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Film Study: What helped Mizzou against Utah, and will those tweaks matter moving forward?

Five-out alignments, more touches for Amari Davis, isolating Kobe Brown at elbows, and (maybe) ghost screens. The Tigers are searching for offensive solutions to salvage a season still on the brink. 

Mizzou Hoops

Let’s start here: Mizzou’s victory over Utah stanched a program hemorrhaging momentum, but the Tigers are far from well.

And who knows just how long it might last. While Illinois is without the likes of Andre Curbelo, the Illini still have Kofi Cockburn in the middle and enough shooting around him to make Braggin’ Rights into a bludgeoning.

But for now, Coach Cuonzo Martin, his staff, and a flawed roster kept its season from sliding into a crevasse after Kansas dispensed a 37-point shellacking Lawrence.

The 83-75 victory against the Utes carried the Tigers over an invisible Rubicon. After roughly 10 games, a team’s identity — at least analytically — is mostly set. A major roster addition or injury can change the calculus, but typically, any changes we see are at the margins.

For MU, any self-reflection might be sobering.

At point guard, the Tigers have tried at least six different options in a by-committee approach. Jumpshooting was always a major question mark entering the season, but to rank fifth-worst nationally in 3-point shooting is the hardest of hard regressions. And setting aside metrics and spreadsheets, the pieces comprising this roster still look disjointed when they share the floor.

And even a bounce-back victory requires a caveat. An hour before tip-off, news leaked that Branden Carlson, the Utes offensive fulcrum and backline insurance on defense, wouldn't be in the lineup. That said, the 40 minutes we saw offered encouraging evidence — albeit modest — that the Tigers aren’t stubbornly clinging to an identity that hasn’t withstood early season struggles.

It started several weeks ago after an embarrassing road trip to Liberty with Martin shuffling lineups. For example, center Jordan Wilmore, whose net rating has plummeted to minus-23.5, didn’t see the floor at all on Saturday. And Martin inserted two freshmen — Anton Brookshire and Trevon Brazile — into the starting five.

But more importantly, there’s evidence that Martin and his assistants are reconfiguring facets of the offense to match reality. Let’s examine how they’re trying to salvage an offense and a season.

Tweaked Sets

If there’s a subpackage the staff can swap in, we haven’t seen it. Unlike two seasons ago, the Tigers aren’t switching operating systems as the season plays out. Instead, Martin and his assistants are tweaking and tinkering with what’s already on the hard drive.

Some of it entails changing who is doing what on any given possession. For example, Missouri utilizes Amari Davis more in handoffs and screening action in the slot, freeing the junior to pull up at the elbow. Early on, though, Javon Pickett frequently found himself in those spots.

Or, as we’ll see below, MU’s modifying the sequencing of base actions enough to fit what its personnel actually do well.

You didn’t need to wait for long on Saturday. On the first possession of the day, the Tigers called a horns set, which typically features two bigs stationed at the elbows and guards holding the corners. Often, one big pops out while the other dives to the opposite block. Then, the guard who passes the ball cuts away, putting two perimeter players on one side (a two-side) and leaving the other (the one-side) stationed in the opposite corner.

The wrinkle here is in the personnel: Javon Pickett is at an elbow, while Kobe Brown trots to the left slot. First, Trevon Brazile sets a pindown for Brown, who cuts toward the top of the key and takes Riley Battin with him. Next, Brazile sets a flare screen for Pickett, enabling the guard to cut into Brown’s vacated space.

The initial alignment lifted Utah’s bigs off the baseline, and the screening action created an empty side. Pickett has momentum, and Botch Gach is trailing him. Pickett essentially has a double gap and an open baseline when the ball reverses. That’s a boon for a guard who is more of a power driver than anything else.

There’s another recurring theme: Utah messing up help-side rotations. Look at Marco Anthony hanging closely to DaJuan Gordon. He should be sprinting over.

Since the debacle at Liberty, the Tigers have been more inclined to use the simplest screening actions to start a set — drags or step-ups. Not only that, but they’ve tweaked who acts as the primary initiator.

Case in point: Kobe Brown steps out and screens for Amari Davis. While Utah switches, the set will flow toward Davis again. Once he passes to the corner, the Green Bay transfer runs a spacing cut to the opposite corner. Meanwhile, the ball also swings that way toward Yaya Keita, who will then chase his pass to set up a side pick-and-roll for DaJuan Gordon.

Like many MU opponents, Utah relies on drop coverage, with Stefanovic tagging Keita as he rolls. But this is where using Davis early in the trip matters. It allows Davis to sprint toward the slot, catch and reversal, and attack with his left hand with Stefanovic slightly trailing him. As for Lahat Thioune, who has recovered back to Keita, he can’t easily step into the gap.

Davis doesn’t finish the play, but the set prioritized him getting touches in potentially dangerous areas — an early ball-screen to probe for a mid-range pull-up and attacking from the right slot.

That’s not to say MU’s averse to trying something new, either.

Three minutes into the second half, the Tigers ran a set that plays into Davis’ strengths. All it entailed is Ronnie DeGray III trotting toward the right corner, allowing Davis to sprint toward the ball and make a catch at the elbow. Had the screen rubbed off Anthony, Davis could have squared up for a jumper or turned to drive the ball.

But this sequence offered another opportunity. Stefanovic should have gone with DeGray, who sliced away to the corner. Meanwhile, Gach would have stuck by Keita on the block. Instead, Stefanovic stays in place, and Gach slides to the corner. The result: an easy duck-in for Keita.

Davis spots the freshman and fires a high-low feed Keita’s direction. Maybe if the DeSmet product weren’t working back from an ACL tear, he’d finish the play. Instead, Gach recovers in time to turn him away at the rim. Still, the instinct to get Davis into early action before the defense loads up is the right one.

Stationary handoffs remain a staple action in Martin’s offense, but they haven’t consistently produced the kind of wide gaps and straight-line drives you’d want to see.

Defenses choose between two options. They either jam the mesh point, throw off the timing, and allow the trailing defender to recover. Or they simply go under the exchange, betting that MU’s guards don’t have the burst to knife into a gap before they recover.

But perhaps we saw a solution last weekend. Watch Pickett on this play. Typically, he’s the recipient of DeGray’s handoff in the slot, but instead, the combo forward pulls the ball as Pickett cuts over him. Rather than attack the gap, Pickett’s almost like a fullback clearing it out.

Once Pickett gets to the elbow, he takes Gabe Madsen into a screen on Thioune at the elbow. Behind him, Jarron Coleman trots into the handoff with Marco Anthony fighting over DeGray. There are three defenders and all kinds of garbled responsibilities. Thioune drifts with DeGray while Pickett picks off Anthony, leaving Madsen caught in between.

While the gap isn’t blown open, the crease is wide enough for Coleman to get through and reach the rim. Of course, it helps that (again) Gach doesn’t slide over, opting instead to keep tabs on Davis, who is only hitting at 28.6 percent clip on catch-and-shoot jumpers.

Seeing Ghosts

Since he was cleared to return, Brazile’s quickly become a staple of the Tigers rotation, earning almost 41 percent of minutes at the five spot over the past three games. Integrating the Kickapoo product empowers Martin to use more five-out looks — and the role those bigs play as a set unfolds.

Over the past couple of seasons, ghost screens have gained traction in college offenses. What is a ghost screen? Well, it’s fake screen. Instead of planting their feet, a post player slips away.

Why would the Tigers do that?

It comes down to countering opponents’ ball-screen coverage. On actions in the middle of the floor, they tend to switch. When the Tigers run them in a slot, defenses might hedge or play drop coverage, depending on who’s handling the ball. Regardless, the screener’s defender is often tasked with hemming in a guard. Meanwhile, off-ball defenders tag the screener as they roll to the bucket.

So, it appears MU’s tweaked its approach. Mobile bigs like Brazile and Brown are ghosting to get a jump on diving to the weak-side block. If a dribbler is cut off, they can start a ball reversal to that side of the floor, where guard has a clean entry angle and Brazile might have position on guard who had been on the help side.

Even better, if the defense collapses down, that post player can kick the ball back out. Maybe there’s an open jumper in the opposite slot. And even if the defenses closes that shooter down, the Tigers have already flattened the defense and put in rotation. They can swing the ball and further warp its shape.

Kobe’s Elbow

Tweaks are all well and good, but Missouri’s best offense hinges on a simple premise: get Brown the ball and let him attack.

After 11 games, putting the ball in the junior’s hands isn’t intended to empower him as a facilitator. No, those actions are designed to put him spots and angles ideal for bully drives to the rim against favorable switches. That horns set you saw earlier? Usually, Brown pops out, receives a pass, and weighs whether to feed a teammate on a high-low play or assess the matchup in front of him.

By almost any standard, those touches are ideal.

Right now, Brown’s averaging almost 1.25 points on shots around the rim, nearly 9 percent better than the national average, according to Synergy. That looks even better once you account for shot quality and play type. When Brown drives to the rack, he puts up 1.27 PPP, ranking in the 82nd percentile nationally, per Shot Quality.

Think of it this way: Brown getting downhill is 50 percent more efficient than MU’s entire offense.

So, yeah. Finding ways to feed the lefty is good business. And as we saw last weekend, it doesn’t require a tremendous amount of complexity.

Against Utah, MU used a blunt tool – a screen at the elbow. In the second half, the Tigers used it five times to spring Brown, who scored eight points, including four in the final six minutes as they tried to put the Utes away.

Here's how they pulled it off.

The Tigers didn’t waste time giving Brown the chance to hunt a mismatch. And how they manipulated the Utes is easy to understand. The alignment is straightforward—two players on one side and Pickett in the opposite slot. Freshman Anton Brookshire moves the ball to Pickett, and instead of clearing with a spacing cut, the freshman screens off Utah’s Riley Battin.

Brown’s choice is obvious — attack the middle gap. But what’s curious is how neither help defender stunts in. Stefanovic waived his arm faintly, and Anthony just gawked as Brown took off just outside the restricted area.

Anthony sliding in would have created an easy kickout to Gordon in the corner. Yet Gordon’s only averaging 0.66 PPP on catch-and-shoot 3s, according to Shot Quality. Or half the value of Brown finishing from point-blank range. And even if you put the rest of the Utes in scramble mode, almost any other jumper the Tigers loft up is a low-risk proposition.

Instead, Battin gets caught in a trail position, catches Brown with his body, and gifts the Tigers a bountiful trip. And Missouri quickly went back to it.

Less than a minute later, the Tigers run the same set. Only this time, Anthony’s caught in a bit of cross-match with Brown in the left channel. Again, Brookshire passes to the slot and screens Anthony at the elbow.

Brown runs a classic UCLA cut over the top, and Pickett quickly leads him with a pass. Once again, Utah makes a defensive blunder. Rollie Worster lets Brown cut across his face, make the catch, gather and square himself to the rim. Maybe Worster is preoccupied with Brookshire filling behind for a possible kickout? But again, Brookshire’s struggled early on. So, you live with that attempt instead of Brown inside.

Had Anthony and Worster simply switched off, Anthony would cover the kickout, while Battin could have rotated down. None of that happened. Unfortunately, Brown failed to cash in a prime opportunity.

Utah trotted out a zone look down the stretch to stifle MU’s offensive flow. But here they appear to be in a soft man-to-man look. The Tigers’ spacing is also slightly different. Davis brought the ball up, moved it to Brown, cut away, and overloaded the right side of the floor.

Look at what Pickett does, though. The senior waves Davis up from the corner to set another screen for Brown at the elbow. And again, Anthony doesn’t clear it quickly. Again, Utah’s David Jenkins fails to switch off. By this point, Battin’s stuck on four fouls and can’t rotate over aggressively.

Let’s pause a second to give an obvious compliment: good on Martin for absolutely hammering away at this play call. It’s something Arkansas coach Eric Musselman does frequently, running the same action until the defense shows it can adjust accordingly. It wasn’t just this particular action, either. Utah struggled to deal with Brown in almost any isolation situation at the mid-post or in the middle of the zone.

On this trip, Utah finally changed up its approach. The trigger is the same, but Jenkins tags Brown once Davis sets the screen. Not that it matters. Brown just seals off Anthony on the high side, sticks his hand up, and gives Davis an easy target on a high-low feed.

The alignment on the two-side also helps. DeGray’s hanging out in the slot and lifting Battin off the baseline. The low man serving as the first responder is Worster. A post touch with two defenders smaller than 6-foot-5 trying to stop it? That’s good offense.

This possession isn’t the same as the others, but I chuckle at how it starts. Take a gander at Coleman near the bottom of the frame. He’s frantically patting a raised elbow to call the set. Battin’s fouled out at this juncture, and Utah has five guards on the floor. By now, MU’s playsheet is tiny. Utah should know what’s coming.

It won’t change the outcome.

Brown pops out from the elbow, takes a pass, sizes up Anthony, and begins backing him down with a crab dribble — from the top of the arc. Davis sets a pin down for Pickett off the ball while DeGray and Coleman interchange on the two-side. Not that any of it matters. Brown’s working over his preferred shoulder in the middle of the lane.

How much of this is transferable over the next couple of weeks?

That’s tougher to say. Starting tonight, the Tigers enter a stretch the schedule where the likes of Illinois, Kentucky and Mississippi State are anchored by traditional post players. In those matchups, Brown might not have the same airspace at the rim. Instead, it might behoove the Tigers to amplify their pressure, generate turnovers, and get scoring opportunities in transition.

Still, the Tigers are deploying lineups that improve spacing, diversifying off-ball actions that actually move defenses, and shifting where personnel operate to put them in the best spots to be successful. At the same time, Martin’s shown a willingness to skew younger with his rotations, experience that’s crucial in developing a sustainable core moving forward.

Maybe it’s not enough to make this season a resounding success. But maybe it’s enough to stave off outright disaster.