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Hoops Preview: As Missouri rebuilds, LSU starts meeting its potential

In Columbia, a slow start in SEC play reveals the scope of the job confronting Cuonzo Martin. Facing LSU, they’ll see a program farther along the same path.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

By the end of next week, Missouri will make the turn into the final leg of the regular season, and the Tigers remain, to a degree, an enigma.

The halcyon days of a six-game winning streak during a perfect December have cooled with a 1-4 start to SEC play. After a turnover-filled loss at Arkansas on Tuesday, any optimism that tinged forecasts for the Tigers have given way to a more sober brand of analysis: How hard of a reset will coach Cuonzo Martin’s program endure in his second season?

We’ve been guilty of being overly anxious after a close call against Kennesaw State and chatting — too soon — about sneaking on to the bubble after ending a five-game losing streak to Illinois. The truth rest somewhere in the middle. Once Jontay Porter suffered a season-ending knee injury, recalibrating expectations wasn’t an exact science.

Jordan Geist took another step forward, while Jeremiah Tilmon continues to wage a psychic battle between his ears and against officials whistles. Javon Pickett and Mark Smith have exceeded expectations, while Torrence Watson’s defense and K.J. Santos’ left foot stilted the start of the high-major debuts. All the while, Kevin Puryear’s shored up his defense and bounced back behind the 3-point arc — but not enough to backfill Porter’s missing production.

With a streaking No. 25 LSU on the agenda today, chances are likely MU slips to 1-5 in conference play, putting the program on track for a projected 6-12 finish, per KenPom. We know the Tigers can’t duck the interest on the loan they took out last season to max out what any sane observer figured would be a full season with Michael Porter Jr. on the roster. Admitting Mizzou looks to be on track for .500 overall record is acknowledge Martin and his staff have started the hard work of a professional rebuild.

In LSU, they meet a team that’s figured out the right order of operations since SEC play began. During non-conference play, coach Will Wade’s bunch lost to Florida State on a late 3-pointer in overtime, slumped in a hangover loss to Oklahoma State, and later blew a 13-point lead in a road loss at Houston. Sophomore point guard Tremont Waters, a preseason All-SEC selection, was battling turnovers woes, while the Tigers’ athletic frontcourt of Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams, and Kavell Bigby-Williams was porous in the paint.

Since senior guard Daryl Edwards went down with a foot injury, there’s been clarity. Wade moved JUCO guard Marlon Taylor — a high-flyer in transition and a pesky defender — into the starting lineup, while Waters spent two games in a reserve role. The result: eight wins in a row, including five by double digits.

Now Waters is back in the starting lineup, Wade has his rotation set, and the Tigers are putting up enough resistance defensively (0.98 PPP, per HoopLens) to put a hurting on the opposition. Earlier this week, they led Georgia by as many 17 points before letting off the gas in a 92-82 win.

Afterward, Wade listed his litany of complaints about his team’s defensive issues: playing a step slow in pick-and-roll coverages, getting beat on backdoors, using poor foot angles and allowing direct drives. So he’s not exactly taking a moment to drink in the Tigers’ success.

In Baton Rouge, best-laid plans are starting to come together and Wade’s vision becoming a reality. And in Columbia, the hope is that Martin can deliver the same to feeling the fanbase sipped a year ago. Until that happens, we’re watching the slow, steady labor that’s already the hallmark of his program.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (10-7, 1-4 SEC) LSU (15-3, 5-0 SEC)
Position Missouri (10-7, 1-4 SEC) LSU (15-3, 5-0 SEC)
PG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) Tremon Waters (So., 5-11, 175)
CG Mark Smith (So., 6-4, 220) Skylar Mays (Jr., 6-4, 200)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Marlon Taylor (Jr., 6-5, 210)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Naz Reid (Fr., 6-10, 250)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Kavell Bigby-Williams (Sr. 6-11, 250)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | LSU’s overall defensive profile isn’t a mirror image of Arkansas, but the Tigers extend their man-to-man defense, create turnovers and get an athletic roster in the open floor. That’s another way of saying Mizzou can’t have another night where its turnover count tops 20.

To do it, they’ll need as many as reliable hands as possible. Waters (5.31), Skylar Mays (3.56) and Darius Days (3.27) all rank among the top 10 in the SEC for steal percentage, according to KenPom. So it was a positive development on Friday when MU told scribes Pickett would be available, while Mark Smith, who tweaked his ankle in the second half Wednesday, will be a game-time decision. Having both gives Martin two guards whose respective turnover rates — both below 20.0 — are average.

The formula success doesn’t change, either. Slow the tempo, run good offense and create quality spot-up chances. How the Tigers pull that off, though, will be interesting. LSU excels at cloaking ball-handlers out of pick-and-rolls, which could close off one avenue for collapsing the defense and pitch it out to shooters.

An alternate route: Jeremiah Tilmon on the block. We know he’s capable of initiating a kinetic chain of passes bouncing around the floor, and Reid and Williams struggle at times defending on the block. And while the possessions count is low, MU has had success dumping the ball to roll men. So I’m keen to see how the sophomore gets deployed.

LSU Defense | A year ago, Waters got muscled in ball screens. Generously listed at 5-foot-11, 167 pounds, you could bump the point guard off course and make him struggle to recover. You can’t say that anymore. He’s become an above average defender in ball screens, and it gives Wade a contingent of guards who can all hold their own on the ball.

Now, Taylor will occasionally fail to run a shooter off the line, but Waters and Mays each allow less than a 24-percent clip on spot-up jumpers. (That changes once Smart heads to the scorer’s table, allowing 38.8-percent shooting behind the 3-point line.) As much as Wade admonished his team this week, his backcourt has started to round into a form that might match his lofty expectations.

This is a game where Mizzou would love to see Santos break out of his funk. Reid struggles to contest perimeter jumpers, and when he does, you can drive the ball to the rim. In theory, Santos’ jumper could put the freshmen in such a bind. But there’s little evidence to suggest that it’s looming on the horizon.

So attacking Bigby-Williams on the block might be worthwhile. His issues defending on the left block mirror what Tilmon’s hunting for at times — a hook shot over his left shoulder after one dribble or countering by drop-stepping to the baseline. Forcing LSU to send help is the first step to loosening up the perimeter.

Missouri offense vs. LSU 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 105.3 (144) 18.7 (314) 51.8 (138) 21.7 (312) 30.2 (118) 31.6 (236) 39.2 (15) 46.8 (279) 69.0 (215) 9.9 (229) 8.8 (176)
LSU 97.7 (74) 16.4 (30) 49.5 (130) 21.9 (39) 30.6 (267) 33.6 (186) 34.3 (183) 48.4 (105) 68.8 (116) 13.6 (30) 13.4 (3)

When LSU has the ball...

LSU Offense | Waters eats people alive in pick-and-rolls. No matter the location or whether he actually uses the screen, the sophomore still cracks defenses. Run them on the wing, and he’s liable to halt in the mid-range or a jumper. Set the screen at the top of the key, and he’s going slice right into the heart of the defense, attack the rim and try to implode it.

However, he’s also been mortal. His turnover percentages in those ball screens (23.5%) and in transition (36.4%) are problematic. (Granted, his assist rate is also 50.4.) Meantime, he’s only shooting 32.2 percent from behind the arc during half-court possessions. The dip in perimeter shooting and increase in turnovers means you play him more as a driver than a season ago.

Surrounding Waters with Mays and Taylor balances out of the mix. When LSU runs its offense, Mays serves as the floor space, knocking down 42.9 percent of spot-up jumpers, while Taylor wants to cut into a gap and attack the rim. When LSU does get its fast break fired up, Mays can push the ball, run a wing to a spot, or trail the play for a pitch back and a jumper. Finally, subbing in Smart for Taylor allows Wade to tap into a skillet that balance jump-shooting with straight-line drives.

Reid’s diversity can be flummoxing. Ironically, the weakest element of the 6-10, 250-pound freshman’s game is playing on the block. Instead, he’s better when Wade moves him around the floor. He can stretch his range on the perimeter, where he shoots38.6-percent from the 3-point arc, and he’s especially potent as a trail shooter on fast breaks. He can cut off the ball, and he can create offense for himself by going to the glass.

Missouri Defense | The Tigers may be able to decide matchups pretty easily. Geist’s defense in pick-and-rolls is sound enough to deploy him on waters. Assuming Mark Smith is healthy, task him with tracking Mays. Taylor’s explosiveness might test Pickett, but his inconsistent perimeter shooting may mean the freshmen can sink and treat him as a driver.

The Tigers are still on the cusp of being a top-50 team guarding in the half court, while LSU checks in 96th on offense. That’s a fairer fight for Missouri.

How the Tigers approach guarding Reid will be worth monitoring. In terms of athleticism, Tilmon is a better fit, but if Wade pulls Reid out of the post, MU’s rim protection becomes untenable. Yet Reid is bigger and more physical than either Santos or Puryear, who might be tasked with guarding him at the four spot. Besides, you wouldn’t want either trying to dislodge Bigby-Williams in the post.

Unlike Arkansas, I doubt Wade will parch Reid’s thirst for touches the way the Hogs did with Daniel Gafford for much of the first half.

It’s going to take a monumental effort to keep LSU from speeding up the game and boat-racing MU in the open floor, but that’s Mizzou’s best course of action.

LSU 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%
LSU 116.1 (14) 16.8 (116) 54.8 (37) 19.4 (205) 35.6 (20) 38.8 (56) 34.3 (172) 56.6 (12) 75.4 (34) 6.9 (30) 9.6 (249)
Missouri 97.0 (67) 18.0 (308) 49.2 (147) 19.5 (147) 27.2 (118) 34.3 (205) 32.5 (96) 49.5 (137) 66.1(40) 4.8 (343) 7.0 (315)

KenPom predicts...

LSU 72, Missouri 69 | While all seems copacetic for LSU, Wade knows his team’s focus can slip, as can its defensive intensity. Normally, that’s a problem when you venture away from your home gym, but Missouri allowed Tennessee and Alabama to open gaps the Tigers couldn’t narrow. We take it as a given that Martin’s team plays hard, but it just doesn’t quite have the depth to make a dent quite yet. Mizzou has shown the tenacity to win the first 10 minutes of game. To nab an upset, they’ll need to stretch themselves and get some help from Wade’s group along the way.