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Mizzou vs. the Ole Miss 2-3 Zone; Or what we remember is rarely correct there is film to prove it

I went back and watched the film. It’s not great, but not as bad as we remember.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Missouri
Definitely not pushed.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday night, Mizzou Basketball lost a game they should have won. The Ole Miss Rebels have turned into a weird version of Mizzou Hoops kryptonite. The record against most programs in the SEC for Missouri isn’t great obviously; three years of going 8-46 will certainly sink your overall performance in that manner... but the 3-15 mark against Missouri has helped Ole Miss into being remarkably average in the SEC overall.

The Rebels are +2 against the rest of the SEC in the regular season, and an even .500 if you include the SEC tournament since Mizzou and Texas A&M joined the league... so you can see how Missouri has really helped make them average.

But we aren’t here to talk about this forced rivalry, we’re here because of the latest installment. A game where Mizzou went from playing catchup, to seemingly in control, to battling blow for blow, before finally being sunk by a few late possessions gone awry. The responses during and after any loss become mostly predictable. Normally rational fans become blood thirsty, looking to take out their frustration are often pointed at the guy at the top. And Cuonzo Martin is certainly familiar at this point with being the lightning rod of fan criticism.

What were the most common complaints? The inability to crack Ole Miss’ 2-3 zone, leading to a common refrain of Cuonzo being outcoached by Kermit Davis.

Being the weird glutton for punishment that I am (if you consider I’ve been a part of basketball coverage here since 2014 — I’ve seen a lot of bad basketball) I figured I’d rewatch the second half of the Tuesday game to see what I could learn.

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

First, let’s take a look at how Mizzou got themselves caught up in the game, and even took the lead (largely behind Drew Buggs captaining of the ship):

The Road Back

Lineup Drew Buggs Dru Smith Mark Smith Kobe Brown Mitchell Smith
Lineup Drew Buggs Dru Smith Mark Smith Kobe Brown Mitchell Smith
Possession Ole Miss Defense Play Action Result Score
1 Man-to-Man Horns Kobe Jumper 2+ 39 - 30
2 1 - 3 - 1 zone Zone Offense Kobe Jump Hook 2+ 39 - 32
3 Man-to-Man Pick-n-Roll Mitch layup 2+ 39 - 34
Timeout - - - - -
4 Man-to-Man Barcelona Mark lane jumper 0 39 - 34
SUB Drew Buggs Mark Smith Torrence Watson Kobe Brown Jeremiah Tilmon
5 Man-to-Man Horns Torrence Three 3+ 39 - 37
6 2 - 3 zone Zone Offense Torrence Three 0 39 - 37
7 2 - 3 zone Zone Offense Hi Low to Tilmon 2+ 39 - 39
SUB Drew Buggs Dru Smith Torrence Watson Kobe Brown Jeremiah Tilmon
8 Man-to-Man Barcelona Torrence Drive, Kobe FTs 2+ 41 - 41
SUB Drew Buggs Dru Smith Mark Smith Kobe Brown Jeremiah Tilmon
9 Man-to-Man Barcelona Hi Low to Tilmon 2+ 43 - 41
10 Transition Transition Buggs layup 0 43 - 41
SUB Xavier Pinson Mark Smith Javon Pickett Kobe Brown Mitchell Smith
10 possessions 15 points 1.5 ppp

Much has been made about the Tigers success, or lack of, against the zone. While Drew Buggs was the feature ball handler on the floor for 10 possessions, Mizzou faced a zone defense on three possessions, man to man for six, and transition defense on the last one. Missouri scored on two of the three possessions with Buggs running the show.

Missouri really had no issues with the 1-3-1 zone, Ole Miss went to it occasionally as a changeup, but the Tigers didn’t struggle to get to the spots they wanted, and the Rebels abandoned it mostly, and entirely down the stretch.

At this point in the game, Missouri takes the lead and it felt like the momentum had shifted completely. Cuonzo Martin brings back Pinson, Pickett and Mitchell Smith, and leaving the game are Buggs, Tilmon and Dru Smith. Both teams swap empty possessions, but Ole Miss ties the game at 43 with 8:11 to play, and for the remainder of the game it appears as though the Rebels move to their 2-3 matchup Zone.

So first, in attacking a zone, the goal of the offense is to create overloads and weak sides. You’re basically hunting 2 v 1, 3 v 2 type of matchups. You want to put the defense in a position to make a decision. Here’s the basic setup for the offense:

mizzou ole miss 2-3

Mark Smith is a little flatter than you want, and Dru could be a little wider, but Kobe at the free throw line and Tilmon in the short corner is a good start.

Mizzou vs the Ole Miss 2-3 Matchup Zone

We’re going to watch some videos.

  • Possession 1 — 0 points; 0 ppp: Coming out the under 8 media timeout, Mizzou has the basketball in a baseline out of bounds setup. They easily inbound the ball and move into their Zone offense. Mizzou quickly gets the ball to Pinson who centers the ball while Mitchell Smith heads to the free throw line, and Tilmon banks low on the baseline.

Once the ball is swung to Dru Smith on the wing, Tilmon steps in to post and Dru delivers the ball. The moment Tilmon has the ball the defense collapses on him and Mitchell dives, and Tilmon makes the pass.

Ole Miss actually plays this pretty well. The weak side defense crashes to help on the dive and challenges the shot. The right play for Mitchell to make would be the kick out to Mark Smith.

Tilmon did his job, he drew two defenders. Mitch did his job, he made the defense collapse and shift. He just missed the easy play and tried to score over the top of two good shot blockers.

  • Possession 2 — 3 points; 1.5 ppp: This is a secondary transition offense, and Missouri does a good job forcing the defense to move. Ole Miss had just made a 3-pointer to give them a 3 point lead, and Missouri pushed the ball up quickly. Pinson quickly feeds the ball into Tilmon who, again, draws a double team. He dribbles away from the double team forcing the defense to scramble, Mitchell Smith’s basket cut cuts off the back side help, so after a kick out to Dru Smith he has an easy pass to the wing and Mark Smith sinks a 3-pointer to tie the game.

No further commentary, this was a terrific possession. Ole Miss’ 2-3 zone is a matchup zone, and in transition they were probably in more man-to-man coverage. But this possession just illustrates why Cuonzo Martin has made the move to push pace. Not allowing the defense to set means you are more likely to get open looks. It helps that Mark Smith has found his stroke the last few games.

  • Possession 3 — 0 points; 1 ppp: With Missouri down a point after Ole Miss split a pair of free throws, they had a big dud of a possession. Missouri moves the ball around the perimeter and gets the ball where they want, into the high post. Once it hits Kobe Brown, the defense matches up. Tilmon tries to post as he’s got a smaller defender on him, but isn’t able to establish himself in the middle, so he retreats to the opposite block to clear a left drive for Brown. However, Kobe just hesitates and travels.
  • Possession 4 — 2 points; 1.25 ppp: After another Ole Miss free throw split, Mizzou gets back on the good possession side and it looks like Dru and Kobe are alternating the high post flash. This is a solid way to keep the defense off balance, and considering Dru is more accustomed to operating in space with the ball, it makes sense to give Brown a break from the middle of the zone.

Dru flashes middle and then back out to the wing. Once he hits the wing he gets the ball from Pinson and the defense tries to switch to cover the corner with Mark Smith. Dru simply attacks middle and creates a relatively easy 8-10 foot jump shot.

  • Possession 5 — 0 points; 1 ppp: After giving up a back door lob for a dunk, Missouri was back down 2 points with around 5 minutes left in the game. I think this was an important possession for Mizzou to get a good shot. And while what happened wasn’t horrible, they just missed a great opportunity.

Missouri does another good job when Dru pops out with the defense in recovery, but he declines the shot and moves the ball back out top. Over to the wing where Kobe looks at an entry for Tilmon. The entry is there but he moves the ball back up to Pinson. Dru flashes to the high post, Pinson dribbles to the right and Dru pops out to create an advantage in numbers.

It works, and Kobe is wide open for a three point attempt.

Brown misses the shot. A missed shot doesn’t make the possession bad necessarily, but if Brown is a little more alert there was a better play to be made.

A bounce pass or even a lob to the rim and this is 2 points. Tilmon has buried Romello White on a post up, so this should be where the ball goes, and instead Brown misses the shot. While Tilmon gets the Offensive Rebound, he misses a much tougher shots and the ball goes back to Ole Miss. I don’t love this possession because of what was missed, but I don’t have a huge issue. They worked the offense to an advantage and got a wide open look.

The good news is Missouri holds on the next possession. Tilmon forces a turnover, then on the ensuing possession Devontae Shuler commits a foul, and we go into the final media timeout with the score still 50-48 Ole Miss.

  • Possession 6 — 0 points, 0.83 ppp: Ok, on the list of “no please not this” is Missouri’s 6th possession here. Zo subs out Tilmon at the media timeout to try and buy the big guy a few extra minutes of rest. The shot clock is already at 20 seconds because of the foul on Shuler. Missouri spends the first 10 seconds trying to get Pinson into an attack off a screen, but he passes out and Dru can’t hit Mitchell Smith in the high post on a flash. He passes to Pinson who draws the defense, and kicks to Dru. But with the clock already at 3 seconds when he receives the ball, he pretty much has to shoot.

This possession isn’t great, but towards the end Pinson has a chance to get the ball to Dru with a little more room to work. Instead, he takes a second dribble which does further pull in the defense, but allows the baseline defender to get out and contest the shot.

Now that we’re in the under 4 timeout in a one possession game, each possession is important.

Missouri gets the ball back at about the 3 minute mark having held Ole Miss without a score.

  • Possession 7 — 2 points; 1 ppp: Down 2, Mizzou needs a bucket. The defense has held up for the last two and a half minutes and you need an answer from the offense. Missouri doesn’t mess around like they did on the previous possession.

They run a secondary drag screen to get Pinson working off Tilmon right away, but with the Rebels back into their 2-3, the Tigers quickly move into their zone offense. Pinson swings to Dru who swings to Kobe, and Kobe goes back to Dru on the wing. Tilmon settles in on the post and the offense now has an overload on one side of the floor. Dru puts the ball right on Tilmon who quickly attacks the middle causing the defense to collapse. But showing deft footwork, he spins away from the defense back to the basket, gets shoved in the back by White, and scores the basket.

I was surprised there was a no call on this. The officials largely let the teams play all game long so it was a physical contest. But that’s a foul in any game. A hand in the middle of the back and pushing a player leaving the floor is kind of dangerous. Tilmon handles the contact (it helps to be 6’10 and 260 lbs when you get pushed a bit) and he knots the score at 50.

Tilmon came down on the next defensive possession and forced a Romello White travel. Maybe at this point the Tigers’ big man was feeling himself a little too much, because Jeremiah giveth, then Jeremiah taketh away.

  • Possession 8 — 0 points; 0.88 ppp: At this point it’s a tie game and there’s a little momentum on Mizzou’s side. They’ve strung together multiple stops and have found Tilmon for an easy bucket. If they score on this possession it gives them control going back on defense. So it makes sense to go back and attack with Jeremiah Tilmon.

Ole Miss again sticks with their matchup 2-3 zone. Mizzou quickly gets the ball into the high post to Kobe Brown, Tilmon seals for a post up and receives the ball. White gives a soft double but also cuts off a cut to the basket from Brown. Kobe slides down the lane to the opposite block and White turns to hard double. Tilmon has an error in judgement and tries to whip a wrap around pass by White but he can’t clear the defender. Tilmon bounces the pass off of White and Ole Miss grabs the ball and heads the other way.

All year long Tilmon has been really good with a reverse drop step away from the double team and getting to the backboard for a soft finish. The other thing I’d like to see happen if Tilmon senses the double is to get a little more help from Dru Smith. He stands in place and doesn’t force the defense to watch him. Simply drift to the corner or even cut past Tilmon, either would force the defense to shift and pay attention. Instead he makes it easy on Shuler. The turnover isn’t Dru’s fault, and Tilmon still likely makes the pass he tries to make, but that’s what you want to see from the offense.

The Rebels sprint the other way and get a layup attempt blocked out of bounds. They inbound the ball and Shuler makes a tough fade away jumper in the lane to go back up 2 points.

  • Possession 9 — 0 points; 0.78 ppp: This is a quick possession, and Missouri gets a really good look from a guy who has come through for them all year long. It’s a short possession, but Missouri attacks early in the clock with Dru Smith at the free throw line. Again Mizzou gets the ball where they want it. The defense is still transitioning and Romello White, the center man in the 2-3, extends up to pick up Dru. White gives him enough space and Dru takes the 16 footer, missing off the front iron.

I don’t have any issues with this possession. Tilmon might’ve been open for a moment as he was coming down the floor. Maybe you bring it back out; after all there was still 25 seconds in the shot clock. But are you guaranteed to find a better shot if you turn down this one?

Smith had just made a jumper in front of the rim a few shots earlier, so it’s a good shot. He just missed. The problem is you’re down two, and the next defensive possession is important, and Mizzou gives up a layup when Pinson doesn’t rotate down to help on the block. K.J. Buffen gets an easy lay in and now you’re down 4 with just over a minute to play.

  • Possession 10 — 0 points; 0.70 ppp: Missouri has to score on this possession to keep this game within reach. And what ensues is the exact reason so many fans were complaining about the Mizzou offense vs the 2-3 zone. It wasn’t 10-12 bad possessions, it was this one. In need of a basket, Pinson dribbles, passes to Dru who passes back. Pinson dribbles some more, Kobe tries to set a ball screen, but Ole Miss just switches. At one point you can even see Kobe throw his hands up not entirely sure what to do.

The Rebels tightened their pressure off the ball on this possession. They were matched up more so than they had been prior, and the change seems to cause some confusion about what Missouri wants to do. They seem to want to get Pinson in an attack but he doesn’t give himself the space to do so. After dribbling for a bit and declining the ball screen, Pinson passes to Dru, who attempts a fairly well defended 3-point shot. Ole Miss rebounds.

Forced to foul, Mizzou sends Jarkel Joiner to the line and he makes both and the lead is now six. I have an 11th possession, but it’s a little more of the same from Pinson. Deference to Dru Smith, who attacks off the dribble and ends up in a trap. The defender is able to knock the ball loose from Dru as he’s going to pass which puts the ball into the corner. Now in a double team and trapped in a corner, Dru tries to pass out but the ball is stolen. Ole Miss seals the win.

It’s a frustrating exercise, but an important one I think

I enjoy breaking down “what went wrong” as much as I do “what went right”. To me this came down really to the Tilmon turnover and the Dru Smith missed jumper. Combined with a couple defensive breakdowns and you have a close loss instead of a close win. Missouri could have executed better, but in large part they got the ball where they wanted it. They just didn’t execute once it got there. Plus, their record in close games prior to the Arkansas OT loss was anointed by the basketball gods, so there was bound to be some hiccups.

They were nearly perfect when they needed to be against Bradley, Illinois, TCU, Kentucky, and Alabama. Then, when they needed it they came up short against Arkansas and Ole Miss. Flip a couple possessions against Bradley and TCU and then Arkansas and Ole Miss and Mizzou is 5-2 in the non-con and 9-5 in conference play (including a sweep over the super hot Hogs). They’re still 14-7 and a higher seed in conference but with an ugly Quad 3 and a Quad 4 loss.

Arkansas would have been Quad 1 win, so Mizzou would be 7-2 there. Ole Miss would have been a Quad 2 (barely), so they’d be 3-3. But one of the things keeping Mizzou higher in the rankings and likely the seeding is their perfect record against Quad 3 and Quad 4.

Which is better?

I don’t know. I think I’d rather win the games you’re supposed to (TCU/Bradley) and maybe drop a couple which are more of a toss up (Ark/OM). I get the frustration of watching a 13-3 team sink to 14-7, but league play is hard. I’m convinced the SEC is either far better than it’s given credit for in the rankings, or nobody in the league is any good so the outcomes are completely random. It’s probably a little of both.

As I watched South Carolina beat Georgia in Athens by 20 points, and Tennessee lose to an Auburn team without Sharife Cooper on the road, and Alabama eke out a win over Mississippi State, it’s easy to see the leveling of the playing field. It sucks Mizzou can’t seem to solve the Ole Miss problem. But I don’t think it comes down to an inability to coach an attack of a 2-3 zone.