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The defense was as big of a problem as the offense in Missouri’s early deficits

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Cuonzo Martin has hung his hat on defense, but his Tigers left plays on the floor last week at the Hall of Fame Classic.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Last week was a bad week for the revenue sports at Missouri. Barry Odom was let go from his position as head football coach, and that’s obviously dominating the headlines. But earlier in the week Mizzou Basketball went to Kansas City for the Hall of Fame Classic and it did not go as planned.

The main reason? In each game Missouri faced a big early deficit and was unable to mount a comeback each time.

Clearly part of the issue is the offensive struggles. And there’s time to talk about those, but Cuonzo Martin hangs his hat on being a tough defensive-minded coach. So I thought we’d take a few quick moments to look at Missouri’s early defensive struggles against Oklahoma to illustrate how they got behind.

Quick disclaimer, I’m not in the room to talk about the pregame scouting, which can vary from time to time. I’m simply going to be talking about sound man-to-man principles and how Missouri failed in these cases, which ultimately left OU plenty of easy opportunities to jump out to their early lead.

x&os cuonzo

Down 3-0 because of an over help

Oklahoma came out on their first possession in a 4-flat, to a high ball screen. A high ball screen is when a ball screen is set towards the top of the key, or in between the lane lines extended. But in this case, OU is going to fake the high ball screen, and sprint Brady Manek to the wing, clearing out the shooter in the corner to set up a quick mid-post for Kristian Doolittle. The post up sinks the defense, mainly Jeremiah Tilmon, and Doolittle kicks across the lane to Manek to can a three.

The gif above is the full play in action. Defensive principles combined with a good scout should have resulted in a different result for Missouri on defense. Mainly, Tilmon is defending one of the Sooners’ best shooters in Manek, while Pickett is deployed onto De’Vion Harmon. Harmon isn’t known for being a high level shooter. When Manek and Harmon interchange, Pickett is higher on the floor towards his assignment.

Tilmon’s mistake is he drops too far into the lane and away from Manek. This is probably his normal reaction, but the scout should tell him to be a step closer to Manek.

As it stands, here is where both Tilmon and Pickett end up as the ball is being kicked out, versus the X marking where they probably should be.

Look at the distance Tilmon has to cover in order to close out on a much better shooter. If Pickett drops first, and Tilmon flattens out, they can still force a kickout from Doolittle, but it’s going to go to Harmon instead of an open Manek. Instead, Tilmon is too deep and isn’t able to recover on an open shooter who makes it 3-0 early.

After a good defensive possession where the Tigers forced a turnover, there was a secondary break situation they did NOT handle very well.

Down 6-0 by letting a side ball screen get to the middle

Secondary break action is a quick response by the offense to a 5-on-5 transition opportunity. You attack the defense before they can get set. Missouri teaches multiple ball screen defensive techniques on Side ball screens — or any ball screen that occurs around the free throw line extended or slot position on the floor — and will use both the ice technique, or a hard hedge.

Icing a ball screen is where the defender will jump out on the high side of the screen, basically forcing the ball handler to go away from the screen. A hard hedge is where the screen setters defender will detach from their assignment and force the ball handler to go very high over the top of the screen.

In this situation, neither happen. Largely because they’re in transition and not in position. To the GIF!

Oklahoma runs a side ball screen and attacks the middle of the floor, while running a down screen for Manek to pin his defender, Tilmon, at the lane line. Tilmon is already caught because the ball handler — in this case Austin Reaves — has gotten to the middle of the floor off the screen. Javon Pickett actually recovers on the play quite well to force Reaves to the elbow instead of the nail.

If Missouri were able to execute their normal defense against a ball screen, they’d have been fine. A hard hedge forces Reaves high and away from the key area of the lane. If they were able to ice the ball screen, there’s help on the short side of the floor with Mark Smith in the corner.

The solution would be for Kobe Brown to hard hedge. With Tilmon and Dru Smith in good help position, a slip screen is less dangerous in this situation. This gives Pickett more time to recover, keeping the ball above the slot in the middle of the floor and forces Oklahoma to go against a set Missouri defense.

Instead, Reaves is able to get the ball into a position where the weak side down screen creates the necessary space for Manek to get a shot off.

After a Dru Smith three-pointer to get Missouri back within 3, Oklahoma went right back to its side ball screen action, again attacking Brown and Pickett as the defenders.

8-3 because of over help and a high close out

The side ball screen in a half court set sees Missouri doing what they normally do. Pickett is able to set up high on the screen and ice the ball screen. Brown gets a bit flat on the floor when the ball handler, Jamal Bienemy, takes a setup dribble towards the baseline. Pickett maintains good position and Brown overextends his help, creating a driving lane for the screener, Doolittle, to exploit.

In struggling to recover, Brown allows Doolittle an simple crossover to set up an easy mid-range jump shot.

Brown gets VERY deep on the floor with just a bait dribble from Bienemy. Pickett’s positioning on the ice is nearly perfect. He cuts off the ball screen but still allows himself room to recover to cut off a serious drive towards the basket. Here is where Brown ends up, versus where he should probably be in this situation.

On top of playing the screen too low, Brown overextends his help leaving too much ground to cover on his close out. Because of this, he’s not able to chop his steps and close out low (the current technique taught on shooters, allowing the defender to keep their feet active and still be able to slide if the shooter decides to drive instead). Here (below) is what I mean by overextending himself. On his close out, he’s forced to chase Doolittle to the middle of the floor. This over-extension means an easy crossover dribble sets up the shot.

Doolittle simply filled the space Brown was closing out from. Easy bucket.

After a Brown missed three, Austin Reaves flopped on a jumpshot and picked up Dru Smith’s first foul. He converted both free throws for a 10-3 lead. A Mark Smith drive resulted in a missed shot for the Tigers, and the Sooners got Doolittle on another post-up. This time, Dru Smith reached in and picked up a foul as Doolittle threatened the middle of the floor (no flop on this one, it was a foul).

Cuonzo Martin was unhappy with his defense, so he subbed in Tray Jackson for Kobe Brown, and with two fouls he took Smith out for Xavier Pinson. Things didn’t improve. Pinson immediately gave up a drive middle to Harmon, putting the Sooners up 12-3. I don’t know any defenses that preach teaching to allow the driver to go middle these days, so that’s just poor on-ball defense.

Down 12-3, Pickett drove hard toward the basket and picked up an offensive foul.

Down 15-3 know your personnel

The dreaded side ball screen again killed Missouri.

This time it was Austin Reaves with Manek as the screener. Mark Smith iced the ball screen and Reaves drove the ball hard towards the baseline, which forced Mitchell Smith (the screener’s defender) to sink with the ball. The only problem was leaving Manek open, who had already canned two threes.

This one is a little more difficult to discern what should happen. Mitchell Smith is put in a tough position because Reaves is a pretty explosive driver. At the same time, the screen wasn’t even set by the time Reaves refused it, which should have left the help defense to the weak side support on a baseline drive. Basically, both Pinson and Jackson were in position to help.

The other issue is the close out. If you watch the gif, it’s easy to see why Jackson ended up where he did, but Torrence Watson didn’t do the strong side of the floor any favors here. Watson’s on the ball defense has improved greatly, but he still gets caught out of position occasionally, as he did here. Instead of dropping to the center line and the middle of the lane, Watson dances just inside the free throw line and then correctly identifies the problem, but he’s not in position to help.

This is where you get into the threat of a skip pass or a straight pass. A skip pass is two passes away. That offensive player two passes away is not considered a threat, and the players one pass away are considered a threat. You want to get your defenders on the ball side of the players one pass away, and let your help defender defend anyone who is a skip pass away.

Look at it this way...

Essentially, Pinson is the low help responsible for both offensive players on the weak side. Watson and Jackson are now responsible for the offensive players on the strong side. Jackson is in front of Doolittle, and Watson is caught staring at Manek.

Watson doesn’t need to put himself into a denial situation; that’s probably too difficult to read and react in time. But if he’s following the ball as he should, he can get two or three steps farther to the other side of the lane giving him a shorter close out on the shooter. Maybe the 6’9 Manek still makes the shot over the 6’5 Watson, but it’s a tougher guarded shot.

Instead, Missouri is in a 15-3 hole.

The Tigers have a ton of issues on offense right now, and for most of the start of the season they’ve been sound defensively. But as you can see they are still a work in progress. Some of their early season returns are the product of stodgy offenses throughout college basketball, but Mizzou also has terrific defenders like Dru and Mark Smith, Javon Pickett, and Jeremiah Tilmon. I have one more thing I want you to see. And I call this “Sit your butt down the rest of the game” kind of effort.

Keep in mind this happens with Missouri already down 18-7.

Watch Xavier Pinson.

Watson picks up Reaves on the left wing. And Pinson watches Bienemy drive right by and shoot the ball three feet in front of the rim while Mark Smith scrambles to stop the ball. When Bienemy gets the ball there is 14:46 on the clock, at the screen shot below there is 14:41. He dribbles the ball up in five seconds, and Pinson goes from the half court line to the top of the key.

This picture drives me mad. He has his back to the basketball while it’s being scored.

It’s the defining rule of basketball. STOP. THE. BALL.

Pinson was said to have a knee injury which prevented his participation in the second half against Oklahoma. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the knee problem was him not using his knees to stop the ball on this play.