I have also posted this on my medium page where the formatting is better. Same content on both posts but I can't quite figure out how to get the gifs to work. Link to medium post here: https://mceachernalex.medium.com/mizzou-has-picked-up-the-pace-kobe-brown-has-taken-a-step-forward-fe8e416cdb75
Starting with the Kansas game Mizzou has played faster due to the lack of a lead guard and poor outside shooting. Kobe Brown has handled his expanded role well, improving on both sides of the ball this season.
To put it lightly this Mizzou team is not very good, second-worst in the SEC according to KenPom boasting losses of a combined 62 points to rivals Kansas and Illinois. Coach Cuonzo Martin’s job is at risk, with fans upset at the poor performance in rivalry games and throughout the year. Right now the Tigers sit at 8–9, starting conference play 2–3 with results varying from an upset against Alabama to a beatdown at the hand of the Razorbacks. While this team is not making the tournament, and probably won’t win enough games to qualify for the NIT, I have found this season fascinating due to the nearly brand new roster. Mizzou returned only 19.7% of the minutes from last season and lost all but two rotation players. In this article, I’ve focused on the lack of a true point guard and the poor three-point shooting along with the recent choice to play faster. Towards the end I discuss Kobe Brown’s excellent play and how he has easily been Mizzou’s best player this year.
An Xavier Pinson sized hole at point guard
The most significant issue for this team is the lack of playmaking, stemming from the lack of a true point guard on the roster. Last year Mizzou fans were spoiled with an experienced team featuring two guards who could handle the ball at an elite level, Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson. That team was ranked as highly as 10th in the AP Poll and made the NCAA Tournament for only the second time since 2013. Now that Smith has moved on to the next level and Pinson plays for the other SEC Tigers, Mizzou is left with an assortment of guards who aren’t ready to handle the position full time. Cuonzo Martin has shortened his rotation to more or less seven players with three guards, Amari Davis, Jarron Coleman, and Dajuan Gordon. Davis is primarily a scorer, averaging only 1.1 assists per game, and Gordon is more of a wing, providing only slightly more playmaking than Davis. A bulk of Missouri’s offensive creation comes from Coleman and Kobe Brown, a combo forward who has taken a big step forward this season. Coleman and Brown lead the Tigers with 3.2 and 2.2 assists per game and have combined for 42.5% of all Missouri assists this season, well ahead of others like Javon Pickett. Interestingly, this share of assists is lower than the combined 51% of assists created by Smith and Pinson last year, indicating the more egalitarian approach of an offense that doesn’t have the same defined identity. Jarron Coleman is a capable lead guard, usually making the right decision with the ball, with this example early against Ole Miss providing an example of finding the open man.
He also is one of the few willing shooters on the team, providing a different dynamic to pick and roll actions even if he isn't shooting well at 30% from behind the arc. I'm not sure exactly what is causing this drop in shooting, considering he shot 42.5% last year at Ball State while having increased usage, so hopefully he can approach those numbers in the coming weeks. While Kobe Brown is a solid ball-handler I believe his ideal role is more similar to last season, where he primarily occupied the high post surrounded by 4 shooters, also cutting off-ball and spot-up shooting when alongside a traditional big.
Neither of these two players are particularly elite at dribble penetration, causing a ripple effect to other aspects of the offense, including three-point shooting. Last season open threes were in abundance, as Pinson and Smith could draw help with drives, leading to kick-outs to open shooters. Now that the guard play isn't drawing the same help, there are fewer open threes, which I will touch on more later. Anton Brookshire, a three-star freshman from Springfield, has the tools to become Mizzou's point guard of the future, but I think that will need to wait until future seasons as he continues to develop and grow into his frame. While advanced data is not a fan of his game at all, posting an offensive box plus/minus of -6.3, third-worst on the team, he's already shown flashes of the player he could develop into, with this pass against Kansas being an example.
Poor outside shooting
While the three-point shot is not as essential in college as it is at the professional level, the best college basketball teams can space the floor and drain shots from the outside, something Mizzou has not shown the ability to do consistently. Somewhat impressively, every player is shooting worse from three than they did last year aside from Dajuan Gordon, who bumped his shooting this year to a still lowly 29%, up from 21% at Kansas State last year. Freshmen additions to the rotation Anton Brookshire and Trevon Brazile aren’t exactly adding much spacing either, shooting 16% and 35%, the latter’s numbers on a very small sample size of 14 shots. I have a hard time believing every player has been going through a shooting slump, leading me to believe the guard play is contributing to low numbers of open looks, both behind the arc and inside. This play from the Texas A&M game is a good example of the lack of dribble penetration, as first Javon Pickett then Jarron Coleman is unable to drive, leading to a late clock out of control Pickett runner that had no chance.
This is right when the Aggies cut the lead to one possession, and Mizzou’s response was pitiful. The late-game offense was stagnant and not working late for the Tigers, meaning the Aggies were able to escape Columbia with the win. Mizzou doesn’t take many threes to begin with, as only 32.7% of their shots come from behind the arc, 294th out of 358 nationally. Teams can get by with a low volume of threes as long as they are at least a threat from the outside when shooting them, something Mizzou is certainly not coming in at second-worst nationally with a three-point percentage of 25.8%. When the Tigers shoot well the team actually looks pretty solid, as teams are forced to get out to the perimeter opening space in the lane. Mizzou just had one of those games against Ole Miss, as the Tigers hit 4 of their 7 threes, with Amari Davis hitting all 10 of his shots inside the arc, including several long twos. If the three-point line isn’t going to be a focus for the Tigers, mid-range jumpers will need to fall, as the rim can’t be the only scoring location. Mizzou is simply a completely different team when shots are falling, something that gives the occasional win, but not enough to consistently perform.
Pushing the pace
One way to alleviate a poor half-court offense is to get out and run, playing quickly in transition trying to speed up the tempo of the game. It seems Cuonzo Martin came to this conclusion with the Kansas game, as Mizzou has played quicker over the last eight games. They played at a slower pace against Ole Miss, but I believe this is an outlier due to their big lead and the fact shots were falling, lessening the need for transition buckets. On the season the Tigers have averaged 69.8 possessions per game, near the middle of the pack in Division 1 at 160. However, over this eight-game stretch, the Tigers have averaged 72.3 possessions, indicating a tempo increase. This stretch would put Mizzou 64th in the nation for pace on the season, and when you ignore the outlier of the Mississippi game it jumps to 73.4 possessions per 40 minutes, up to 32nd in the nation. This represents a clear shift in strategy from the Tigers, and I think it’s the only option they have. Mizzou doesn’t have the personnel to go toe to toe with more talented SEC squads, meaning Martin is having to find alternative ways of competing with them. This worked wonders against Alabama on January 8th, where a combination of speed and solid three-point shooting allowed the Tigers to upset a much more talented Alabama team. Considering the Tide beat Gonzaga earlier in the season it’s clear Mizzou is the true AP number 1 team in the nation.
Kobe Brown is really good
One of the few bright spots for Mizzou this year has been the emergence of Kobe Brown as the main scoring option, as he has embraced a much bigger role in the offense while also improving his defensive numbers. Last season Brown started all 26 games at the 4, mostly alongside center Jerimiah Tilmon but also a couple of games with Mitchell Smith at the 5 when Tilmon was out. Both of those players are gone this year, with Smith graduating and Tilmon now playing for the Lakeland Magic, meaning Brown began the year starting alongside 7' 3" Jordan Wilmore. However, Wilmore is now out of the rotation, with freshman forward Trevon Brazile emerging over the last month. This downsizing of the team at the forward positions means Kobe has tougher matchups, starting the Kentucky game guarding the national leader in rebounds Oscar Tshiebwe. Brown is a strong defender and played Tshiebwe well in the first half before Ronnie DeGray took the matchup in the second half.
This possession against Ole Miss shows some of Kobe’s strengths on the defensive end as well as his limitations. He is guarding the Rebels big man when brought into pick and roll action, Mizzou runs an ice defense forcing the guard towards the sideline, and Kobe is quick enough to pivot and stay in front. He then uses his speed to get back to the post to prepare for the entry pass. Brown’s strength along with the double team forces the pass back outside and he gets in good position for the rebound, but the taller Ole Miss center is able to grab the rebound.
Even though he is doing well against these bigs, I think he’d be better utilized alongside a true center like last season, freeing Kobe to guard other forwards and bigger wings. Despite being 6’7" 240 lbs, Brown is a solid perimeter defender, with this switch against speedy Alabama guard Jahvon Quinerly an example. Quinerly clears out the offense but Kobe forces a tough crosscourt pass. He then able to contest the next drive at the rim, forcing a miss.
This kind of versatile defense is impressive, and it is represented in the advanced data. While not a perfect stat by any means, Kobe’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus has nearly doubled this year, jumping from 1.2 to 2.3, an impressive step forward. Kobe would be the Tiger’s best defender statistically if not for the emergence of Trevon Brazile, who’s been great recently.
Brown has also taken an increased role in the offense, seeing his usage rate jump from 21% to 25% this year, but it’s a different kind of usage than last season. Last year the main ballhandlers were Pinson and Dru Smith, meaning Kobe operated off-ball as a cutter and spot-up shooter. When he did handle the ball it was primarily in the high post, which he still does this year to an extent, but he’s added the occasional pick and roll to his offensive load. Kobe is only taking 23% of his shots behind the arc, down from 37% last year and 48% his freshman year. This shows he is rarely operating as a spot-up shooter anymore and now plays more on the ball. He is second on the team in assists and assist percentage among those who’ve played significant minutes, indicating this shifted role. He’s a good passer for his size, with this late shot clock find against Bama being one of the best passes I’ve seen from a Mizzou player this year.
Impressively, with his increased usage and increased shot volume, his true shooting percentage has followed this trend, increasing to 57.6%, his career-best. This largely comes from free throws, as while his two-point and three-point shooting percentages are slightly down, he is getting to the line 4.7 times a game, more than double last season. He is being used more this year in both roles in the pick and roll, leading to trips to the charity stripe like this one.
Advanced numbers are also a fan of his offense, as his offensive box plus/minus doubled from 1.8 to 3.6, and his win shares per 40 increased from .118 to .172. These are impressive leaps and they speak to his improvement and larger role in the offense. I’m not sure whether he can be the leading scoring option for a great team, but he’s the best option the Tigers have. I think that Kobe could be the third-best player on a team that makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, but I don’t think that’s going to happen here at Mizzou. It would suck to lose a player of his caliber in the transfer portal, but since Mizzou is in a bit of a rebuild I wouldn’t be too surprised if he tested the waters for a chance to play meaningful March basketball.