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Hoops Preview: Bradley will test Mizzou’s interior strength

Unlike many mid-majors, Bradley has the size and strength to contend with Missouri. How will the Tigers respond?

NCAA Basketball: Bradley at Xavier Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like we’ve hit a bit of a slog in the 2020-2021 Missouri basketball season.

Of course, if you’re going to be in a slog, you’d prefer to be ranked in the top 20. But after the excitement of the first few weeks — with wins over three likely tournament teams, capped by a third straight Braggin’ Rights victory — things have definitely petered off. Missouri hasn’t played in 10 days and will have to wait another eight days before SEC play begins against Tennessee. Over this stretch of almost three weeks, with only one game on the docket, it would be easy to get in a rut and be happy about everything the Tigers have accomplished so far.

But Bradley is not the opponent to whom you bring your complacency. Brian Wardle’s program is coming off of two consecutive Missouri Valley tournament championships, and the Braves are contenders to win a third.

In a sort of counter-poetry to Missouri’s renewed focus on pace and transition play, Bradley is the latest team that will invade Mizzou Arena and try to grind things to a screeching halt. Bradley ranked 244th in adjusted tempo, bolstered by a defense that makes opponents average 18 second possessions. That being said, the defense hasn’t been tested too much. Outside of a season opener against Toledo and the follow up with Xavier, the Braves have yet to play a team within KenPom’s top 200. Missouri, in fact, will be the first power conference team the Braves will have faced in a month.

They shouldn’t be taken lightly though. Xavier, who sits at No. 48 in KenPom, had a knock-down-drag-out fight with Bradley on their home court to begin the season. The Musketeers escaped with a 51-50 win, but Bradley more than proved it can hold its own. They’re a veteran-laden team with aspirations on a third straight Arch Madness title. Missouri has conference championship dreams of its own. While this game won’t help either reach those goals, it should be telling as to which team is better suited for their respective crowns.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (5-0) Bradley (6-2)
Position Missouri (5-0) Bradley (6-2)
PG Xavier Pinson (Jr., 6'2", 170) Sean East (So., 6'3", 175)
CG Dru Smith (Rs. Sr., 6'3", 203) Terry Nolan (Jr., 6'4", 190)
WING Mark Smith (Sr., 6'5", 220) Ville Tahvanainen (So., 6'4", 210)
PF Kobe Brown (So., 6'7", 240) Elijah Childs (Sr., 6'8", 230)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Sr., 6'10", 260) Ari Boya (Jr., 7'1", 245)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

Missouri has had the benefit of size over many of its opponents over the past two years. With two regular rotation players above 6’10” and a stable of big, strong guards, the Tigers have often been able to muscle their will into being. This won’t be the case against Bradley, who average two-tenths of an inch shorter than the Tigers and boast a starting 7’1” center in junior Ari Boya. Boya isn’t the most efficient offensive player, but he gets the job done on defense (a top 50 offensive rebounding percentage) and the glass (7.1 blocks per 40 minutes.)

While the Bradley bench runs deep, senior Elijah Childs and junior Terry Nolan lead the way. Childs is a heavy-usage player on offense where he’s serviceable as a stretch big. But he’s really a powerhouse on defense and the glass, where he boasts above average rebounding rates on both ends of the court to go along with 7 blocks per 40 minutes. Nolan is the team’s best playmaker and runs as Bradley’s Dru Smith counter — a willing, if not excellent, shooter who prefers to get to the rim and free throw line.

Sophomore Sean East helps shoulder the load as the de facto point man on offense. He’s not a threat to explode on offense, but boasts a 31.7 assist rate versus a 16.5 turnover rate. Leave him open on the outside and he hits 35 percent, enough to warrant attention. The only players to attempt more threes than East are Nolan and fellow sophomore Ville Tahvanainen. Tahvanainen can get himself in trouble when he has the ball for too long, but he’s the team’s most willing three-point shooter, and Bradley will look for him on the outside.

After those four, Bradley rolls with five players who get between 30 and 50 percent of the available minutes. There’s Boya (mentioned above) along with 6’9” freshman Rienk Mast, a Dutch transplant who specializes as a defense and rebounding spark plug. Junior Ja’Shon Henry is a sort of Elijah Childs lite, excelling on the defensive end of the floor and on both ends of the glass. Unlike Childs, Henry is a tenacious driver, shooting just as many shots from the charity stripe than anywhere else on the court. Senior Danya Kingsby is a minutes eater in the back court, but won’t provide Bradley with much in the way of the stat sheet.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Bradley 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 109.5 (29) 16.4 (121) 55.3 (40) 19.1 (143) 32.5 (69) 38.5 (82) 31 (220) 61.2 (7) 76.1 (43) 8.8 (159) 8.5 (128)
Bradley 96.8 (105) 18 (295) 46.9 (92) 18.6 (195) 27.8 (161) 23.9 (32) 40.4 (298) 36.8 (6) 62.4 (35) 13.2 (42) 10.3 (93)
NCAA Basketball: Oral Roberts at Missouri
Mark Smith has been Missouri’s biggest threat from deep, hitting at 48.3 percent.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Will Missouri need to hit some threes?

Whether or not Missouri will need to make many threes is still very much a question. Bradley’s two-point defense is sixth best in the country, while Missouri’s two-point offense is the seventh-best. Despite their soft schedule, however, Bradley was able to turn a date with undefeated Xavier into a slug fest, holding the Musketeers to 38.1 percent from two-point range — Xavier escaped with a one-point win. If the Tigers can’t get easy looks at the rim, they’ll need someone to get hot from deep. The Smiths all have that capability — Mark is the hot hand, while Dru and Mitchell can chip in. But if the Tigers go cold from long-range, it could be a defensive struggle to the end.

When Bradley has the ball...

Bradley 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%
Bradley 101.6 (142) 17.2 (202) 49 (180) 19.8 (173) 33.5 (56) 23.9 (296) 32.8 (177) 48.9 (182) 73.6 (91) 5.6 (48) 11.3 (283)
Missouri 92.1 (40) 17.1 (206) 44.5 (38) 15.7 (294) 26.7 (128) 33.7 (176) 26.1 (29) 48.1 (121) 71.3 (192) 5.5 (271) 7.7 (236)
NCAA Basketball: Bradley at Xavier Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Crash the defensive glass

Unlike Liberty, which practiced efficiency in the absence of pace, Bradley cannot boast such offensive precision. The Braves are also one of the nation’s slowest teams, but only boast a 49 percent effective FG percentage, good for 180th in the country. So how do they find offense? On second chances. Many of the Braves’ rotation players boast high offensive rebounding percentages, and Bradley ranks 56th in the country on the offensive glass. Missouri hasn’t been awful in that arena, but they won’t as much of a size advantage on Bradley as they would other mid-majors. Assuming the Tigers can keep the Braves from getting hot, they’ll need to prioritize one-and-done possessions on defense to keep Bradley from stealing points.

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 73, Bradley 62 | By KenPom, Missouri is the best team Bradley has faced all year. And despite the fact that the Braves took Xavier to the brink in Cincinnati, their best win is over No. 93 Toledo. Missouri may have to shake some of the rust off, but if they can remain solid on defense, there won’t be many ways for Bradley’s anemic offense to keep up. Add in a hot-shooting night for someone like Mark Smith or Xavier Pinson, and you’ve got a recipe for success.