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Is it time for Mizzou to perk up its pace?

Three years of playing at a controlled clip and manufacturing 3-pointers have produced mixed results. Would pushing the ball and attacking early in the shot clock help the Tigers?

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Imagine being offered the opportunity to coach Missouri’s basketball team. Once you stop weirdly flailing about with glee at your newfound financial stability, you might ponder how you might want to play. What goes into your decision?

Do you make concessions for the roster you inherited? Will you import new ideas along with the assistant coaches you hire? Will it gain you traction with top-end recruits? Or is the program you inherited in such a state that you’ll need to put a premium on developing a veteran core? And, what influence does your background as a player and assistant coach play?

The challenge becomes synthesizing history, input, and inspiration. Ultimately, your grand vision requires a series of compromises. The system it yields will likely adapt to unforeseen events that unfold during a season.

While this might seem overwhelming for you, it’s old hat for Cuonzo Martin. Four coaching stops will do that. After three seasons in Columbia, the Tigers’ coach has scribbled plenty of editing marks on his plan. Poor injury luck, uneven player development, and some recruiting misses made it necessary.

Last season offered ample evidence, too.

Up and down the roster, the Tigers struggled to knock down 3-pointers, a supposed strength of the group Martin assembled. Inside, Jeremiah Tilmon struggled with inconsistency, harassment from double teams, and a foot injury. Meanwhile, a pair of freshmen packed with athleticism couldn’t make a dent.

Since Martin’s arrival, he’s offered varied hints at what he envisions for Mizzou’s final form. Maybe Villanova, using a four-out attack that spreads shooters all over the floor. Perhaps Florida State, too, with a long and physical backline. Or maybe there’s a foreign influence with a ball-screen heavy scheme more at home in the Euroleague.

A constant, though, has been the pace at which Missouri operates. Now, as the Tigers near a crossroads in Martin’s rebuild, choosing the proper path forward might require fundamentally reconsidering how fast he wants his team to go.

North Carolina v Notre Dame
Cole Anthony was the latest point guard to pilot the fabled Carolina Break in Chapel Hill.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

How can we define pace?

Each spring, a ritual unfolds across the country. Newly hired coaches step behind a lectern and declare they’re bringing an exciting brand of basketball to a program down on its luck. The allure is obvious. For one, fans enjoy watching a game played in the open floor. Wonks like me note how those possessions are also far more efficient. And players find it more enticing to get up and down than grinding it out against a set defense.

As a commodity, though, transition possessions are hard to come by.

Live-ball turnovers are the best variety, but manufacturing them requires an organized system of production. Defensively, you emphasize heavy on-ball pressure, deny easy ball reversals, and grant players a measure of freedom to game in passing lanes. As for personnel on the assembly line, you recruit longer and more athletic prospects.

But Jordan Sperber pointed out January, pace isn’t solely derived from transition.

Let’s start with a basic principle: the more transition possessions a team has, the less time it uses on average each time down the floor. We can see by plotting it on a graph. So, that’s what I did for every high-major program since the 2017-18 season, which was Martin’s first in Columbia.

The downward slope of the data is obvious, and the relationship — based on an R-squared of 0.6833 — is robust. The data set also tells us the the average power-conference squad has 12.7 transition possessions per game, and 80 percent of them land between 9.8 and 15.8 per game. As for time of possession, most programs use between 16.3 and 18.5 seconds.

The line of best fit reflects a simple observation, but each data point represents a conscious stylistic choice. They also help us place teams into four buckets. On the graph below, I’ve highlighted teams who serve as ideal examples.

High Transition, Fast Tempo

The North Carolina Tar Heels punch the accelerator. The method? Well, coach Roy Williams still relies on an updated version of the Carolina Break devised by Dean Smith. The concept isn’t hard to grasp. Snatch a rebound, quickly outlet to a point guard and have a big man bust it on a rim run. Pushing the ball up the floor, a reliable point guard is given the freedom to attack, making it easy to understand why elite prospects — see: Caleb Love — like the idea of spending a brief time inside the packed Dean Dome.

Low Transition, Slow Tempo

Up the road, though, the Virginia Cavaliers deploy the opposite approach. Coach Tony Bennett is famous for the Pack Line, but his program still uses the blocker-mover offense, which churns opponents through a meat-grinder drawn out over 20 seconds. As the Hoos have upgraded their recruiting, Bennett’s infused more modern ball-screen based actions, but its core identity remains mostly intact.

High Transition, Slow Tempo

The Illinois Fighting Illini tweaked their defensive scheme, dialing back their ball pressure and forcing fewer turnovers. Still, coach Brad Underwood’s squad found ways to unleash Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier in the open floor. But when the Illini set up shop, they still run Underwood’s version of the spread motion. It uses the pinch post as a hub and relies on a savvy big man reading the defense and the off-ball movement of his guards. The systems plethora of cuts, intricate footwork, precise timing, and proper spacing can chew clock but create quality shots.

Low Transition, Fast Tempo

The Iowa Hawkeyes strike a delicate balance. Coach Fran McCaffrey stocks his frontcourt with brawny personnel — Luka Garza, Tyler Cook, Adam Woodbury and Nicholas Baer — to equip his roster for Big Ten slugfests. However, his guards are given the freedom to attack and play in a fluid system. His teams have never finished below 60th nationally in average possession length and finished 25th or better for adjusted offensive efficiency four times of the past five seasons. And Iowa’s built those attacks with recruiting classes that haven’t ranked better than seventh in the conference.

The choice to play slow or fast requires weighing trade-offs. For Williams, it’s simple. He leads a program that acquires the caliber of talent to push the pace. As for Bennett, stints in Green Bay, Madison, Pullman and Charlottesville imparted another lesson: drill your team in several areas to offset a talent gap.

Every staff engages in a similar deliberative process, a discussion shaped by their own experiences as players. What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? And how can we leverage the former? Stylistic choices are the outgrowth of those answers, and pace the result of the compromises made for the sake of maximizing success.

Missouri v Arkansas
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin’s scheme has evolved, but he still prefers a controlled tempo.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Where does Mizzou sit on the spectrum?

By now, you’re aware Martin’s objective isn’t reaping bushels of turnovers. And while he touted the potential of Tray Jackson and Mario McKinney Jr, both of whom moved on from the program to play in the open floor, the Tigers’ still finished last season ranked 267th in adjusted tempo.

The Tigers sit down, guard, switch cleanly, plug gaps, force contested shots and crash the glass. Despite having Dru Smith and Kobe Brown, who were among the SEC’s leaders in steal rate, MU didn’t rely on their thievery to spark fastbreaks. Instead, MU only averaged 9.7 transition possessions per game, ranking 65th among high-major programs, per Synergy Sports.

It’s why we often affix controlled as an adjective to describe the Tigers under Martin.

Using Z-scores, which tell us how far a data point sits above or below the mean, we can more precisely fix MU’s position along the pace spectrum. Since Martin’s arrival, MU’s volume of transition volume skews toward the lower end of the spectrum. The Tigers’ variation is less stark when it comes to possession length, but they still play slower in the half court than most of their peers.

Under Control | Missouri’s Pace and Transition

Season Poss. Length Transition Poss/Gm Poss. Length Z-Score Transition Z-Score
Season Poss. Length Transition Poss/Gm Poss. Length Z-Score Transition Z-Score
2020 17.9 9.7 0.43873 -1.07199
2019 19.2 9.3 1.58641 -1.21355
2018 18 10.7 0.5269 -0.71859
KenPom, Synergy Sports

What’s more useful, though, is to point out MU’s constellation of data points on our scatter plot, visualizing the distance between other power-conference squads.

In Martin’s first season, the Tigers perched on the line of best fit. A year later, though, MU’s average possession length drifted northward, as its average possession lasted 19.2 seconds. The slowdown makes sense once we account for the state of MU’s roster. In the preseason, Jontay Porter’s knee buckled in a closed scrimmage, robbing Martin of his offense’s fulcrum. Midway through SEC play, the Tigers absorbed another blow when Mark Smith suffered foot injury. To compensate, MU geared down, leaned on defense and gritted its teeth.

This time a year ago, Martin teased at the possibility of ramping up the tempo, a quicker operating speed made possible by adding athletic freshmen in Brown, Mario McKinney Jr. and Tray Jackson. Instead, bad injury luck struck again — this hitting Tilmon and Mark Smith — and coupled with the struggles of McKinney and Jackson to earn steady doses of minutes.

However, Martin has evolved schematically. The Tigers have utilized sets that are stock and trade at the professional level: horns, pistol action, floppy action and split cuts. When they do play off the post with Tilmon, MU relies on principles that emphasize spacing the floor to yield spot-ups and weak-side cuts.

The shift coincided with a broader change across the sport to produce more 3-point attempts. Doing so is a team effort and requires five players to click in unison. In a way, open catch-and-shoots behind the arc serve as a barometer: a healthy offensive ecosystem can churn out a bumper crop.

So, if unguarded catch-and-shoots are our measuring stick, how did the Tigers fare?

In no small measure, Martin reached his goal. Last season, MU ranked 59th in Division I — and 10th among power-conference schools — by attempting 9.3 open jumpers per game, according to Synergy Sports. But as we’re all keenly aware, creating shots wasn’t the issue. Actually, making those shots proved problematic. The Tigers only mustered 0.92 PPP on those attempts — fourth-worst among high-majors and 329th nationally.

Moving the 3-point line back to the FIBA distance might explain some of the wayward shooting. (Accuracy was down by 1.1 percentage points across Division 1.) However, for the third consecutive season, the Tigers saw their efficiency sag.

Shrinking Gains | Missouri — Unguarded Catch-and-Shoots

Season Poss / Game Rank PPP Rank
Season Poss / Game Rank PPP Rank
2020 9.3 33 0.92 326
2019 6.8 155 1.108 196
2018 7.1 59 1.223 66
Synergy Sports

The tradeoff Martin made is obvious. He ditched post-ups and isolations as the backbone of his offense, installed modern actions, and, to a degree, altered the types of scoring opportunities he sought to create. Instead of playing at a faster pace, MU’s staff put a premium on spot-up shooting. Ideally, that threat would keep defenses from harassing Tilmon on the block. If he could land an elite slasher — Caleb Love, Cam’Ron Fletcher or Josh Christopher — they would have wide gaps to exploit off the bounce.

Meanwhile, Martin wouldn’t have to abandon the other core tenets he uses to build programs: sturdy defense, tough rebounding, and steady operating speed. Put another way, MU embraced one half of the pace-and-space revolution overtaking the game.

The returns, however, raise a fundamental question about the Tigers’ approach: Why not adopt the other? And if they do, is there a model they can use?

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Marquette
Under Steve Wojciechowski, Marquette’s deployed an offense that lets guards like Markus Howard attack early and often.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

A model to mimic: Marquette

As far as stylistic muses go, Steve Wojciechowski would be an ironic choice.

Fabled and reviled for his floor-slapping past, few might have assumed the former Duke point guard’s calling card as a coach would come on the offensive end. Six years after arriving in Milwaukee, though, he’s constructed a Marquette roster that plays with vim, vigor, and efficiency.

And they do it without feasting on transition touches.

Under Wojo’s direction, Marquette has not ranked better than 130th nationally in those possessions. Their turnover rate has declined each year, reaching 345th last season, according to KenPom. Still, Marquette only used an average of 16.6 seconds on the offensive end last season, ranking 16th among high-majors.

Fly, Eagles, Fly | Marquette’s Pace and Transition

Season Poss/Gm Avg. Poss. Length Poss. Z-Score Poss. Lengh Z
Season Poss/Gm Avg. Poss. Length Poss. Z-Score Poss. Lengh Z
2020 11.8 16.6 -0.32984 -0.71074
2019 9.6 16.9 -1.10733 -0.44569
2018 11.6 17.1 -0.40052 -0.26898
KenPom, Synergy Sports

Based solely on transition volume, Marquette’s pace should live on the same block as MU. Instead, over the last three seasons, the Golden Eagles used 1.5 fewer seconds each time down the floor. At first glance, the gap is minimal. Still, over the course of 40 minutes, the chasm widens to the point where Marquette finishes 60th in adjusted tempo — more than 200 spots head of MU.

Again, our scatter plot is a handy tool, with Marquette singled out in dark blue. The distance between them graphically is modest, but that space represents a philosophical divergence in the men stalking the sidelines.

Before we start talking about actions and watching video cut-ups, we should summarize Wojo’s overarching approach: early-clock offense.

The Golden Eagles exploit defenses as the sprint back, scramble to stop the ball, and rush to match up. In 2020, a little more than 23 percent of Marquette’s initial field-goal attempts came within 10 seconds of collecting a defensive rebound, ranking seventh in Division 1, according to Hoop-Math. The year before, Marquette finished 15th in the country.

Two years ago, Wojo outlined the basics of his system at a coaching clinic. Think of the rebound as squeezing the trigger on a starter’s pistol. Once it goes off, three Golden Eagles are trying to win the race.

  • Pusher: a guard who receives the outlet pass and steams ahead into the front court
  • Wide Runner: a guard or combo forward racing to a corner
  • Rim Runner: usually the post. Assuming he’s the rebounder, he trails the play. If someone snatches down a miss, he’s chugging from one rim to another.

The pusher wants to be on the same side of the floor as the teammate who corralled the board, getting parallel to the sideline and as deep — far ahead — as possible to receive an outlet pass. Ideally, Marquette gets the ball into the hands of Markus Howard, who can make an easy hit-ahead pass to a big man rumbling ahead for a dunk.

More often than not, though, Marquette exploits chaotic transition defense by building its early-clock attack on a drag concept. Remember, a big man might be trailing the play, but his defender has already raced back to protect the paint. In effect, the trailer is now free to roam. As he comes down the floor, the trailer sets a screen for the guard pushing the ball, kicking off a pick-and-roll that catches a defense unable to rotate.

After the screener, who might be a combo forward, does his job, several options (i.e., reads) open up:

  • Ball-handler attacks downhill
  • Forward pops and rolls to the rim
  • Pass to a center, who has popped to the slot on the side of the floor with two guards
  • Reverse the ball and dive to the block to post up

Each decision isn’t binary, either. On a reversal, Marquette can dump the ball inside to a big posting up, while guards on the weak side of the floor screen for each other. If the ball-handler passes to the paired side of the floor, the guards run a dribble-handoff as a big man comes out to set another ball-screen in the slot. The dribbler uses the screen and should slash along the baseline on a rim attack.

The concept is easier to grasp once you see it live, too. And we owe The Basketball Playbook a debt of gratitude for chopping up film to make it possible.

On this possession against Xavier, forward Theo John collects the miss and softly tosses to Howard a few feet away. Already, the roles should be distinct. Howard is the pusher, while John will act as the trailer. Meanwhile, trotting down the left flank, Sacar Anim becomes the wide runner. Fellow guard Koby McEwen bolts ahead down the right side.

Once Howard crosses half court, John starts veering toward his teammate. Now, John doesn’t really set a screen. Instead, he slows down just enough to get in the way of Paul Scruggs, who is trying to slow Howard down. It doesn’t work. Howard explodes by for a middle drive that ends in a layup in a foul.

From rebound to layup, Marquette required just nine seconds.

In the next clip, Loyola Maryland’s Isaiah Hart prevents a straight-line drive. However, Marquette’s immaculate floor spacing affords Howard operating to mount a secondary attack on the rim. The schematic complexity is relatively low. You can draw it up in 10 seconds. The permutations from that primary drag screen can multiply quickly.

Let’s see the simplest spin, an action called Flip.

Instead of big man, Anim trots behind freshman combo guard Symir Torrence as he brings the ball up. Howard runs ahead to the right corner. Forward Brendan Bailey heads to the left corner, bumping McEwen into the slot and creating a paired side. At the top of the arc, Torrence dribbles at Creighton’s Damien Jefferson and brings Shereef Mitchell with him, occupying two defenders.

In effect, Torrence is a one-man drag screen. Then he tosses the ball back to Anim, whose momentum lets him blow by a recovering Jefferson for the layup. Later on, Marquette uses the same action again, allowing Bailey to drive the lane and forcing Creighton to help up — a cardinal sin that creates a dump-off and layup for Ed Morrow.

When Marquette ditched the drag screen, a ball-handler might head toward the wing for a ball-screen. Next, the man who set the initial ball-screen would flare off. On the weak side, meanwhile, the post would screen down for a guard in the corner. As McEwen demonstrates, the action frees up chances to drive or a jumper off of the bounce.

Wojciechowski’s playbook also utilizes an action that’s trickled down from the professional ranks and become a staple at the collegiate level: the Iverson cut.

Made famous by the former Philadelphia 76ers star, the concept is easy to grasp, too. A guard gets a pair of screens from big men stationed at the elbows and cuts over them, trying to shed his defender along the way.

Now, the cut can free the guard up for a catch-and-shoot jumper or a baseline drive. However, it can also be a bluff, loosening up a big man to roll to the rim or distracting the defense as the offense runs another action on the opposite side of the floor.

Marquette uses a series of early-clock plays where the Iverson cut kicks off the action. For example, the cutter receives a pass on the wing and attacks the baseline. Once they drive, the guard at the top of the arc sprints into a flare screen. On this possession against Creighton, though, Howard caps his drive with a tough finish through contact.

Another wrinkle calls for a guard in the corner to clear out along the baseline going the opposite direction of the man running the Iverson cut. Next, one of the screeners from the elbow runs over to set another on-ball screen in the slot. On the drive, the weak-side big slides to the short corner, while another guard fills in behind the dribbler, who can attack the rim, pitch the ball back, dump it to the baseline, or kick it to the corner.

This clip showcases Anim, who prefers to drive with his right hand, deciding to get downhill. Notice, too, how John seals off a help-side defender to let his teammate complete the play.

Marquette further tweaks the look by swapping out screeners at the elbow. In this case, a forward is running the baseline to the opposite corner, while a guard plays up top. After the Iverson cut, though, they set a back screen for a big man, who sprints to the slot on the strong side of the floor.

Now, the ball-handler can operate in a side pick-and-roll, and as he drives, the guard who set the first back-screen for the big man cuts to the wing. Marquette can exploit favorable switches and spring a shooter open because their defender hangs back in the lane to cut off a dribbler turning the corner.

In the first clip, McEwen opts to dump the ball down to John, who slipped to the rim after Butler’s Bryce Golden tried to hard hedge. To avoid any easy layup, Sean McDermott pinches in from the wing, leaving Anim open — and giving John an easy kick-out. From there, the passes ping until they find a free Bailey, who buries a 3-ball. Later on, the run the same action again, only this time Anim splashes home a 3 from the corner.

Reviewing Wojciechowski’s playbook doesn’t reveal him to be a tactical revolutionary. Whether it’s a Horns or Chin series, large swaths have been around for a while. He’s excelled at cultivating a mentality across his roster to blitz opponents the moment the Golden Eagles gain possession.

More than anything, the willingness to apply pressure early in possession might be the inspiration MU should draw from Marquette.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Missouri
Down the stretch, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin shifted MU’s offense toward a ball-screen heavy system for Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Is a shift under way for the Tigers?

Let’s state the obvious: Mizzou lacks a bonafide bucket-getter of Markus Howard’s caliber.

With the caveat stated, though, Martin returns some pieces he can use to construct lineups that give him the option to play a little faster. He already tweaked the scheme once last season, placing Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson in more ball-screen and isolation situations and asking them to create. And as the Tigers showed signs of life down the stretch, the tempo picked up to roughly 70 possessions over the last nine games.

Subtle Shift | Missouri — Play Usage — 2019-2020

Stretch Transition PNR Spot-Up Post Up
Stretch Transition PNR Spot-Up Post Up
Non-Con 9.91 21 22.58 8
Early SEC 9 23 23 2.9
Late SEC 10.44 25 23.11 5.67
Season 9.77 23 22.87 5.67
Synergy Sports

Those final nine games also saw MU increase its volume of transition opportunities and usage of ball-screens. For his part, Martin sounds like a coach subtly tweaking a veteran-laden roster to build off that late-season momentum. Initially, the addition of Hawaii transfer Drew Buggs was head-scratching. Still, it makes sense when you hear Martin talk about it offloading shot-creation from Pinson and Dru Smith’s plate.

“As a coach you have to recognize X and Dru can score the ball,” Martin said in a recent phone interview. “Those guys can get downhill and score. The last nine games, X and Dru did a great job getting downhill and scoring. Where X struggles is when he has to set up an offense. When he plays east and west he’s not as good. He has to play downhill.”

In April, Martin also told The Athletic ($) that a European-inspired offense he dubbed Barcelona, “really helped us and gave us new life.” The pursuit of Justin Turner and Jarred Hyder, who thrive as three-level scorers in high ball-screens, would seem to indicate more than a desire to upgrade scoring on the wing.

Aside from ball-handling, the return of Tilmon would provide a trio of point guards with a mobile big well-suited to play in pick-and-rolls. Using Tilmon as a roller or safety valve in the short corner also curbs the need to play off him on the left block, possessions where the ball sticks after defenses send a hard double team. All the while, Mark Smith and Torrence Watson can space out the floor.

For as much emphasis as MU puts on Big Guard U, its players average less than a point per shot on contested drives at the rim. For example, Pinson averaged 0.986 PPP on shots around the rim last season, ranking 92nd out of 126 SEC players, per Synergy Sports. Dru Smith averaged 1.00 PPP, but that ranked last among 19 players who notched 100 possessions.

Installing actions that try to score early in a possession could boost that efficiency. Instead of driving into a clogged lane, Pinson and Smith might have to opportunity to catch defenses sorting through cross-matches or unable to rotate correctly. And it wouldn’t require him to gut his existing offense.

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