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Film Study: Is Mizzou’s defense weakening at the wrong time?

From the moment Cuonzo Martin arrived at Missouri, defense has been a calling card. But a Braggin’ Rights blowout offered evidence it’s buckling as SEC play arrives.

Illinois Basketball

When Jacob Grandison inbounded the ball to Trent Frazier, the probability of Illinois’ ending a three-year losing streak in Braggin’ Rights was robust: 98.3 percent.

Or you could have looked at the scoreboard, where the Illini owned a 14-point lead to open the second half at Enterprise Center. But a particular strain of Missouri fan might have cobbled together an optimistic outlook.

After enduring a 14-2 jag by the Illini, the Tigers whittled the margin to six with roughly four minutes until the break. Its expansion owed itself to quality shot-making in the last two minutes. Alfonso Plummer banked a high-arching runner off the window, and 58 seconds later, Frazier canned a 25-foot 3-ball in front of the MU bench.

Deflating? Absolutely.

Still, the Tigers showed faint signs of a plan that might reel the Illini back in. Use token pressure to get Illinois off-schedule. Extend its perimeter defense, forcing Illini guards to make longer passes. And swarm Illini big man Kofi Cockburn with help down and from the wings.

The odds withstanding, it’s been a familiar rubric – execute a meticulous scout with bruising physicality. Put another way: punk coach Brad Underwood’s crew. Given how anemic MU’s been offensively, the only route back started with piling up stops and kills.

That rationale disintegrated. And quickly. As in the first 90 seconds.

DaJuan Gordon drifted too far behind while trailing Frazier around a pair of screens, allowing the fifth-year senior a clean catch-and-shoot 3. Then, as Frazier pushed the ball on a secondary break, freshman Anton Brookshire let the sniper stop and pull on a deep 2 from the top of the arc. Fifty seconds after that, Javon Pickett looked on as Plummer pulled the trigger on a 3-ball amid a broken floor.

Just like that, the lead ballooned to 47-26, and Cuonzo Martin called a timeout to stanch the bleed. So in effect, you could have marked 18:32 as the time of death. Unfortunately, the Tigers’ supposed tourniquet had already failed.

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

A potential identity crisis

Since Martin took the job, there’s been a fixation on his offensive philosophy. That focus made sense. From his earliest days at the high-major level, steadily improving defenses and rugged rebounding defined his stylistic approach.

Over the past five seasons, Martin’s talked about a style that mirrors Iowa State, Villanova, or Florida State. And yet his most successful approach was a mid-season audible, shifting to a pick-and-roll heavy scheme with a Spanish flavor. Meanwhile, there’s been a tepid embrace of a perkier pace.

Poor injury luck and recruiting misses partly explain the ever-evolving identity. It’s also reflective of Martin trying to strike a tricky balance between modern offense and a defensive approach that – at its core – curbs risk. We also can’t ignore the obvious: it’s easier to diagnose offensive woes.

When Martin carried out one of the nation’s more dramatic roster overhauls, he hinted at his approach shifting away from a more gap-based defense. He wanted long, athletic players who could prove interchangeable when switching. And in the process, MU might become more assertive, looking to use its defense to create more opportunities in transition.

And as we mused about ball-handling and jump-shooting, we took defensive stability for granted. There’s little doubt the retooling’s been a disaster at the offensive end. It remains the chief reason why the program has plummeted to a level most assumed it left behind after Kim Anderson’s firing.

But what’s alarming is how quickly MU’s supposed insurance has quickly fallen apart. Using Hoop Lens data, which goes back to 2014-15, it’s the worst defensive group Martin’s had at this juncture in a season. The same goes for its net rating, which sees the Tigers getting outscored by seven points per 100 possessions.

Not-So-Elite Eleven | Defense | First 11 Division I Games

Season School Opp. KP Net Rating Def. PPP eFG% TO% ORB% FTA/FGA
Season School Opp. KP Net Rating Def. PPP eFG% TO% ORB% FTA/FGA
2015 Cal 177.8 0.18 0.88 41.9 15.4 22.4 0.394
2016 Cal 181.4 0.18 0.95 43.1 13.9 25.3 0.33
2017 Cal 161 0.18 0.85 41.3 17.3 21.4 0.32
2018 Missouri 144.5 0.22 0.96 45.2 18.1 27 0.263
2019 Missouri 131.7 0.08 0.94 48.9 19.7 25.7 0.297
2020 Missouri 146 0.11 0.84 42.2 21.6 24 0.367
2021* Missouri 80.1 0.08 0.92 44 16.9 30.2 0.334
2022 Missouri 146.5 -0.07 0.97 54.1 19.3 25.9 0.318
*2020-21 includes SEC games as a result of pandemic-impacted scheduling. Hoop Lens

Even dating back to his time at Berkeley, Martin’s teams have tended to make non-conference games against good teams into sit and kick affairs. Over the past seven years, they’ve never had a positive net rating. But even in that context, this season stands out. In six games against teams in the top-100 of KenPom, MU has allowed 1.06 PPP and owns a minus-17 net rating, per Hoop Lens.

Not-So-Elite Eleven | Defense | KenPom Top 100

Season School Games Opp. KP Net Rating Def. PPP eFG% TO% ORB% FTA/FGA
Season School Games Opp. KP Net Rating Def. PPP eFG% TO% ORB% FTA/FGA
2015 Cal 2 28.5 -0.01 0.94 41 17.3 30.7 0.447
2016 Cal 3 59.7 -0.08 1.13 49.7 14.5 32.7 0.413
2017 Cal 4 70 -0.02 0.87 38.8 12.4 21.3 0.379
2018 Missouri 3 48 -0.05 1.15 49.2 11.8 26.7 0.353
2019 Missouri 7 52.6 -0.02 1.01 52.4 17.2 25.4 0.338
2020 Missouri 4 34 -0.07 0.91 45.6 20.4 27 0.361
2021* Missouri 7 42.7 -0.02 0.98 48.5 17.4 28.7 0.366
2022 Missouri 6 44 -0.17 1.06 59.7 19.2 29.5 0.374
2020-21 includes SEC games as a result of pandemic-impacted scheduling. Hoop Lens, KenPom

But as the schedule has ramped up, the metrics are incredibly gruesome. Since a bludgeoning in Allen Fieldhouse, Tigers have given up 1.17 PPP. Against Utah, we saw what amounts to the best-case scenario – a defense competent enough (0.97 PPP) to give the Tigers a chance to exploit an advantage.

Yet, that’s probably fanciful given MU’s early SEC slate. Instead, the Tigers will see two teams with an eerie resemblance to the Illini. Kentucky and Mississippi State tout traditional bigs and enough guard depth to punish a game plan focused on choking off the interior.

So, as we dissect film from last week’s blowout, the question is just how much it proves to be foreshadowing of what’s to come.

Illinois Basketball

No Slowing King Kofi

Missouri’s game plan started with a reasonable goal: swarm Kofi Cockburn. However, it goes beyond simply limiting the hulking big’s impact around the rim.

With Andre Curbelo still sidelined by lingering effects of a concussion, Illinois lacks a true on-ball creator. Sure, Frazier and Plummer can handle, but both are more wired to score. Grandson is a undersized four playing as a wing, and Da’Monte Williams is an undersized 3-and-D option.

Instead, Underwood uses Cockburn’s post touches — and the help they draw — to warp defenses. The big man has also grown into a solid distributor, helping the Illini exploit the advantages he creates. So, slowing Cockburn does more than dent his stat line. It forces the Illini’s backcourt to create shots, and when that happens the turnover rate creeps up — putting more pressure on guards to make shots to offset them.

All of that sounds good – in theory.

Unfortunately, MU didn’t have a big who could guard Cockburn solo. Instead, it requires a team approach. It starts with Kobe Brown fighting for position or fronting to deny an easy target for entry passes. On the perimeter, defenders need to apply heavy on-ball pressure to make passing angles difficult. And when the ball gets in Cockburn’s mitts, help needs to be on time, whether it’s coming from the nail, across the lane, or a dig from the wing.

But as we’ll see, the best-laid plan didn’t pan out.

Post-Ups Put MU in a Bind

Cockburn’s potent posting up almost anywhere, but he’s most comfortable ducking into the lane and sealing his defender for a high-low feed.

Take this play, for example. It’s a simple horns set. Frazier uses a Cockburn screen, forcing Brown to hedge out. That ball-screen coverage allows Cockburn to slip toward the paint – and that has dire consequences.

Remember, half the battle is keeping Cockburn off a spot. Well, Brown’s now trying to recover and beat Cockburn to the restricted area. Meanwhile, Coleman Hawkins pops from the other elbow, takes a pass, and is primed for a high-low look.

Cockburn easily seals off Brown. Ronnie DeGray III tries to get big, but Hawkins, who stands 6-foot-10, can see over the top. Even if DeGray blocked the sightline, Hawkins still has Cockburn’s massive frame as a target and no defender denying the feed.

Now Brown’s relying on help. Gordon’s already stunted in from the wing and left Brandon Podziemski uncovered on the right wing. But watch what Cockburn does. He ball-fakes a pass to the freshman. That simple move keeps Gordon from applying extra pressure. The result: an easy finish over the smaller Brown.

Some version of that problem played out all night. Underwood would lift Cockburn, use him as a screener, and have dive toward open real estate in the heart of the paint. On this trip, it’s a weave action. And again, Brown, who stepped out to hard-hedge, is scampering back.

Javon Pickett slipped down to the paint briefly, but he bails out once Brown gets there. Notice again how Coleman doesn’t put Grandison under any duress. Instead, he’s simply able to whip a bounce pass to Cockburn.

For his part, DeGray’s in a no-win situation. A switch earlier in the possession has him on Frazier, and digging down from the wing offers Cockburn an easy kickout. And if Gordon rotates over, Frazier can simply trigger another reversal to a deadly shooter in either Plummer or Grandison.

Finally, here’s another bit of window-dressing the Illini used to get a similar result. Underwood’s set uses back-to-back drag screens – or 77 action – for Frazier. Practically, though, it works the same as the horns set you saw earlier: Cockburn dives, Coleman pops, and Brown scrambles back.

This time, Cockburn makes the pass when Gordon digs, and Grandison buries the open 3-pointer.

No Slowing the Roll

Cockburn’s touches rolling to the rim have been sliced in half without a reliable partner. However, he reprised the role with aplomb. As we’ll see in a little bit, Illinois’ shooters punished MU in ball-screens.

That attention created an opportunity for Cockburn to dive to the rim. Stopping a 7-foot, 290-pound man steaming toward the rim is tough, but a fundamental requirement is tagging — or helping the man defending the screener — the guy rolling toward the paint

As you can see, MU struggled with that task.

During this side pick-and-roll, Brown is softly hedging on Frazier. The tagging duty falls to Brazile, stationed near the elbow. It simply doesn’t happen. Frazier threads a nifty pocket pass, and Cockburn tries to rip down the stanchion.

More than anything, that sequence summed up MU’s entire effort to limit Cockburn — late and inadequate.

Illinois Basketball

Perimeter Problems Plagued Mizzou

It wasn’t just poor execution on Cockburn that hurt the Tigers. Mizzou really struggled with switches against ball screens, and the Illini were more than happy to capitalize.

It didn’t take much to put MU in conflict, either. Watch this possession, where Grandison follows his pass into a ball-screen for Plummer. It’s hard to tell whether MU’s simply trying to switch the action or Brookshire should fight over the screen.

Regardless, the effect is the same as both going under. Plummer’s not great attacking the rim out of side pick-and-rolls, but he excels at pulling-up, and MU gives him one dribble to do it from long-distance.

Under Duress

It wasn’t as if Illinois required complex actions to put MU on tilt, either.

Sometimes, a lone screen early in a possession proved sufficient. Case in point, a simple step-up screen set by Payne creates all the airspace Frazier required. Brown calls it out, but Davis doesn’t attempt to fight over the top.

And remember the Illini’s closing burst to end the first half? Well, one of Frazier’s 3-balls came after Davis again afforded him too much room. The Green Bay transfer goes under the first drag screen and appeared ready to do it after the second one set by Cockburn. By the time his hand is up, Frazier’s already releasing his jumper.

While Illinois runs some beautiful and complex actions, the Illini often generated quality attempts with basic ball-screen actions and benefitted from Mizzou communicating poorly or not executing correctly.

It’s not the first time, either. Mizzou bungled switches in a loss to UMKC. And against KU, fundamental errors came back to not digesting a scouting report, such as going under a dribble-handoff involving Ochai Agbaji. Admittedly, some snafus should be expected early in the season, especially with the kind of roster turnover MU experienced.

Close ‘Em Down

This section won’t delve into schematic nuance. Instead, it’s more about effort and intention.

Regardless of your defensive approach, closing down shooters is an essential requirement. Ideally, a defender does it under control, chopping steps with hands high. But other times, necessity dictates a fly-by.

But too often, Mizzou found itself idly watching as the Illini bombed away.

First up, it’s a familiar sight. Illinois runs a chase action, and the screener flares as MU traps the dribbler. Technically, Grandison is Anton Brookshire’s cover, and the freshman has a few brief window to recover back. Or maybe fellow Kickapoo alum in Brazile could try to closeout under control and use his ample length.

Neither responds, and Grandison drills a 3 that starts Illinois’ first run.

This is just one of five examples in the first 30 minutes where MU gifted Illinois — and a roster stocked with quality shooters — uncontested looks. Even if the Illini only make two of them, that’s still good enough for a healthy 1.20 PPP.

Losing the Trail

Another microskill you should expect a team to possess is navigating off-ball screens. Given how potent the Illini’s shooters can be, that would seem to take on added importance.

A common one is lock-and-trail. Ideally, the defender being screened locks up their man and forces them to use to screen. Next, they get low and skinny, becoming a smaller target and making it easier to curve around the screen. Then, they stay attached to the hip of the shooter, but even if they’re trailing a bit, it’s enough to force a curl toward the paint – and help.

Off-the-ball defenders also have jobs to do. For example, when a screen takes out a teammate, the one nearest the cutter should stunt once they receive a pass. If anything, it might disrupt their shooting rhythm.

Here’s what happened to MU:

At its core, the Illini’s sideline play wants to free up Plummer using a series of pindowns. Once he’s loose, he can’t launch from deep. He can curl and attack. Or he can drop the ball off to Payne, who is the second screener.

But from the outset, Coleman does not lock on to Plummer. The Ball State transfer does not get skinny. And he certainly doesn’t stay attached. Once Plummer clears Payne, he’s got an easy catch. Kobe Brown might also deserve a critique, considering he doesn’t stunt toward Plummer.

The same issue also crops up at the second half’s start. Only this time, DaJuan Gordon is getting back-screened, and Frazier will sprint along the baseline and receive a second down screen from Cockburn.

There’s a viable argument that Gordon and Pickett should have simply switched. Doing so wouldn’t have created a problematic cross-match, but alas, it didn’t happen. Instead, Gordon’s caught flat-footed on a back-screen. Forgot locking up Frazier. He’s gone in a flash. By the time Gordon’s veering around Cockburn, Frazier’s already receiving a perfect pass in his shooting pocket. Once more, Brown doesn’t try to offer help and disrupt Frazier’s rhythm.

Mizzou Hoops

Is this defense salvageable?

That’s the elephant in the proverbial room.

Some of them appear to be easy fixes. It doesn’t require much tinkering to improve poor closeouts, halt going under ball screens, or better navigation of off-ball screening action. Some of these cut-ups might have made their way into a film-room session.

That said, Braggin’ Rights wasn’t the first time we’d seen them, meaning they’ve likely been a topic of discussion before last week.

Schematically, the Tigers have experimented with applying pressure after making free throws, but it’s never been truly ratcheted up. At its core, MU remains a gap-based team. It only traps ball screens sporadically, while off-ball defenders aren’t hugged up tight denying easy reversals. Moving forward, it’ll be interesting to see whether Martin and his staff go smaller and get more assertive in a bid to create more transition chances.

Then there’s the matter of personnel. Analytics aren’t quite as helpful in quantifying defensive performance, but Brown and Pickett are better than last season in terms of PPP allowed. As for Davis and DeGray, their performance is roughly in line with the previous season.

Yet Coleman’s efficiency (1.049 PPP) is roughly 40.8 percent worse than in a shortened sophomore campaign in Muncie, according to Synergy Sports. And through non-conference play, Gordon’s reputation as a reliable defensive cog has taken a hit. The Kansas State transfer gives up 1.093 PPP — or a 33.8 percent decline.

But a funny thing happens when you look at Mizzou’s defense with Gordon on the floor. According to Hoop Lens data, the Tigers improve by 22 points per 100 possessions. That’s the biggest impact on the roster. The likely explanation: Gordon’s surrounded by marginally better defenders and part of lineups that are on the floor against opponent’s second units.

For example, Martin’s stingiest lineup of Davis, Gordon, Pickett, Brown, and DeGray only gives up 0.70 PPP but averages 0.79 PPP offensively. There’s not a traditional point guard anywhere to be found, no reliable floor spacers, and no real interior threat unless Brown gets a favorable matchup.

Four members of that lineup happened to be on the floor when MU went on an 11-0 run to narrow the deficit in the first half. Yet it took almost five minutes to stitch it together. And with Coleman and Brazile — a tantalizing freshman still mastering the basics — back on the floor, a leaky defense undid all that work in just two minutes.

Put simply, there’s no Dru Smith, Mark Smith or Jeremiah Tilmon around to mask deficiencies elsewhere. Now, a defense that was supposed to insulate the program during a potential offensive regression is creaking under strain.