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

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For Mizzou to make an impression, defense could be the driving force

In two seasons, coach Cuonzo Martin’s system and mentality have taken hold. Now, it might help MU make some noise in a reshuffled SEC.

Every so often, unrelated topics collide in your brain, spurring an evaluation of an issue you hadn’t considered. At least that’s the only plausible way to link a head-scratching prediction offered by Jon Rothstein and Cuonzo Martin’s nuanced opinion on playing at a faster clip.

Let’s start with Rothstein’s (extremely) premature prognostication pegging Mizzou to finish next to last in the SEC standings.

Instead of ripping the result, I’m curious about what criteria and process the CBS Sports’ reporter used to reach his conclusion. On paper, MU is among the SEC leaders in returning production. The Tigers are adding an impact transfer in Dru Smith at a position of need, and — in theory — upgraded their talent at combo forward. All the while, roster churn and coaching changes beset the rest of the conference.

It’s flummoxing to me that an experienced and improved roster take a step backward in a league whose hierarchy is in a state flux.

Two days later, Martin addressed the topic roster depth in a session with reporters—a response that touched on one of a topic du jour in these parts: tempo. The emphasis in the quote is mine.

“What does it mean to play fast? You look at Villanova when they won the championship. They walked the ball up off the floor and were probably one or two in the country in scoring. They were very efficient putting the ball in the basket. So you say ‘fast,’ but I’m not sure what that means. I mean I don’t want to be careless. I don’t want to turn the ball over. I think our defense will dictate a lot of things with pressure, getting in the passing lanes. I think we have guys who can do that because we have more bodies to be more aggressive. We have multiple ball handlers and multiple decision-makers now to be able to make plays.”

So what links these random events? Reliable half-court defense. To me, it’s the variable that undercuts Rothstein’s argument, but also serves as the launch point for the evolution Martin discussed with writers.

Say what you will about the Tigers’ offensive production early on in Martin’s stint, but the Tigers’ have quietly become one of the SEC’s stingier groups. Assuming catastrophic injuries don’t beset the roster, it’ll be the platform on which MU erects success. At the same time, the additions of Dru Smith, Tray Jackson, Kobe Brown and Mario McKinney Jr. could change its essential nature.

However, before we talk about evolution, we should assess where Mizzou stands right now.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-National Championship-Virginia vs Texas Tech Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Quantifying Elite Defense

The rise of analytics has made it possible to finely parse the dynamics of a game that traditional box scores never entirely captured. When we evaluative defensive performance, one stat is handy: adjusted efficiency.

In other words, how many points do you allow over 100 possessions?

Scroll through KenPom, and you can quickly glean the nation’s stingiest groups. However, in some cases, we’re left asking how they go about doing it. For example, if you tuned in to watch Virginia and Texas Tech class for a national title, you saw a pair programs whose calling cards are man-to-man defense. How each goes about applying the vice is distinct.

Using various analytical tools, we can illustrate how Chris Beard and Tony Bennett go about designing their systems. We can see also see the path Martin and his staff have followed in their first two seasons as architects of a rebuild in Columbia.

We can do it by answering a simple question: How many possessions does a defense force to end in an isolation?

In all likelihood, you’ve heard that term tossed around. The concept is easy to grasp, too. It’s a play where an offense singles out an optimal matchup for its best player. Think of James Harden operating on the wing for the Houston Rockets. If you’re blessed with elite talent, an ISO possession isn’t necessarily inefficient offense.

But we also know elite players are elite for a reason—they’re a rare commodity. It’s why coaches spend time painstakingly designing or installing an offense. The goal is to use spacing, player movement, ball movement, and screening action to get players in advantageous spots on the floor.

If you turned a list of play types — pick-and-roll, post-up, spot-up, etc. — into a menu of desired outcomes, chances are a defense would pick an isolation. The decision makes intuitive sense, but we owe Jordan Sperber a debt of gratitude for fleshing out the connection.

In late January, he fired off a tweet showing evidence that linked elite defenses — measured by adjusted efficiency — with a higher volume of ISO possessions. Six months later, in mid-July, he revisited that insight, and using a season’s worth of play-by-play data, he found the trend held up.

Elite defenses can stall the primary action of their opponents (think motion screens or ball screens), forcing late-clock or panic situations which lead to iso-heavy, low-efficiency offense...

So I did what anyone would do—borrowed Sperber’s methodology and tweaked it. In his piece, the former video coordinator applied tight controls. He accounted for programs that are primarily zone-based defenses. He factored in strength of schedule, along with opponents that run ISO-heavy offenses.

I, well, did not do that. Instead, I sought two answers

  • How does Martin’s handiwork stack up against his high-major peers?
  • How far along is Mizzou compared to the progress he made in three years at Cal?

First, I stretched out the time span to encompass five seasons. Second, I was only interested in gauging the performance of high-major programs – the football-playing Power Five and the Big East – over that period.

What I got was a sample size of 375 data points--roughly comparable to Sperber’s pool. I also reached the same conclusion: The more isolation possessions a team forces, the better its adjusted defensive rating.

Before moving along, let’s pause to consider the scatter plot. The graph resembles a target riddled with buckshot. The distribution of those data points matters, because they aren’t tightly clustered along that sloping regression line. The wide distribution of dots matters, and can be summed up with a number between zero and 1.0 called R-squared.

Without getting too technical, the higher the number, the more predictive your model will be of real-world outcomes.

In this case, the R-squared value is low: 0.106.

So is it garbage? Not necessarily. Modeling human behavior is hard. In some social science studies, R-squared can be as low as 0.3. All that means is the white noise around the data is loud. When that happens, we have to note that other factors can influence the relationship between two variables. Put simply, it’s not statistical gospel.

For this piece, we’re evaluating Mizzou’s defensive performance at a very general level. We have a tool with some slight predictive power. We need to keep that in mind as we examine how Martin’s tried to mold MU in his image.

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

Minding the Gaps

When Martin’s name first emerged during Missouri’s coaching search, defining his style wasn’t a challenge.

Over nine seasons, steady defense, consistent rebounding, and a meat-and-potatoes motion offense were hallmarks. You could almost describe it in distance-running terms: sit-and-kick. Whether it was Missouri State, Tennessee or Cal, Martin’s teams wanted to slow the pace, limit possessions and – in tight games – make a push late on the bell lap.

Soon after his hiring, Bill Connelly outlined how this tendency defined Martin’s tenure in Berkeley. Those three seasons are also a handy comparative tool. Based on play-by-play data, we see the Golden Bears were among the Pac-12 Conference’s best units at forcing opponents to ad-lib outside the structure of their offense.

Cuonzo Martin | Defensive Performance — Cal

Team Season AdjD % Time ISO
Team Season AdjD % Time ISO
California 2015 99 9.10%
California 2016 94.2 7.70%
California 2017 92.7 8.20%
Cal Average 2015-17 95.3 8.33%
Pac-12 Average 2015-19 100.2 6.34%
Pac-12 Median 2015-19 99.7 6.10%
Synergy Sports, KenPom

Given the state of Mizzou’s program, expecting the newly arrived to immediately construct a top-40 defense, which he did his last two years at Cal, would have been wildly optimistic. At the same time, his credentials were sterling enough expecting the Tigers to show marked improvement after they bottomed out under Kim Anderson.

Comparing his early returns in Columbia to what transpired in Cal shows some clear slippage, but — as we’ll see later — it’s well within the baseline for the SEC over the past five seasons.

Cuonzo Martin | Defensive Performance — Missouri

Team Season AdjD % Time ISO
Team Season AdjD % Time ISO
Missouri 2018 97 6.70%
Missouri 2019 97.2 5.60%
Missouri Average 2018-19 97.1 6.15%
SEC Average 2015-19 97.84 6.64%
SEC Median 2015-19 97.3 6.50%
Synergy Sports, KenPom

The more noticeable trend, though, is the slight dip in the number of isolation possessions the Tigers have forced over the past two seasons. Last year, roughly 5.6 percent of Mizzou’s defensive possessions ended with that play — roughly 1.3 percentage points below what our regression projects.

The data also hints the disparity that is partially linked to Missouri’s brand of man-to-man: mind gaps.

Once MU hustles back and sets its defense, players don’t hug up close to the man they’re guarding or pester a lead guard. On ball screens, the Tigers might tweak how they try to hem in a ball-handler, but they rarely switch. During pick-and-rolls, the default setting is for a defender to play drop coverage to keep the dribbler out of the lane, obscure line of sight and create a tight passing angle. And if a guard tries a straight-line drive, they’ll find a someone sitting in a gap.

Opting for this style creates an explicit trade-off: forcing contested shots instead of turnovers. To a certain degree, MU is kosher letting the ball swing around the arc. Instead, they’ll clog up the middle of the floor, relying on perimeter defenders to be sound enough positionally to close out on spot-up shooters. Taken to its maximum, you get the Pack Line deployed by national champion Virginia.

Again, Synergy’s play-by-play data can be handy. When we compare play type against turnover rates — a proxy for defensive aggressiveness — we see several faint trends crop up.

  • Post-Ups: The more a team allows, the lower its turnover rate
  • Off-Ball Screens: The more a team allows, the lower its turnover rate
  • Cuts: The more a team allows, the higher its turnover rate

Again, the statistical white noise is loud, but it jives with how gap schemes and denial schemes differ. For example, a denial defense applies a heavy dose of on-ball pressure, which increases the number of isolations and cutting action to exploit overplays. Meanwhile, a program like MU should see a higher frequency of post-ups and off-ball screening actions like staggers and pin downs.

Sure enough, that’s the case. Among 72 high-major programs, the Tigers were among the nation’s leaders in guarding screens (No. 6) and post-ups (No. 15), while ranking 44th in turnover rate. Did the Tigers sacrifice some chances to get in the open floor? Sure. Yet they were among the nation’s best at cleaning the glass and limiting second possessions.

If there’s one critique, it’s 2-point shooting, which is a better proxy for overall effectiveness defensively. MU finished 159th, according to KenPom. They might have been helped by opponents only hitting at a 31.5 percent clip behind the 3-point arc, a pretty volatile metric.

Zooming out, though, you can see why the Tigers might deploy a seemingly passive scheme. First, the roster skewed young, with freshmen Javon Pickett, Torrence Watson and Xavier Pinson each averaging more than 18 minutes per game. Second, the roster wasn’t packed with long wings or hyper-athletic combo forwards—pieces that make it easier to switch and disrupt passing lanes.

In other words, MU’s personnel didn’t lend itself to turning up the pressure, resulting in a lower frequency of isolation possessions along the way. However, the result wasn’t radically different than what Martin’s teams have produced before.

Stingy History | Cuonzo Martin

Season School Adj D % ISO % Cut % Off-Screen %Post-Ups TO Rate DR%
Season School Adj D % ISO % Cut % Off-Screen %Post-Ups TO Rate DR%
2009 Missouri State 102.3 11.5 10.1 4.9 10.6 20.9 70.2
2010 Missouri State 100.9 12.2 6.4 6.6 12.8 19.8 74.1
2011 Missouri State 102.9 11.5 7.4 8.5 12 17.8 75.3
2012 Tennessee 95.1 11.6 6.8 6.8 10.4 18.1 70.5
2013 Tennessee 98.6 10.1 6.2 9 9.9 17.4 71.2
2014 Tennessee 94.2 11 6 7.9 8.3 16.9 72.5
2015 California 99 9.1 7.4 7.3 13.2 14.4 74.9
2016 California 94.2 7.7 7.5 6.3 10.3 14.1 74.7
2017 California 92.7 8.2 7.2 6.4 7.3 16.6 75.9
2018 Missouri 97 6.7 7 5.8 8.5 16 72.1
2019 Missouri 97.2 5.6 7.6 6.4 8.6 18.1 74.3
2009-2019 Average 97.6 9.6 7.2 6.9 10.2 17.3 73.2
Synergy Sports, KenPom

It shouldn’t be given short shrift, either.

In relatively short order, Martin’s quickly embossed his stamp on a program coming off its worst stretch in six decades. It’s also given the Tigers a puncher’s chance most nights they take the floor. Moreover, those gains have been even as Martin’s been forced to adapt in the face of catastrophic injuries to key players, Jeremiah Tilmon’s foul woes and generating buy-in from players he inherited.

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

What comes next? Flexibility

No member of the Missouri roster is more emblematic of Martin’s approach than Mark Smith.

A change of scenery — and scheme — did wonders for the sophomore. At Illinois, he played in a denial-heavy system, which proved ill-fitting for a combo guard more reliant on strength then quickness. In Columbia, Martin slid Smith off the ball in a scheme willing to give a little bit of ground. Those fundamental differences, paired with the Edwardsville product’s intelligence, quickly morphed Smith into a stopper.

By mid-season, Smith’s impact was quantifiable, too.

With Smith on the floor, MU ceded 0.93 points per possession, according to Hoop Lens. Once seated on the bench, that figure plummeted to 1.05 PPP — or 12 points per 100 possessions. Frequently, we look at block rate and steal percentage as analytical tools to assess defensive impact, but these on/off splits give us a gauge of team-wide impact.

Reviewing the pool of roughly 80 returners to the SEC this season also leaves with a compelling thought that Smith might be one of its top defenders.

Top Stoppers | Best Returning Defensive Players in the SEC

Player School Def PPP - On Def PPP - Off Difference Def Poss
Player School Def PPP - On Def PPP - Off Difference Def Poss
Mark Smith Missouri 0.93 1.05 12 48.72
Andrew Nembhard Florida 0.96 1 4 51.97
Isaiah Joe Arkansas 0.99 1.03 4 53.05
Keyontae Johnson Florida 0.96 0.98 2 38.17
Mason Jones Arkansas 1 1.01 1 51.38
Hoop Lens

Among high-usage players, Smith’s defensive impact is far and away the best in the conference. That’s also before you consider his individual defensive rating checked in at 0.609 PPP, according to Synergy Sports data.

Next, imagine what MU can do with him and some semblance of depth.

First, the Tigers plug in Dru Smith, who only allowed 0.592 PPP as a sophomore, but saw recurring foot injuries undercut his candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year in the Missouri Valley. Then there’s Torrence Watson, who quietly settled in and became a reliable off-ball defender over the latter half of his freshman season. Lastly, Tilmon’s presence gives the Tigers a sturdy and agile presence manning the backline — assuming he avoids ticky-tack whistles.

Assuming that quartet lives up to past performances, you can understand why Martin might be bullish. Meanwhile, the addition of Jackson and Brown provides the Tigers with prospects boasting length, fluidity and comfort playing in space. As for McKinney, we know the Vashon product relishes getting into a player’s chest and is instinctive when prowling passing lanes.

Ideally, Martin and MU can strike a balance, switching a little more often, ratcheting up the ball pressure and perking up its transition offense. The coaching staff can make these changes knowing it won’t compromise the defense’s structural integrity or its edge on the glass.

Few teams in the SEC rival Missouri for the amount of returning experience and production. That’s not to discount the assets still on hand at programs like LSU, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Mississippi State, but each of those teams will be relying on reserves and freshmen to step into the breach. While Mizzou needs to show improvement offensively, Martin’s demonstrated that by his third season on the job, his program could defend at a level that rates among the best nationally.

There’s the lame cliche that you can’t quantify culture, but I vehemently disagree. All the charts, graphs and R-squared values show us that Martin’s reputation holds up—even under the most trying of circumstances.

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