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Hoops Preview: Can Missouri keep up with speedy, undefeated Arkansas?

Missouri needs some life after two ugly performances. Arkansas’ speed could help them regain momentum.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

It’s pretty incredible how a few days can change an entire fanbase’s outlook on the season, huh?

At the beginning of the week it was 2020, and things were looking up, up, up for Mizzou basketball. The Tigers were undefeated and considered a challenger for the top of the SEC. They had the conference’s best non-con resume, and a date with Tennessee to determine the early favorite for the top of the league.

At the end of the week it’s 2021, and Missouri fans are caught in a doom spiral, fair or not. The walloping at the hands of Tennessee was about as demoralizing as a loss could be and revived almost all of the concerns that have plagued Missouri’s last two seasons. Over the course of two hours, Missouri showed no sign of life and it was easy to feel as if the walls were closing in.

The reality is, however, that Missouri still has a lot on the table in the early part of the conference schedule. They’ve talked a big game over the course of the season so far, and they’ll have plenty of opportunities to back it up over the next few weeks. Even if they’re not in the same tier as Tennessee, there’s nothing that says they can’t vault into that second tier at best or the upper-middle at worst.

Some continuity may help as well. Missouri has only played 3 games in the past 20 days, the same amount of games it has scheduled for the next week. When a team struggles as much on offense as the Tigers, a lack of game reps will do nothing but exacerbate the issue. Even if you’re practicing at full speed, nothing can replicate the feeling of being on the court with another Power Five team.

Over the course of next 14 days, Missouri will square off against five different opponents. Of those five, four will be against Top 100 KenPom teams. Assuming no more COVID cancellations happen, it’ll be a prime opportunity for the Tigers to recapture the rhythm that had them flying high into SEC play — and prove they’re better than what they’ve shown recently.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (6-1) Arkansas (9-0)
Position Missouri (6-1) Arkansas (9-0)
PG Xavier Pinson (Jr., 6'2", 170) Desi Sills (Jr., 6'2", 200)
CG Dru Smith (Rs. Sr., 6'3", 203) Moses Moody (Fr., 6'6", 205)
WING Mark Smith (Sr., 6'5", 220) Jalen Tate (Sr., 6'6", 175)
PF Kobe Brown (So., 6'7", 240) Justin Smith (Sr., 6'7", 230)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Sr., 6'10", 260) Connor Vannover (So., 7'3", 247)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

There’s some question here as to whether the Arkansas starting five will hold up. Justin Smith is questionable for today’s game after an injury against Arkansas, and his absence would force Musselman to fill a big hole. Smith is the team’s best offensive rebounder and a strong, switchable body on defense. Even if he’s available, expect Arkansas to adjust to fewer minutes for the senior.

Fortunately for them, they’ve got options. If the Razorbacks want to maintain more pace, they can stay smaller by promoting JD Notae into the lineup and bump Moses Moody (remember him?) to the combo forward. Notae is a little more ball heavy than the rest of the starters and may create some offensive questions, but he’s a pest on defense and gets to the line at a voracious rate.

And the regular starters may still fit in off-ball roles. The freshman, Moody, is the team’s best player as an oversized combo guard/wing, playing 75.6 minutes and excelling everywhere on the court — he cans threes at an above 40 percent clip, doesn’t turn the ball over, defends well and gets to the foul line. Desi Sills could slide down if Jalen Tate takes the wing. Sills has the team’s best effective field goal percentage and can hit from most places on the court. He, too, is a pesky defender and ball hawk. Tate probably needs to stay in the backcourt, as he’s the team’s best facilitator and lacks some of the shooting prowess of his peers (not that he’s bad, though, as he still shoots 36.8 percent from deep on limited tries.) The towering Connor Vanover rounds out the starting five, and he’ll be a handful for the Tiger offense. The 7’3” sophomore blocks almost 12 shots per 40 minutes and boasts the 31st best defensive rebounding rate in the country.

If Smith is unavailable, however, the Razorbacks will have to contend with a shorter bench than usual. Senior Vance Jackson could fill some minutes with size (6’9”) and would provide slightly more offensive spark, though he’s not nearly the defender Smith is. Freshman Jaylin Williams would also provide some extra length at 6’10”, but he’s a turnover machine and would be overexposed if used too often. More likely than not, Musselman will rely on smaller lineups featuring two four-star freshman in Khalen Robinson and Davonte Davis. Robinson has shown offensive versatility in limited minutes, but still isn’t quite up to the Division I standard on defense and is prone to turnovers. Davis will also cough the ball up, but will give the Razorbacks more on the glass and defensive end while sacrificing some of Robinson’s offense.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Arkansas 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 107.4 (67) 16.3 (105) 49.1 (184) 19.6 (170) 31.1 (92) 42.3 (32) 27.3 (294) 54.2 (60) 72.7 (97) 10.8 (263) 8.4 (119)
Arkansas 92.9 (42) 16.1 (57) 43.6 (22) 19.4 (164) 23.1 (45) 26.7 (62) 30.8 (84) 42.1 (17) 66 (73) 16.2 (8) 11.4 (48)
NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Will renewed pace give Mizzou some life on offense?

The Missouri offense represents a study in contrasts on the young season, albeit with limited data. In games where the final possession count ended greater than 70, Missouri is 3-0 with a +12.6 point margin (per game) and wins over two Top 20 KenPom teams. In games where the final count ended at 70 or below, Missouri is 3-1 with a break-even point margin with close calls against Bradley and Liberty and the domination by Tennessee. That’s probably too simplistic of a way to breakdown the Tiger offense — they have strengths and weaknesses aside from the pace — but it does appear as if the Tigers are far more comfortable when the game is moving. Arkansas will gladly acquiesce, as they have the 39th fastest adjusted tempo per game. If the Tiger guards can get in the flow of what should be a fast-paced contest, perhaps they’ll be able to cover up some of their glaring weaknesses in the half court.

When Arkansas has the ball...

Arkansas 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%
Arkansas 111.4 (24) 15.7 (48) 54.4 (51) 15.4 (20) 37.4 (16) 33.3 (161) 34.6 (120) 56.2 (34) 73.5 (84) 7.9 (118) 7.7 (77)
Missouri 91.8 (26) 17.6 (265) 44.8 (38) 17.2 (267) 28 (165) 32.4 (161) 26.4 (21) 47.6 (105) 67.4 (99) 6.2 (258) 7.6 (244)
NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Who’s protecting the paint?

Missouri still ranks 38th in effective field goal defense, largely due to its elite three-point defense. The protection in the paint, on the other hand, has deteriorated. This will play into Arkansas’ hands, as the Razorbacks have a variety of players who are more comfortable and efficient when taking high-percentage looks. How Cuonzo Martin wants to stifle Arky will largely determine how this plays out. Does he look to pack the paint and force Arkansas to put up more threes than its comfortable with? Does he stick to his guns and hope the Razorbacks will be stifled by the best man defense they’ve seen all season? The latter is more likely than the former, but he better be ready with some answers, because Arkansas will look to force the issue at the rim.

KenPom predicts...

Arkansas 75, Missouri 71 | There is some hope of an upset here. Arkansas is playing well, but still have yet to face anyone at Missouri’s level. Their defense isn’t elite, and the (likely) speed of the game should introduce some verve into the stagnant Tiger offense. But the Tiger offense also hasn’t proven it will take what people give to them, and the lack of any three-point shooting makes their margin for error almost impossibly small. Missouri will need some regression to the mean from deep, a torrid two-point performance or a cold night from the home team to add another marquee win to their resume.