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The Verdict: Mizzou played fast but will need defensive continuity

Dennis Gates let the Tigers attack freely and pound the paint, but fundamental miscues with switches and rotations require time — and chemistry — to sort out.

Southern Indiana v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

Last season we brought to you Mizzou Hoops Film Rooms, and we’re bringing you something similar this year. But a little different. An upgrade, if you will. After each game we will still bring you plenty of film from RockM’s own video coordinator, Matt Harris (@MattJHarris85 on Twitter).

This year, we will focus a little more on matchups, important facets of the game and analytical breakdowns courtesy of Matt Watkins (@DataMizzou) to make the film make sense. A true look into where the game was decided.

Early on in the season, with a lack of sample size being a factor, we will take advantage of this opportunity to bring to you more “big picture” topics. Introductions into the various schematic elements of the team. Sets and defenses that are being run. An introduction to the players’ games and how they fit into the larger picture. Once the data set gets large enough, and the schedule shifts into a higher difficulty mode we’ll look into the key aspects of why the Tigers won...or lost. If you enjoy the finer points of analysis and the nitty-gritty of film study, this is for you. Even if it’s not, we’ll still bring you A LOT of film to enjoy.

Mizzou opened the season this week with a 97-91 victory over the University of Southern Indiana. Dennis Gates, and his well-appointed staff, took the bench for their first game captaining the Tiger program.

Their opponent suited up for their first game as a member of the Division I class. Unfortunately, what appeared to be a comfortable victory throughout the evening, heading straight towards most analytical projections of an 18 to 20-point Tiger win, veered sharply into a nailbiter down the stretch.

The thin margin had an obvious explanation: absurd jump-shooting by the Screaming Eagles. It didn’t matter if the shot going up was guarded or wide open. Or whether it was in the mid-range or behind the arc. USI — and Trevor Lakes, more precisely — canned it.

After going 1 of 13 from deep in the first half, the newest member of the Ohio Valley Conference sank 14 of 17 attempts after the break, including a flurry in the final five minutes. That chopped an 83-65 lead to two possessions, and MU got unexpected exposure to late-game stress.

And that late drama tamped down some of the glee from Mizzou putting up 97 points on 82 possessions. For nearly 35 minutes, we saw a team that genuinely played fast but also under control. No, Paul Westhead isn’t on the job, but it’ll be worth monitoring whether this pace is also consistent under Gates.

So, while the first edition of The Verdict is all about balance. On the one hand, it’s easy to feel optimistic watching a roster short on continuity seem so at home playing with loose constraints. But it’s tempered by the fact that it’ll need time to tighten bolts defensively.

Now, let’s flip on the projector.

Turn Up The Beat

In the first segment, we’ll take a look at ways in which Mizzou was generating offense with quickness. Here, we’ll focus on transition opportunities, secondary breaks and/or early offense chances.

In this first sampling of film, you’ll see how quickly Mizzou gathers the ball on the defensive end and pushes into the frontcourt. The shots generated here were either off the initial probe or just one pass. The Tigers were hunting early clock opportunities and were rewarded at times.

They also play into the strengths of this roster. You want Kobe Brown catching on the wing, ripping through, and getting downhill. You trust Isiaih Mosley to grab a rebound, push, and manipulate pace against a scrambling defense. And you trust Honor to get his head up and locate spot-up threats like D’moi Hodge and DeAndre Gholston.

Those secondary breaks are also a natural way to flow into early-clock offense. Or they were just playing basketball. Gates has gone on the record to say the first eight seconds of a possession belong to his players. And that’s what you see here. Out of six clips, only one features a specific action: a drag screen by Kobe Brown for Nick Honor, which allows the lead guard to attack the middle gap before lassoing a pass to Aidan Shaw in the slot for a jumper.

Everything else? Freestyle. These looks included a dribble penetration find to a cutting Aidan Shaw, post-up touches for Noah Carter and Kobe Brown, and spot-up looks on the wing off the pass. All represent quality scoring opportunities.

As we’ve seen on Whiteboard Wednesdays, Gates drills his team in the core components during workouts and then scales them up. As a result, there’s trust because he’s imparted principles and repped them out. On Monday, we got our first look at the finished product.

All That Glimmers Is Not Tiger Gold

That said, Mizzou’s decision-making isn’t bulletproof. There are also instances where MU forces action or settles quickly. Take a look. These aren’t necessarily bad shots — but they are not optimal either. You’ll learn that Mosley’s step-back game is a threat and that Kobe Brown and Noah Carter can hit deep jumpers. But in the realm of shot quality, these don’t grade out as the highest-quality attempts.

If it’s not obvious, we covet rim attempts.

The Punch Bowl

The post-up is dying out, right?

Not entirely. They were ideal against a USI lineup on Monday that topped out at 6-foot-8. And that guy, Kiyron Powell, tips the scales at 210 pounds. So, screw trends.

Gates did so using punch plays. In basketball lexicon, that’s shorthand for a designed play to create post isolation touch early in a possession. Mizzou flashed this at times Monday night with great success. Isolate the appropriate matchup, disguise the intent, make the feed, and let your player work.

In the first two clips, Kobe Brown sets a down screen for a guard, who curls and clears out. Voila. Brown has the left block all to himself and buries his defender. Look rudimentary? Well, it is. But Gates is achieving a key objective: get one of his best players the ball quickly, and in a spot he likes to work.

Brown and Carter have proven to be incredibly efficient working on the block. Against most teams the Tigers will face, these chances are prime. You can see why here.

Elbow Grease

Watch any amount of film from Gates’ time with Cleveland State, and you’ll quickly see how the free-throw line and elbows act as playmaking hubs. Next, he puts a playmaking big at those spots. It pulls a bigger defender out of the paint and gives that forward flexibility: fire passes to cutters, bully smaller defenders on drives to the rim, dribble into post-ups, or put up a jumper when a defender sags.

Kobe Brown and Noah Carter excel in that area, and Tre Gomillion was used in this role when he suited up for the Vikings. Feed the ball to your combo forward playmakers and let them do their thing. We see the wisdom in that philosophy here.

Disruption Is Thy Name

Mizzou would have made Bill Self happy at the defensive end: it played man-to-man on every possession. That’s a break with Gates mentor Leonard Hamilton, who would mix in zone as a curveball to the Junkyard Dog defense that’s a staple in Tallahassee. But against USI, there wasn’t a change-up in the offing, perhaps as part of a strategic effort to reinforce holding up one-on-one.

Not all man-to-man defenses are created equal. You’ve assuredly heard of the pack line defense, the no-middle defense, and many other iterations. Some are compact. Others are aggressive. These clips give you a feel for how Dennis Gates’s Tigers will operate.

In a word: aggressively. While Mizzou lacks the kind of defensive length Gates helped coach at FSU, most of the Tigers have the kind of short-area quickness and agility to switch and rotate as the ball swings. In these clips, you’ll see how well it translates, and the stat sheet reflected it with 22 turnovers, including 12 steals.

That’s a great sign.

However, not all was clean on that end.

What do you see in these clips? Or, to be more precise, what’s not in these clips? Continuity.

When you flip a roster as dramatically as Gates did, players might have several years of experience — just not together. And while you drill the basics over the summer, hiccups are bound to happen, even for the seemingly mundane or rote tasks.

Like getting back in transition.

If you’re going to play an up-tempo game and apply pressure, finding your man in transition is imperative. Unfortunately, there were a couple of instances where an assignment was blown and immediately exploited or later after the defense rotated to compensate. And it was those open jumpers that kickstarted USI’s late surge.

A Bunker Mentality

When the pace slowed to a half-court game, Mizzou’s defense leaked a little oil at times as well. Such as glitches in switches.

In the above clip, the first play involves a missed switch, a communication lapse, or both, leading to Kaleb Brown defending two players. But the cause is rooted earlier in the possession when Noah Carter switched on to Lakes. Instead of trailing the shooter as he popped out, Carter stays in the restricted area. You can’t leave a mulleted Hoosier State shooter!

The second clip involves what appears to be a communication breakdown between Kaleb and Isiaih Mosley. And Lakes is open again. Finally, the third clip involves a well-conceived pick-and-roll offense putting Kobe Brown onto a much quicker dribbler — and a lesson that sometimes you tip your cap when the opposition runs good offense.

All things that are correctable and expected from a new team.

A Helping Hand

If you haven’t read our preseason coverage, I regret to inform you: This Tiger squad isn’t going to be a big team. But, in a pressure-oriented defensive system, that can cause issues.

If there’s any defensive issue that we should mark, it’s in these clips.

Let’s get into minutiae for a moment. To counteract its lack of size, it appears Mizzou has its help defender in the short corner rotating aggressively toward the paint. The first clip is a good example: see how D’Moi Hodge reacts quickly to assist Honor, who got caught guarding Powell on a switch. Notice how Powell immediately passes to a teammate in the corner, who puts the ball on the floor to drive a closeout?

Well, USI did. And in the second half, the Screagles started calling up a lot of middle ball screens to stress that pressure point. Those PNRs forced Brown and Carter to guard ball handlers in space, meaning those low help defenders were usually guards.

Maybe that help defender cut off the drive, but a kick out was easy. And USI wasn’t missing spot-ups:

  1. Don’t let the ball reach the paint
  2. Have the size and athleticism for the primary defenders to recover
  3. Have elite rotation ability among the off-ball defenders

Mizzou will be able to achieve the first and third objectives — as it gets more seat time. It also adds more context to Gates telling reporters he “cannot rescue them from situations that are going to teach us.”

While they were sorting it how, however, USI was taking advantage.