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Hoops Preview: Missouri faces a set of cranky cats at Auburn

Reeling from a meltdown against LSU, MU visits another SEC foe that thrives on turnovers and is looking to end a three-game skid.

NCAA Basketball: Dayton at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

For the third game in a row, Missouri’s fortunes depend on making a beautiful game ugly.

When the schedule came out, sandwiching a game against LSU between road trips to Arkansas and Auburn was a trifecta held opportunity or peril. After a relative soft entry into conference play, emerging with a pair of wins could, in theory, point the way toward a postseason berth.

And getting swept by that trio?

Well, there’s a chance we’ll see for ourselves what the ramifications out that scenario entail.

Chiefly, how many more times can Mizzou shake off an outing like the one they endured watching its 14-point lead erode in a loss to LSU? In our little corner of cyberspace, the ramshackle collapse was balanced against an otherwise competent 38 minutes versus a top-25 opponent. That said, we also understand — in a technocratic and visceral sense — how it left an ugly stain.

For as much we try to take a holistic, long-term view to the reboot initiated by coach Cuonzo Martin, we’ve now reached a point in the calendar where moral victories count for little. Last week, MU had a chance to emerge with a pair of victories, a three-game winning streak, a .500 record in SEC play and a shot at an NIT bid.

Now? The margin for error is a thin, brittle layer. So, naturally, the Tigers’ next task is to hit the road to face the nation’s best team at forcing turnovers.

The other Tigers are famished, too. Coach Bruce Pearl’s team is in a three-game funk, coming off a loss at Mississippi State. Mired at 2-4 in SEC play, Auburn’s quickly fallen off the pace set by Tennessee, LSU, Kentucky and South Carolina. Dropping back in the conference title race and out of the polls isn’t the only problem. Auburn’s preseason gleam has faded to a colder reality: it needs quality wins — soon.

As of Tuesday night, their team sheet shows why they’ve gone adrift from a protected seed and to a No. 7 seed in ESPN guru Joe Lunardi’s latest projection. Despite checking in at No. 25 in the NCAA’s NET Rankings, Auburn is winless in five games against Quadrant 1 opponents. Meanwhile, its two Quadrant 2 triumphs — Washington and Murray State — won’t move the needle when it comes time to build the bracket.

Wailing on Missouri won’t bolster Pearl and Co.’s case to the selection committee, but working out some frustration could tee them up to tear through a quartet of games against Alabama, Florida, LSU and Ole Miss.

So far, Missouri’s psychological resiliency has belied its youth, but could it withstand getting drilled on the road? The optimist case is simple: a win is found money. On Dive Cuts, I posited that any (remaining) chance at a postseason berth hinges on holding serve when Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and South Carolina come calling at Mizzou Arena. Stealing a road victory against Georgia is also crucial.

Basically, Missouri needs to find a way to reach six wins and hope it can pick off a road win. Will it be tonight? Doubtful, but the SEC — and Auburn — haven’t been immune to performances that leave you bewildered.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (10-8, 1-5 SEC) Auburn (13-6, 2-4 SEC)
Position Missouri (10-8, 1-5 SEC) Auburn (13-6, 2-4 SEC)
PG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) Jared Harper (Jr., 5-11, 175)
CG Mark Smith (So., 6-4, 220) Bryce Brown (Sr., 6-3, 198)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Samir Doughty (Jr., 6-4, 195)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Chuma Okeke (So., 6-8, 230)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Anfernee McLemore (Jr. 6-7, 220)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | Someone not named Jordan Geist needs to step forward. A healthy Mark Smith would help, and in more ways than filling up the scoring column. Sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon has done his level best in posting 12.7 points and 5.3 rebounds the past three outings — all while averaging better than 29 minutes per game.

Javon Pickett is likely the next best outlet for production, but his shooting has dipped to 44.4 percent since conference play started. For example, tallying 13 points against LSU is helpful, but blunted by needing 12 shots, including 1 of 7 from 3-point range, to get there.

In late December, I sang Kevin Puryear’s praises, but he’s slid into the same funk he did a year ago when conference play arrived, posting an 83.3 offensive rating, per KenPom. K.J. Santos’ offensive repertoire is oxidized, and Torrence Watson, who is shooting just 22.7 percent, is searching for any kind of spark to melt the glaciers around his game.

To echo Sam Snelling’s sentiments from Study Hall, Missouri needs to stabilize rickety ball-handling and get some semblance of production out of the combo forward spot to have any chance of making a late-season push. Its best hope is that Santos, at the very least, finds his wayward jumper and Xavier Pinson can start lowering the ghastly 35.2 turnover rate he’s been saddled with since SEC play began.

Until signs of progress appear, the Tigers’ best hope is to keep its live-ball turnovers to a minimum, lean on Geist is to scratch something together out of pick-and-rolls, hope Smith’s shooting didn’t cool while his ankle healed and that Tilmon stays on the floor.

By now, there’s not many schematic adjustments or rotation tweaks left in the bag. MU knows it has to play through Geist as a creator or Tilmon on the block, and that deploying small-ball lineups can bring as many headaches as it can relief. At some point, Mizzou’s veterans need to find a way to step forward or its youth needs to break through.

Right now, offensive inertia isn’t enough — and we saw evidence enough against LSU. This all part of the learning process, but as February arrives, careers are winding down and freshmen can no longer use inexperience as an explanation. That’s not a criticism, just an acknowledgment of reality.

Auburn Defense | How engaged will Auburn be? Yes, their transition game can chew you up and spit you out as wood chips, but it needs the raw material. So far, the Tigers have been average — ranking seventh in the SEC — at causing turnovers. Those woes are a leading indicator of the Tigers’ defensive issues. In their past five games, for example, they’ve allowed 1.12 PPP and a 54.7 effective-field-goal percentage, according to HoopLens data.

How much has Austin Wiley’s recent absence played a role, given that it shrinks the frontcourt rotation? My guess is the impact is minimal. The junior’s only been involved directly in 32 defensive possessions, according to Synergy Sports, lagging behind Okeke, Spencer and McLemore.

Keep in mind, too, Auburn didn’t have Wiley at all last season, and its defensive handiwork wasn’t nearly as ugly.

Crucially, Auburn isn’t running teams off the 3-point line. While shooting percentages are volatile, the Tigers’ overall defensive profile and the number of jumpers they allow tells us those aren’t shots Pearl wants teams to take. Bryce Brown is one of the SEC’s premier perimeter defenders, but roughly 43 percent of catch-and-shoot jumpers allowed by Jared Harper, Samir Doughty and Chuma Okeke are unguarded, with opposing wings connecting at a 49.1-percent clip.

Pearl’s guards do an exceptional job containing drives if a shooter puts the ball on the deck, and all but Doughty are more than steady when asked to navigate high pick-and-rolls. If they do break down, rim protection isn’t an issue. In SEC play, Anfernee McLemore (10.4) and Horace Spencer (7.8) are among the conference’s leaders in block percentage.

Yet Auburn’s big men can be a tad, well, overzealous.

There’s a reason Auburn’s the most foul-prone team in the SEC. McLemore, Spencer, Wiley and Malik Dunbar all average more than 6.0 fouls per 40 minutes, according to KenPom. If the whistles mount, Auburn’s lineup goes small out of necessity, and you can start to mash them on the glass or play through the low block.

Missouri offense vs. Auburn 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 104.8 (149) 18.6 (312) 51.6 (149) 21.6 (311) 29.8 (127) 33.1 (196) 38.4 (26) 47.3 (265) 70.0 (183) 9.8 (224) 9.1 (206)
Auburn 97.6 (73) 17.9 (303) 51.8 (220) 26.1 (1) 32.6 (310) 40.4 (312) 36.2 (274) 49.8 (154) 70.8 (202) 18.8 (1) 12.7 (4)

When Auburn has the ball...

Auburn Offense | The Tigers share the same approach as their distant cousins to the north: live by the 3, die by the 3. Auburn ranks second in the SEC for volume of 3-pointers (46.2 of field-goal attempts) and drill 40.2 percent of them, ranking first in the conference. The problem is why their launching so many long-range projectiles.

Without turnovers, Harper and Brown can’t get out in the open floor, which not only limits their easy scorning chances but turns the spigot off for the rest of the rotation. Auburn’s big men don’t get a ton of low-block touches — just 5.6 per game — and need to score on the run or on plays created by their dynamic backcourt duo.

While Okeke can step out and hit spot-up jumpers, he’s more effective cutting off the ball in Auburn’s version of the Flex and feasting on offensive rebounds. McLemore and Spencer are each low-usage options, reliant on the occasional feed from a pick-and-roll or have a dribbler lay the ball off to them in the short corner.

Then there’s Doughty, who’s a great floor spacer against a set defensive, but so low-usage that his impact only makes a sporadic dent.

What Auburn lacks is the slasher it had in Mustapha Heron, who could reach the rim five times a game and average 1.33 points each time he got there. The Tigers also had DeSean Murray, an undersized jack of all trades who took roughly four shots around the bucket each night. Compare that to Harper and Brown, whose 3.5 possessions per game are a third of that duo’s output.

That puts a ton of stress on Auburn to produce in pick-and-rolls, which at No. 31 nationally for efficiency in those situations, they typically do. Harper excels as a distributor, but his kickouts to shooters are far more productive — and frequent — than playing in a two-man game with a big. The same goes for Brown, and both are apt to throw on the brakes and take mid-range jumpers.

And yet despite those hiccups, the Tigers have still put up 1.17 points each trip down the floor, productivity that’s in the same ballpark as LSU when it took the floor against MU.

Missouri Defense | How closely does MU hew to the strategy it used against LSU? As it turns out, Harper and Brown grade out better as pick-and-roll passers than the backcourt combo Mizzou saw just days ago in Tremont Waters and Skylar Mays. Meanwhile, both duos thrive playing at a fast clip.

Mizzou’s strategy on Saturday was to give those guards a wide berth: hang back, switch certain actions and have Tilmon hanging back in drop coverage. Cuonzo Martin and his staff took a calculated risk. If LSU wanted to beat them, ball-handlers would have to make plays in a congested lane.

Mucking up the middle of the floor fed Naz Reid’s impulse to step out to the perimeter and made it hard for athletic bigs in Kavell Bigby-Williams and Emmitt Williams to get clean passes in voids.

Facing Auburn’s Flex requires adaptations based on the scout, it might make sense to take a similar approach by forcing Harper and Brown to drive into a forest of limbs. Both those guards can hit pull-ups, but MU wants you to take a contested 15-footer. The key will be closing down shooters. Currently, the Tigers rank 51st in the country when it comes to guarding jumpers, allowing just 37.6 percent shooting and a third in the SEC for 3-point defense. I feel safe in saying they close out with hands high and under control.

Playing at plodding pace changes the dynamic, pitting the nation’s No. 112 half-court offense against the No. 47 defense, per Synergy Sports.

Auburn 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%
Auburn 118.3 (9) 15.9 (39) 54.0 (49) 18.8 (172) 37.6 (7) 30.0 (259) 37.3 (54) 52.4 (107) 70.5 (165) 11.7 (312) 9.1 (203)
Missouri 96.7 (60) 17.8 (281) 48.7 (89) 19.2 (156) 27.3 (120) 35.7 (243) 32.2 (79) 49.0 (121) 67.4 (64) 4.9 (339) 7.0 (307)

KenPom predicts...

Auburn 76, Missouri 64 | Auburn’s lineup is eerily similar to the group that shellacked Mizzou last season in Columbia. This group, though, doesn’t have the same grit since Heron and Murray transferred out last spring. If MU’s roster wasn’t in such a state of flux, I could see the Tigers’ moxie and defensive commitment putting this game in play. For all my nitpicking, though, Harper and Brown remain a potent duo, while Okeke’s progressed enough as a sophomore to give Pearl some punch along the front line. Maybe MU exerts some control for stretches, but I could see this going sideways.