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Hoops Preview: A brawl with the Vols awaits Mizzou

Third-ranked Tennessee’s experience, tenacity and balance makes a stiff test to open SEC play. Yet it also holds the potential for a marquee win.

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

Fifty weeks ago, Missouri sat in the same position it does today: scouring and hunting for its first marquee win as it welcomes Tennessee to Columbia.

On Jan. 17, 2017, they bagged their quarry in a 59-55 victory that gave the Tigers the first of five Quadrant 1 wins on what became an NCAA tournament-worthy resume. While the win was crucial as a practical matter, it also affirmed the identity the Tigers stitched together and donned after a back injury robbed them of Michael Porter Jr.’s services and a pair semester transfer shortened the bench.

Sure, Missouri dropped three in a row after downing the Volunteers, who were ranked 21st in that tilt, but it was a touchstone for coach Cuonzo Martin’s program, which peeled off a five-game winning streak that shored up prospects for an at-large bid.

Now, 356 days later, the circumstances are eerily familiar, but the magnitude of the challenge has grown by several orders in their SEC opener.

The Tigers take the floor tonight in the midst of the program’s first six-game winning streak since 2014. As they leave behind non-conference play, Martin’s group has found an equilibrium after the loss of Jontay Porter to a knee injury threatened to throw them off kilter.

Jordan Geist is a steadying force at lead guard, while Jeremiah Tilmon’s balanced consistency and ferocity on the low block. Newcomer Mark Smith’s rediscovered a reliable jumper that went missing during his freshman season at Illinois, leading the SEC at 46.2 percent behind the 3-point line, and settled in as the Tigers’ best perimeter defender. In the process, he’s filled the vacant role of a 3-and-D wing formerly occupied by Jordan Barnett.

Meanwhile, freshman Javon Pickett has carved out a starting role based on timely scoring, moving the ball and going to the glass. Finally, Kevin Puryear’s remains a binding agent.

At 9-3, Missouri currently sits 66th in the NCAA’s recently unveiled NET rankings, while its team sheet remains rather pedestrian. They’re 0-2 in games against Quad 1 opponents, losses to Iowa State and Kansas State where the Tigers weren’t particularly competitive. Now, if UCF continues to roll in the American Athletic Conference, that victory might move a column to the left, but for now, there’s not a lot to distinguish the Tigers after playing a non-conference slate that ranks 171st nationally.

Enter third-ranked Tennessee, which arrives tonight for the Tigers’ conference opener.

While the Vols’ personnel has remained static, coach Rick Barnes has molded a roster of two- and three-star talents into one of the nation’s most cohesive units — one that has Final Four aspirations. It’s a remarkable late-career renaissance for a coach who had developed a reputation for underwhelming performances with well-stocked rosters at Texas. Yet its stylistic choices present Missouri with an opportunity.

While Tennessee’s stars have poured sweat equity into becoming elite pieces, the Volunteers aren’t chockablock with blue-chippers. Their success is rooted in consistently executing their system — a Flex motion offense that favors balanced scoring and suffocating defense.

Stylistically, both put a premium on well-executed man-to-man defense, rebounding and offenses that lean more toward space than pace. If the Tigers catch a couple breaks, maybe the outcome will again herald them as a team worthy of a dance ticket come March.

The Scout

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

The Starters

Position Missouri (9-3, 0-0 SEC) Tennessee (12-1, 1-0 SEC)
Position Missouri (9-3, 0-0 SEC) Tennessee (12-1, 1-0 SEC)
PG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) Jordan Bone (Jr., 6-3, 180)
CG Mark Smith (So., 6-4, 220) Admiral Scholfield (Sr. 6-6, 241)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Yves Pons (So., 6-6, 209)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Grant Williams (Jr. 6-7, 236)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Kyle Alexander (Sr., 6-11, 215)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | A year ago, these teams engaged in trench warfare. After halftime, the Tigers sank enough jumpers, tracked down enough misses and created enough free-throws to break the stalemate. They also got a breakout from Puryear, whose 12 points and 10 rebounds offset pedestrian outings from Barnett and Kassius Robertson.

I’d expect a similar display tonight. While Missouri’s pace has perked up over the past six games, the Vols are deceptively good in transition, and they can flow seamlessly out their secondary break into quality offense. To put it bluntly, throwing the bus in park and playing under control is probably the Tigers’ best course of action.

Tilmon rediscovering his recent form would also be advisable. By now, we know he can change the geometry of the floor if he’s engaged and playing up to his potential. When you lay rosters side-by-side, the low-post may be the one position that tips toward Martin and Co. If Tilmon’s dominant enough to force the Vols into sending help, whether it’s across the lane or a wing digging down, it might be enough to throw the Vols off tilt.

At the same time, Geist has shot the ball well against quality opponents, drilling 55 percent of 3-point attempts in four games against teams sitting in the top 100 of KenPom. Pickett’s managed to carve out a niche by scoring in ways that don’t require him to be the focal point of a set, whether it’s exploiting over plays as a cutter, getting stickbacks or the occasional 3 off a skip pass.

The Tigers’ SEC opener may look eerily similar to their win over UCF, where Tilmon’s presence forced the Knights to send help and ran up the foul count. From there, the sophomore could toss the ball back out and watch as Missouri’s guard swung it to open shooters.

Tennessee Defense | The Volunteers’ play with urgency and consistency. They don’t feast on a slew of turnovers, but they’re sound in ball screens, force contested mid-range jumpers, close out on shooters and have Kyle Alexander patrolling the paint and swatting shots.

In Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden, Barnes has a pair of guards whose skill sets are complementary. Bone hems in ball-handlers looking to probe and attack out of high pick-and-rolls, while Bowden can track shooters and run them off the 3-point arc. Given how thin the Vols are in the backcourt with the absence of Lamonte Turner, who is cleared at any time to take the floor after undergoing shoulder surgery, having Yves Pons available off the bench lends them some depth.

Flexibility comes in the form of having a pair of big bodies that are at ease in space. Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams look like they might be susceptible to getting beaten off the bounce. Yet, the veterans aren’t skittish at defending the perimeter. Together, they’re only conceding 30.6-percent shooting on catch-and-shoot jumpers and 29.9 percent on 3-point tries. Despite being slightly undersized, Williams is strong enough and to hold up as a low-block defender. Schofield’s girth doesn’t hamper his agility, evidenced by allowing 0.62 PPP when opposing wings slash to the rim on closeouts.

Missouri offense vs. Tennessee 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 (102) 18.8 (326) 52.1 (135) 20.5 (258) 30.8 (103) 32.0 (224) 39.3 (18) 47.1 (267) 69.0 (199) 8.1 (101) 1.0 (101)
Tennessee 93.1 (21) 17.1 (167) 44.4 (18) 18.5 (207) 28.3 (166) 35.5 (222) 29.1 (23) 44.8 (32) 64.8 (29) 15.9 (8) 7.4 (271)

When Tennessee has the ball...

Tennessee Offense | If you want an understanding of what makes the Vols hum, cue up some film of Davidson. Barnes has borrowed pieces of Bob McKillop’s Flex motion, a scheme that doesn’t rely heavily on pick-and-rolls or middle penetration, and infused it into his system. What is the premise of the flex? Ball movement guides people movement, and shot creation happens off the ball, kicked off by a guards scissor cutting from the key to the corners. Next come fast-flowing screening actions on the wings. The reads vary, but they tend to break down into curls, back cuts or staggers.

The motion puts defenders in a bind. You can hug up tight to your man to stymie flow, but it makes you susceptible to cutting on overplays. Sag off, and guards can pick you apart with curls. There’s also enough weak-side motion to keep the floor balanced and operating room ample.

The best evidence of Tennessee’s success is its assist rate, which leads the nation at 69.0 percent, per KenPom. Its spacing, movement and passing that create quality looks — all while UT runs just five pick-and-rolls per game. So far, the Vols rank better than 35th nationally in possessions that end in a post-up (8th), a cut (14th) or a spot-up (33rd), all while ranking among the top-25 nationally in transition offense, according to Synergy Sports.

The structure of Tennessee’s attack eases some pressure on Bone, who is still exceptionally effective as a distributor (1.536 PPP) when pitching the ball out to shooters. He’s also phenomenal at pushing the pace in transition. Until the past three games, Bone’s backcourt partner was Bowden, whose been misfiring from deep and been relying on inefficient mid-range jumpers.

Moving Bowden out of the starting rotation is easier when Schofield is shooting at a 47.1-percent clip from 3-point range. While the senior’s numbers metrics have improved across the board, almost half his offensive value comes from stretching defenses, according to HoopLens. On top of that, his sturdy frame allows him to exploit switches and operate in the post, while he’s quick enough and possess the savvy to bolt backdoor if you overplay him to deny him the ball on the perimeter.

And that’s before you account for Williams, who lifted his shooting percentages, assist rate and rebounding numbers to push his way into the discussion for the Wooden Award.

Missouri Defense | The flex raps the knuckles of teams that trail cutters, go under screens and over pursue those cutters to the weak side of the floor. Applying heavy on-ball pressure helps keep the ball from changing sides and takes away passing angles, and communication is key to handling screening actions.

Mizzou’s among the nation’s best at closing down spot-up opportunities, while Tilmon, Puryear and Reed Nikko are only allowing 0.491 PPP when the ball goes into the post. What’s worth watching is how a relatively young backcourt fares playing off the ball. Through non-conference play, Mark Smith emerged as the Tigers’ best perimeter defender, while Geist is holding opposing guards to 30.8 percent shooting on spot-up jumpers.

What might prove flummoxing is who draws Schofield, whose size and strength give him an edge against freshmen wings Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson. While Mark Smith gives up some height and mass, his reliability might earn him the job. As for Schofield, Mizzou can’t run Jontay Porter and Tilmon at him in hard double teams. I’m curious how Martin and his staff rotate Puryear, Mitchell Smith and K.J. Santos, the latter of whom is still trying to round back into form.

Tennessee 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%
Tennessee 118.0 (5) 16.5 (96) 56.4 (17) 15.9 (25) 32.7 (55) 39.3 (58) 34.8 (139) 58.4 (8) 74.2 (52) 4.0 (1) 9.7 (258)
Missouri 97.1 (69) 18.1 (321) 48.5 (100) 19.9 (125) 26.0 (75) 31.4 (122) 32.7 (126) 48.2 (109) 62.3 (6) 5.9 (311) 8.1 (224)

The Match-Up

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

Rick Barnes has seen Grant Williams before — or at least a reasonable facsimile of his star.

Twelve years ago, he coached a similar ’tweener in P.J. Tucker, who like Williams arrived on campus as a pudgy forward and transformed himself into a multi-positional dynamo. At Texas, Tucker was a low-post force and the 2006 Big 12 Player of the Year, but over his eight years in the NBA refined his jumper to become a floor-spacing big.

Since arriving in Knoxville, Williams has been treading down the same path.

As a sophomore, Williams’ relied on his strength, deft footwork, an array of ball fakes and his intelligence to a dominant scorer from the mid-post and the low-block. Now, he’s extended his range out to the 3-point arc, where he’s 23 of 55 this season during halfcourt possessions. At the same time, he’s also lifted his free-throw shooting to 79.4 percent.

A compact and smooth shooting motion is behind those improvements, but you can also see how he uses his size to create room to elevate and get a shot off. Meanwhile, he’s also improved his assist rate, a skill that may matter more in the context of Tennessee’s offense than when it comes time to college a professional paycheck.

While Barnes still thinks his star can play with more consistency, especially on the glass, he has a player who can score on the block, carve out mid-range jumpers, knock down spot-up 3-pointers and is showing signs of guarding multiple positions. If Williams can learn to shoot on the move, he could become a low-usage, high-efficiency option at the next level.

The Breakdown

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Kentucky at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Which bench wins the day?

If you’re looking for a potential vulnerability, it might be the Vols’ bench — or perhaps the lack of one.

As of Monday evening, UT ranks 308th nationally in bench minutes, while Barnes has the quickest hook in the country for players with two fouls, according to KenPom. For all intents and purposes, Tennessee only goes seven deep, while Schofield, Williams and Bone all see more than 30 minutes of action per game.

Against Kansas, Williams’ exit late in regulation after fouling changed the complexion of what turned out to be an overtime loss to then-No.1 Jayhawks. And last month, Schofield’s shooting and moxie helped the Vols’ overcome a similar situation to topple Gonzaga a neutral floor in Phoenix.

Barnes can call on Pons to fill the gap for either Schofield or Williams, but he’s much more of a low-usage offensive threat who subsists on passes to the short corner and running the floor on the break. The Volunteers also have forward John Fulkerson to help them make do if Alexander is in foul trouble or needs a breather.

Yet Missouri also incurs risk if it dips into its bench, especially if Tilmon gets hits with quick whistles. Xavier Pinson’s vision and passing instincts are phenomenal, but he’s still battling turnover woes that dog most freshmen. You can also mash him in ball screens. Torrence Watson’s jumpshooting still comes and goes, and while his defense is improving, he’s still not as assertive as he could be going to the glass. Mitchell Smith has struggled at times when asked to sit down and guard on the perimeter, and Reed Nikko physicality also draws plenty of whistles.

As we saw during the Paradise Jam and for stretches against UCF, when Missouri calls on its reserves, it’s generous to call the results mixed. However, Santos is back in the fold and looked physically capable of giving Mizzou minutes, but we’ll see what he can offer when the opponent isn’t a lackluster squad out of the Ohio Valley Conference.

KenPom predicts...

Tennessee 72, Missouri 65 | If styles make fights, facing the Volunteers might be one where the Tigers draw it out until the later rounds. Both teams are hard-nosed on the defensive end, and Missouri’s shown it can get the pace to its liking. Yet the Volunteers are more than at ease in a low-possession slog, and if we’re betting on which team has the personnel to eke out a win late, the Vols have the experience and tenacity to survive a road scare.