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Hoops Preview: A hard road in Starkvegas

Missouri’s search for season-ending momentum may not find its end against Mississippi State.

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

We all know the end game for Missouri. We also know how Missouri should approach the last four games of the regular season: put its head down and muddle through.

With any notion of a postseason discarded, the goals are modest. Avoid injury. Feed minutes to young players like Torrence Watson and Xavier Pinson whenever possible. And send veterans in Jordan Geist and Kevin Puryear out on the right note.

Whatever transpires tonight against Mississippi State won’t matter as coach Cuonzo Martin finishing try to pour the concrete pilings of his rebuild. He can look down the floor at Ben Howland for inspiration. Four years ago, the Bulldogs were stumbling out of the ruins left behind by Ricky Ray’s tenure. Now, they’re on the cusp of returning to the NCAA tournament.

It’s a timely reminder that in places like Columbia and Starkville, where there’s a respectable hardwood lineage, reclamation and restoration doesn’t transpire overnight. Granted, it’s one thing to talk about a transition season and another thing to watch February play out with no tangible stakes and rewards several years off.

Once Jontay Porter returned, it wasn’t unreasonable to think the sophomore’s presence — and a few timely transfer waivers by the NCAA — could soften the blow and put MU back on the bubble. That vanished with his knee injury in October, and the Tigers’ remaining margin for error evaporated when Mark Smith aggravated a foot injury that dogged him during high school and his freshman season at Illinois.

When Martin made it publicly known the program is debating whether to shut Smith down for the duration, it was a less-than-subtle acknowledgment of the obvious. Barring a miracle next month at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, the Tigers’ focus shifts toward ending the year unscathed, pursuing perimeter help in the spring signing period and transitioning into offseason player development.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (12-14, 3-11 SEC) Mississippi State (20-7, 8-6 SEC)
Position Missouri (12-14, 3-11 SEC) Mississippi State (20-7, 8-6 SEC)
PG Xavier Pinson (Fr., 6-2, 170) Lamar Peters (Jr., 6-0, 185)
CG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) Tyson Carter (Jr., 6-4, 168)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Quinndary Weatherspoon (Sr., 6-4, 205)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Reggie Perry (Fr., 6-10, 245)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Abdul Ado (So., 6-11, 255)

Note: These starting lineups are projected based on each team’s prior game.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | Once you remove Smith from the equation, finding sources of offense is an act of desperate foraging for the Tigers.

Without the sophomore on the floor, MU is only generating 0.97 points per possession and just connecting on 29.9 percent of its 3-point attempts, according to HoopLens. The byproduct is opponents can afford to sit in gaps and force MU’s wings to make tough finishes off the bounce or roll help toward Jeremiah Tilmon on the low block.

As we saw against Florida, the Tigers have a tough time converting shots around the rim, and they rarely draw whistles when they get there. Sure, Geist can use precise footwork to work himself loose after a drive and Pickett can cut into gaps, but, as we’ve said many times, the Tigers don’t have a guard who can catch, rip and attack the front of the rim with gusto. And that assumes the man driving the ball doesn’t cough it up once he puts it on the floor.

At times, the offense degenerates into Geist getting a high ball screen and trying to will a good shot into existence.

That’ll be a tall order against Mississippi State, whose guards can hold their own in pick-and-rolls and more than enough help rotating over in Abdul Ado, Aric Holman and Reggie Perry — all of whom rank among the top 20 for block percentage in the SEC. Howland as enough size and athleticism to up the degree of difficulty for anyone who worms their way into the paint. Not only does it mean State can counter Tilmon, but life won’t get any easier for Puryear, Mitchell Smith or K.J. Santos.

If State’s bigs can check MU’s frontcourt with single coverage on the block, it enables guards like Lamar Peters, Quinndary Weatherspoon and Tyson Carter to hug up and run shooters off the line. That is also before you consider that State leads the SEC in steal rate during conference play.

Mississippi State Defense | Howland’s brand of assertive man-to-man defense relies on a strong lead guard, hard hedging and icing ball screens and double-teams by long defenders on the block. While the Bulldogs’ have allowed middling shooting numbers, their block rate and steal rate rank among the top 20 nationally.

The ability to force tough shots inside and create turnovers puts extreme stress on MU to make jumpers. And while State does have a tendency to allow some open catch-and-shoots, Mizzou’s backcourt hasn’t shown that it can consistently punish teams with Smith out of the lineup.

Missouri offense vs. Mississippi State 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 106.0 (136) 18.9 (325) 50.5 (185) 21.3 (314) 31.3 (89) 29.5 (276) 36.6 (77) 47.4 (275) 69.8 (197) 10.1 (247) 8.9 (182)
Mississippi State 96.9 (50) 17.2 (138) 50.1 (146) 20.1 (94) 29.7 (241) 31.4 (132) 35.3 (220) 48.6 (104) 71.2 (214) 14.3 (16) 12.0 (12)

When Mississippi State has the ball...

Mississippi State Offense | A year ago, inconsistent outside shooting hobbled what was an otherwise consistent offense. You could sit in gaps, clog the middle of the floor and dare the Bulldogs to beat you with a barrage from the 3-point line. Howland’s squad didn’t need to be an elite 3-point shooting team, but it did to have enough nights where it was merely adequate.

This season, we’ve seen the Bulldogs operate at full capacity. Weatherspoon’s averages aren’t far off where last year during SEC play, but raising his 3-point shooting by 14 percentage points (48.2%) has helped unlock the senior’s potential as a three-level scorer. Peters’ stroke has been average — 34.5 percent — in conference play, but it’s still seven percentage points better than his sophomore campaign. And finally, any jumpshooting Carter can offer will likely be better than what Nick Weatherspoon had to offer.

Now when Peters turns the corner after a high pick-and-roll, he can drive the ball, collapse a defense and whip passes to shot-ready wings. Even better, opponents have to close out hard on Weatherspoon, which can drive the ball left or into the middle of the floor — with the option of dumping the ball off to a big like Perry or Ado.

Howland also has the flexibility to counter small-ball lineups without going small himself. Inserting Holman at combo forward puts another shooter on the floor, one who can knock down pick-and-pops, trail 3-pointers or corner jumpers. All the while, Holman’s block rate (5.5%) means he and his 6-foot-11 frame can still serve as a measure of protection on the back line at the defensive end.

Lastly, State’s transition attack is 37th in the country, per Synergy Sports. Peters, Weatherspoon and Carter can all push the ball on the break, capitalizing off takeaways and finding ways to offset a creaky night against a set defense.

Missouri Defense | Quietly, Watson’s off-ball defense has improved as the season’s worn on, as has Javon Pickett’s reliability fighting through screens. While you can still beat up Pinson a little bit — Florida posted up the bigger Andrew Nembhard on him at times — he’s been gritty when getting pulverized on that end of the floor.

This is all to say that MU could really use one member of that trio showing some tenacity down the stretch.

Tonight, Geist could try to check Peters, but then comes the question of who draws Weatherspoon. Do you try out Watson, who’s slightly more athletic than Pickett? Or do you trust Pickett’s ability to execute the scouting report? Recently, Martin’s fed minutes to Ronnie Suggs, but he’s allowed opposing wings to shot nearly 53 percent of their 3-point attempts.

Along the front line, State doesn’t toss the ball to Ado and let him go to work. Instead, the Bulldogs’ big men thrive on dump-offs, cutting off the ball and rolling to the rim. Maybe that changes, though, with Tilmon on the floor. Perhaps State looks to run the foul count up on him early and force MU to turn to a scrapper and brawler in Reed Nikko.

Of greater importance is whether Martin’s group can hang in on the glass. Perry and Holman rank among the top 15 in the SEC for offensive rebounding, while Ado checks in at 17th, per KenPom. Again, Smith’s absence is keenly felt. He was MU’s most active presence on the backboards, and if Tilmon has to sit for extended periods, the Tigers lose their next best option. What’s worrisome is that neither Santos nor Mitchell Smith even rates among the top-100 defensive rebounders in the conference.

Forcing contested shots matters little if State can send Woodard, Holman and Ado to the boards and create second possessions.

Mississippi State 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%
Mississippi State 116.7 (16) 17.8 (221) 54.6 (34) 19.1 (214) 34.9 (21) 32.4 (211) 37.5 (44) 53.5 (59) 73.0 (89) 9.7 (220) 7.7 (47)
Missouri 98.4 (74) 17.6 (238) 50.1 (149) 18.6 (177) 26.5 (94) 37.8 (284) 32.4 (76) 51.2 (217) 71.5 (232) 5.3 (337) 7.1 (313)

What does KenPom predict?

Mississippi State 74, Missouri 63 | As the season winds down, it’s struggle for Missouri to score efficiently. Last year, MU ranked 78th nationally in assist rate. This season they’ve plummeted all the way 298th, according to KenPom. There are stretches where MU effectively spreads out a defensive and gets the ball popping, but those are offset by prolonged droughts where a young lineup looks hesitant to attack. If the ball is sticking, 3-pointers won’t drop and Tilmon can’t warp a defense, the Tigers are a pretty easy group to defend. That’s not a good place to be facing a program that lives a defense-first life. Even if MU can muck things up for the Bulldogs on offense, it won’t matter if the Tigers can’t score.