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Hoops Preview: For Georgia and Missouri, the future is more enticing than the present

What transpires in Stegeman Coliseum bears little impact as Tom Crean and Cuonzo Martin navigate their respective rebuilds.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Inside what will likely be a sparsely filled Stegeman Coliseum, a pair of cellar dwellers will scuffle for two hours.

In two years, though, the scene between Missouri and Georgia be far more raucous. Or at least that’s the hope as two veteran coaches wind down the first season of their respective rebuilds. Tonight, it’s simply about trying to eke out one more win before another meeting next week in Nashville at the SEC tournament.

While we’ll still take a look at tonight’s match-up, the future for both programs is far more exciting and tinged with optimism.

At the moment, Martin’s program owns a better record, but a deeper dive hints that Crean could be in a position to mimic Ole Miss’ push up the standings. Former coach Mark Fox’s preferred style — siege warfare on the hardwood — proved his undoing, but he did leave behind a quartet of former top-150 players in Rayshaun Hammonds (No. 51), Tyree Crump (No. 75), Jordan Harris (No. 128) and Derek Ogbeide (No. 146) for his replacement.

Quietly, Crean snagged combo forward Amanze Ngumezi (No. 112) and combo guard Ignas Sargiunas (No. 124) in his first signing class — a pair of prospects who have been sparsely used as they bide their time for minutes to open up. With only Ogbeide set to graduate and a healthy recruiting stockpile in place, Crean was teed up for a breakthrough in the Class of 2019.

I’d say he’s on track to deliver. Take a look.

Georgia Recruiting | Class of 2019

Name Pos Ht/Wt Ranking Status
Name Pos Ht/Wt Ranking Status
Anthony Edwards Wing 6-5/215 2 Hard Commit
Jaykwon Walton Wing 6-6/195 69 Signed
Toumani Camara Wing 6-6 96 Signed

Oh, and Crean’s fighting to keep Georgia in the mix for combo guard Harlond Beverly, the nation’s No. 82 prospect. Even if Crean comes up short in that recruitment, he’s still on track to finish with a top-15 group and the third-best class in the SEC. Assuming there aren’t defections in the next two months, this is what he’ll have at his disposal for Year 2 in Athens.

Dawg-gone Good Roster

Name Year Pos Ht/Wt Ranking
Name Year Pos Ht/Wt Ranking
Anthony Edwards Freshman Wing 6-5/215 2
Jaykwon Walton Freshman Wing 6-6/195 69
Toumani Camara Freshman Wing 6-6/190 96
Amanze Ngumezi Sophomore Combo Forward 6-0/245 112
Ignas Sargiunas Sophomore Combo Guard 6-4/195 124
Rayshaun Hammonds Junior Combo Forward 6-8/235 51
Tyree Crump Senior Point Guard 6-1/185 75
Jordan Harris Senior Wing 6-4/190 128

It’s worth noting, too, that five of those players are in-state prospects, hinting that Georgia might finally be asserting itself in a well-stocked hotbed.

If Crean can put a competitive product on the floor, he’ll only bolster his case moving forward. It’s also what makes this putrid season palatable: Players cycling out of Athens are being replaced by better ones. For as much as Crean is a schematic wizard on the offensive end, pushing your way up the SEC standings still comes down to raw talent.

To a degree, Martin is relying on a similar template to the north, only his staff has hunted the transfer market with more vigor. For as much as often as we’ve said the current roster skews more toward developmental prospects, the presence of Jontay Porter (No. 25), Jeremiah Tilmon (No. 43), Mark Smith (No. 79) and Torrence Watson (No. 113) shows MU’s been successful at quickly stocking his shelves with supplies.

(This is where we lament how injuries undercut what could have been a tolerable transition year.)

This summer, the arrival of Tray Jackson (No. 83) and Mario McKinney Jr. (No. 152) will give MU a quintet of top-150 players — a nucleus the program hopes will prove enticing enough for some combination of Josh Christopher (No. 7), Caleb Love (No. 33), Cam’Ron Fletcher (No. 38) in 2020. Because we like to be purveyors of hope, here’s a glance at what Martin could have on his hands in 2020-21.

Talented Tigers? | Potential 2020-2021 Roster

Name Year Pos Ht/Wt Ranking
Name Year Pos Ht/Wt Ranking
Caleb Love Freshman Combo Guard 6-3/170 33
Cam'Ron Fletcher Freshman Wing 6-6/180 38
Tray Jackson Sophomore Combo Forward 6-8/200 83
Mario McKinney Jr. Sophomore Combo Guard 6-2/180 152
Torrence Watson Junior Wing 6-5/200 113
Jeremiah Tilmon Senior Combo Guard 6-4/220 79
Mark Smith Senior Point Guard 6-1/185 75
247 Sports

And like Georgia, the Tigers would have mined local veins of talent, pulling six of those players out the St. Louis metro area.

A lag by Martin is a matter of circumstance. He likely won’t know whether he’s landed a linchpin class until this fall. When you look at the 2019 recruiting cycle, MU signed two of the top-three targets on its recruiting board, and the Tigers could supplement that class this spring with a fast-rising talent in Myron Gardner and graduate transfer. Finally, don’t forget Dru Smith is still biding his time.

Rosy forecasts like the ones here underscore that SEC members finally figured out the recipe for success: Use million of dollars pouring in the conference’s TV deal to hire proven coaches, top-drawer staffs and arm them with robust recruiting budgets. Fit also matters. In Athens, Crean will benefit from administrative patience to carry out a proven blueprint — so long as Kirby Smart keeps the football program in working order. The structure of Martin’s contract ensures security, and he’s shown clear signs of evolution on the offensive end, all without sacrificing the ethos ingrained in him as a Gene Keady disciple.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (13-15, 4-12 SEC) Georgia (11-18, 2-14 SEC)
Position Missouri (13-15, 4-12 SEC) Georgia (11-18, 2-14 SEC)
PG Xavier Pinson (Fr., 6-2, 170) Turtle Jackson (Sr., 6-4, 185)
CG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) Jordan Harris (Jr., 6-4, 190)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Christian Harris (Sr., 6-4, 200)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Derek Ogbeide (Sr., 6-9, 250)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Nicolas Claxton (So, 6-11, 220)

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

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | Can Torrence Watson replicate his performance from Saturday? Conditions might be ripe for it. Georgia’s guards allow 43.9-percent shooting on spot-up jumpers, and a pair of them — Crump and Harris — can be attacked going left off the bounce, per Synergy Sports data. If that trend holds up, MU can space out the floor in a symbiotic way that creates operating room for Kevin Puryear, who might not be able to muscle Ogbeide on the block, but can isolate him and drive the ball at times. Meanwhile, Tilmon can go at Claxton, who’s only an average post-up defender, and have the length to finish plays over the top.

Yet if shots aren’t falling, the Dawgs can pack in the middle of the floor and rely on guards holding up when crunched in ball-screens. At that point, Mizzou might default to marauding the glass to convert second possessions. There’s also another potential source: UGA giveaways. Crean’s team is about as prone to them as MU, which doesn’t generate many transition opportunities and will selectively push the pace.

Georgia Defense | The Bulldogs’ rim protection amounts to Claxton, who ranks 11th in the SEC for block percentage, per KenPom. Simply contesting shots with length and verticality, however, is enough to complicate life for guards in Pickett, Watson and Pinson don’t always look finish through contact, while Puryear’s game is played below the rim.

Helping matters, too, is the fact that if Missouri’s misfiring, UGA’s big men — all of whom rank in the top 20 defensive rebounders in the SEC — to limit the Tigers to one shot. Optimism aside, MU’s only shooting 31.9 percent from long range over the past five games. So maybe Crean decides to start out having his defense sag off until the Tigers force the Bulldogs to run shooters off the line.

Missouri offense vs. Georgia 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 106.3 (138) 19.1 (329) 50.2 (199) 21.5 (320) 31.8 (69) 29.7 (277) 35.8 (104) 47.7 (268) 70.2 (189) 10.4 (269) 9.1 (216)
Georgia 102.8 (139) 17.0 (70) 48.9 (87) 15.5 (326) 30.9 (282) 28.7 (66) 33.4 (115) 48.1 (89) 70.0 (144) 12.1 (49) 8.2 (239)

When Georgia has the ball...

Georgia Offense | Under Fox, Georgia’s offense ran through the paint. Now, it’s a scheme that blends Crean’s innovative use of weak-side motion, flowing actions out of ball-screens and his spin on a chin series. If you can’t tell, it’s a free-flowing system where a blur of early-clock activity sets up his best wing to attack a defense that’s been put on tilt. There’s just one drawback: Crean’s playbook is deep, complex and takes time to master.

Yet the focal point of Georgia’s offense is a multifaceted big in Claxton, who Martin compared to Kansas State’s Dean Wade. Now, Claxton’s not the same caliber of spot-up shooter as Wade, but he can space to the wing and put the ball on the floor. He’s a phenomenal off-ball cutter, and he thrives when does set up shop on the left block.

While Claxton poses a threat, Tilmon’s length and mobility give the Tigers a natural counter. In some ways, Hammonds might be poised for a bigger night. The sophomore knocks down 40.4 percent of his spot-up jumpers, and he can use it to exploit closeouts and slash to the rim going right. You can’t drift away from him when playing off the ball, because he’s a devastating cutter (1.312 PPP). And in the open floor, he shoots 57.7 percent when sprinting the wings. Finally, he has the size to gobble up misses for putbacks.

Translated: It’s a tough assignment for Puryear.

Crean’s guards are also capable of knocking down shots, with Crump, Jackson and Harris all above 40 percent on catch-and-shoots. Yet, they don’t look to knife into gaps or punish teams who close down space. (The trio attempts just three shots per game around the rim.) That’ll change next season.

Missouri Defense | Twenty-eight games into the season, we know MU does one thing exceptionally well: close out. The Tigers have consistently ranked in the top 50 nationally this season guarding spot-ups and catch-and-shoot jumpers. During SEC play, it’s translated to allowing just 31.2 percent shooting on attempts lofted up beyond 17 feet, and the majority (76.1%) have been taken with a hand in the shooter’s face, according to Synergy.

Do that tonight, and Georgia will be extremely reliant on Claxton, Hammonds and Ogbeide to carry the load. On Saturday, that plan worked. Claxton scored 25 points, while the rest of the Bulldogs lineup only mustered 36 in a six-point win against Florida — a team whose frontline has been decimated this season.

As usual, it’s incumbent on Tilmon not to take himself out of the game. Among high-usage SEC post players, Tilmon’s post defense (0.763 PPP) is middle of the pack, per Synergy. Aside from Daniel Gafford, the sophomore’s been reliable when solo defending down low, meaning Claxton may find it tough to get traction at times.

Put another way, MU will need to do what it’s done most of the year — execute a scouting report. Valuing the ball also matters, because Tigers are one of the nation’s worst transition defenses. Fortunately, UGA’s defense doesn’t generate a ton of takeaways, making it easier for the Tigers’ to control the tempo.

Georgia 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%
Georgia 109.6 (71) 17.0 (104) 51.5 (143) 22.5 (330) 34.2 (29) 39.6 (32) 33.6 (213) 52.1 (99) 71.9 (128) 9.5 (202) 10.5 (320)
Missouri 98.4 (69) 176 (225) 50.0 (139) 18.3 (197) 26.1 (79) 37.2 (278) 32.4 (278) 51.0 (210) 72.0 (255) 5.3 (332) 6.8 (327)

What does KenPom predict?

Georgia 70, Missouri 67 | This clash is a toss-up, with Crean’s squad getting a boost from home-court advantage. Right now, UGA’s offense is humming, averaging 70.6 points and 1.10 points per possession over the past five games. Stopping opponents? Well, that’s a work in progress. Swamping MU, however, might be enough. The Tigers’ brand of positional defense has been flogged away from Columbia in SEC play, and if Tilmon is sucked into foul trouble, matters get dicey on both ends. (When the sophomore sits, Mizzou’s net rating in road SEC games is minus-19 points per 100 possessions). Meanwhile, to what degree can Watson and Puryear replicate their performances from last weekend? Even if MU can hold UGA under its thumb defensively, the Tigers are still a team that faces a nightly struggle to cobble together offense.