arkansas’ Jalen Harris.

Soft Tosses

Traditionally, Arkansas’ positioning calls for defenders to apply heavy on-ball pressure while off defenders shrink the distance to their man and in a position to aggressively deny passes. Now, this does make the Razorbacks’ vulnerable at times to dribble penetration — gaps are wider — but chokes off ball reversals that swing the defense.

In some ways, the same rules you use in the press apply in the half court. You can’t toss lazy passes or stand to wait for the ball to arrive. Three times in the first half alone, MU watched as an Arkansas guard jumped in front of an intended target and pilfered a pass.

Pesky Pigs in the Post

Hard-doubles are old hat for Jeremiah Tilmon. Only Maryland’s Bruno Fernando and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ see them more at the high-major level. For his part, Tilmon adroitly handles the tangled mass of limbs when he’s surveying for the floor, ranking ninth nationally (1.615 PPP) on plays where he zings a kick out to a shooter.

Still, Arkansas big men Daniel Gafford, Adrio Bailey and Reggie Chaney are stellar and scraping the ball free once it goes inside. As you can see, Chaney times his dig from the right slot perfectly, pouncing at the time Tilmon raises the rock aloft.

The Razorbacks also opted to three-quarter front Tilmon and, to a degree, Kevin Puryear. Doing so shrank the target for Mizzou’s guards, especially when the passing the ball from the slot or channel instead of the wing. Twice an Arkansas post defender managed to step in front of entry passes, including one from Geist to Tilmon that probably shouldn’t have been attempted.

Points for Creativity

Watch the 80-second montage above and you’ll be struck by the progression of MU’s turnovers. What began as explainable mistakes — a bad pass against the press, a slow ball reversal, or a timely double team in the post — can only be explained by bad judgment. Geist’s jump pass along the baseline under his own hoop qualifies, but Xavier Pinson’s submission also earned low marks.

I’m not sure what Pinson’s reads were once he attacked out of this ball screen, but going airborne and trying to thread — what I suspect — is a no-look pass behind your back, between two defenders to a rolling Tilmon isn’t one. No doubt, Pinson’s vision is preternatural. At least once a game, the Simeon product will thread a needle, and he spending time in Chicago’s Public League is excellent preparation for facing Arkansas. Yet Pinson is still a freshman, one learning how to balance creativity with prudence judiciously.

On this play, the former won out.

So how bad is MU’s turnover bugaboo?

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

Mizzou’s plight isn’t an uncommon one.

Among the nation’s 10 youngest high-major rosters, half are below No. 200 in turnover percentage, according to KenPom: Rutgers (No. 197), Kentucky (No. 201), LSU (No. 202), Maryland (No. 205), Kentucky (No. 238) and Stanford (No. 309). Once you expand the pool of young teams to 25 — a chart showing all this data is below — the initial quintet doubles.

Sitting at No. 281 in experience is MU, which just so happens to own the worst turnover percentage of the bunch.

Yet the Tigers’ also have a startling incongruity. When you look at the point guards for each team, Geist is the only senior, and his turnover percentage (17.3) is fourth lowest, only trailing Arkansas’ Jalen Harris, Arizona State’s Remy Martin and Boston College’s Ky Bowman. Finally, the gap between Geist’s individual turnover rate and Mizzou, the 4.4 percentage gap is the widest margin of the group.

These are just surface level observations, but the explanation may simple: MU’s young roster may just face the steepest learning curve when it comes to valuing the ball.

Outside of Duke, Florida and Kansas, which are young rosters led by elite freshman point guards, young teams that value the ball tend to have a grizzled vet running the point. Then there are those programs who have freshmen or sophomores running the team and taking lumps as part of a larger group.

That’s not the case in Columbia.

In Martin’s second year on the job, Geist’s grown into a dependable lead guard, but the roster behind him is still in flux as Martin tries to fuse holdovers with a freshman class comprised of developmental prospects. It’s why MU brought in Dru Smith and heavily targeted point guards and combo guards in the 2019 and 2020 classes.

On Wednesday, the turnover plague spread up and down the rotation, and when you look at MU’s turnover rates, you can see how contagion can happen. In Mizzou’s losses, Geist and Tilmon have tended to struggle, while Pinson’s also seen his turnover count climb. Yet MU’s big men can also bleed possessions.

Steady Hands? | Missouri’s Turnover Rates

Name Year TO Rate
Name Year TO Rate
Jeremiah Tilmon So. 28.2
Xavier Pinson Fr. 30.5
Javon Pickett Fr. 17.1
Mark Smith Fr. 14.6
Kevin Puryear Jr. 16.7
Torrence Watson Fr. 18.8
Mitchell Smith So. 28.4
Reed Nikko Jr. 33.0
K.J. Santos So. 37.8
Ronnie Suggs Jr. 12.5

Look ahead to this time next year, and MU will have Pinson, Dru Smith, Mark Smith and Mario McKinney Jr. at its disposal. By then, a summer of conditioning work, individual skill sessions and open gyms will give Pinson the strength and chemistry that he didn’t have the chance to develop before his freshman year. As we noted when Dru Smith committed last April, the Evansville transfer plays under control and with the kind of efficiency you crave at lead guard. Lastly, McKinney’s four years at Vashon, which roils its opponents with pressure, acclimated him to playing at warp speed.

And in two years, assuming recruiting pans out, they could have some combination of Josh Christopher, Cam’Ron Fletcher or Caleb on the roster, fusing those freshmen with its existing veteran nucleus that’s currently trudging through a transition year.

No doubt, Martin and his staff will try to clean up errors and tighten up the ship this season. They’ll have plenty of corrections to make and lessons to impart. Yet the only solutions is the one we all know — time, recruiting and player development.

Growing Pains | How does youth impact turnovers?

Team Experience Exp. Rank TO% TO% Rank PG Name PG Year PG TO% TO% Gap
Team Experience Exp. Rank TO% TO% Rank PG Name PG Year PG TO% TO% Gap
Florida 1.38 278 18 109 Andrew Nembhard Fr. 24 6
Missouri 1.37 281 21.7 311 Jordan Geist Sr. 17.3 -4.4
Boston College 1.36 285 17.5 79 Ky Bowman Jr. 17.1 -0.04
Arizona State 1.3 290 18.2 121 Remy Martin So. 16.3 -1.9
Georgia Tech 1.3 291 21.5 306 Jose Alvarado So. 18.4 -3.1
Creighton 1.3 292 18.1 117 Marcus Zegarowski Fr. 19.2 1.1
Oregon 1.29 294 17.8 98 Payton Pritchard Jr. 18.3 0.5
Oklahoma State 1.28 296 20.2 206 Isaac Likekele Fr. 25.9 5.7
Penn State 1.25 297 18.9 169 Rasir Bolton Fr. 23.5 4.6
Kansas 1.24 300 18.2 119 Devon Dotson Fr. 21.9 3.7
Colorado 1.23 303 18.4 191 McKinley Wright So. 24.9 6.5
Vanderbilt 1.22 305 18.1 116 Saben Lee So. 18.2 0.1
Illinois 1.2 309 19.4 206 Trent Frazier So. 18.1 -1.3
Pittsburgh 1.17 313 19.8 235 Xavier Johnson Fr. 25.3 3.7
Notre Dame 1.16 314 14.1 4 Prentiss Hub Fr. 17.7 3.6
Rutgers 1.14 320 19.3 197 Geo Baker So. 21.6 1.3
Wake Forest 1.13 324 18.7 162 Brandon Childress Jr. 17.8 -0.9
LSU 1.08 329 19.4 202 Tremont Waters So. 26.2 6.8
Stanford 0.94 338 21.5 309 Daejon Davis So. 26 4.5
Arkansas 0.87 340 18.4 146 Jalen Harris Jr. 15.9 -2.5
California 0.81 342 17.1 66 Paris Austin Jr. 18.9 1.8
Duke 0.75 346 16.8 54 Tre Jones Fr. 11.6 -5.2
Maryland 0.69 349 19.4 205 Anthony Cowan Jr. 18.9 -0.5
UCLA 0.68 350 19.8 238 Jaylen Hands So. 22.8 3
Kentucky 0.66 351 19.3 201 Ashton Hagans Fr. 26.4 7.1