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The Verdict: Mizzou’s Remodeling Project is Underway

The Tigers showed us the foundation of how they will play under coach Dennis Gates during a 3-0 stretch over five days.

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: different 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.

Missouri sits at 4-0 after what we’d describe very diplomatically as a soft opening to the Dennis Gates era. Of course, it wasn’t so long ago this kind of start was commonplace. For example, the Tigers made it an annual occurrence between 2010 and 2014. Since then, however, it has happened once: a 6-0 start to the COVID-impacted 2020-21 campaign.

It’s easy to be snarky or take smooth starts for granted.

For the record: we don’t.

MU also packed those victories into a compressed window, snagging three in five days. One was a hard-fought victory against Penn, a potential favorite in the Ivy League. The other two? Relative romps over Lindenwood and SIU-Edwardsville. While the roster may have a bit of a Horizon League vibe, the schedule certainly has had a bit of an Ohio Valley Conference vibe.

It’s also ideal for getting a macro sense of the program’s approach under Gates. And in this installment of The Verdict, we’ll show you several themes — and superlatives — that have emerged. We’ve grouped these cut-ups to give you a better feel for the schematic principles, player rotations, and individual skillsets that Gates and his staff deploy.

Also, it allows our resident clip master, Professor Harris, some time to sleep.

What you’ll see isn’t gospel, though. We’re still sorting out its blueprint and how well it executes plans. This edition is also lighter on intensely mined stats. Sample sizes are tiny. And that’s an enemy of drawing accurate conclusions.

We’re also going to ignore the outsized elephant in the room: Isiaih Mosley’s healthy DNP against Penn. In the past two games, he’s logged 14 minutes and 23 minutes, respectively. So, if there was a misunderstanding — or a message being sent — it appears resolved. The remaining bit of intrigue is how Mosley operates when on the floor. That topic would have swamped this space. So, Matt Harris will cover it Sunday.

Now, let’s dig in.

Base of Operations: Offensive Sets

We begin by reflecting back on the Penn affair. Early on, MU deluged the Quakers in catch-and-shoot 3s, nearly drowning them before the first media time out. Penn adjusted, though, shifting between a pack-line defense to clog up gaps and a 1-3-1 zone that would extend and trap the corners. And just for good measure, coach Steve Donahue deployed more aggressive ball-screen coverage for certain ball handlers.

And that’s where Nick Honor comes in. Let’s dive into that first.

If you read last week, you know this alignment and triggering action: a pass to a big at the pinch post. After entering the ball, Honor sets a down screen where the corner Tiger rejects and cuts baseline. So, what are we left with? An empty side.

Now, if the defender tending that cutter in the corner falls asleep, you’ve got a backdoor cut. But more often than not, the entry pass and cut are in service of spacing.

Next, Honor pops for the pass out. Then, the elbow forward sets a slot screen and roll. Both times Mizzou attempts to hit the roller. Both times, the Quaker defenses collapse on the roller. In the first clip, Diarra should convert, but in the second, Kobe Brown earns a pair of freebies for his trouble.

By now, you should know Honor’s assist rate isn’t gaudy. And he’s not destroying defenders with dribble moves. Instead, he’s about pace and feel. In the first clip, he slows down to keep his man from recovering in the trail position. That forces the big playing drop coverage to hold and creates a pocket space to drop the ball off to Diarra.

Also, look at the weak side help. Neither steps aggressively to the middle of the lane, so there’s no kick out to the opposite corner. This is why you add a guy like Honor: keen judgment and sound decisions.

Fast forward, and we see MU adjusting to Penn’s earlier tweaks. Each set uses a slightly different alignment, but all are based on setting a ball screen for Honor in the slot.

You might consider that ball screen a dummy action in the first clip. First, it forces Penn to switch, freeing up Noah Carter. It also engages a second defender in middle help, allowing D’Moi Hodge to bolt. Then, as Honor strings out his dribble, Carter veers and sets a down screen for Hodge. Pay. Dirt. An open catch-and-shoot.

In the second clip, the initiation is the same. Penn’s sitting in gaps, shrinking the floor and protecting the paint. Again, Honor’s read here is easy. His defender is sagging and starting to dip under Carter’s screen. Bingo. He rises and fires.

And finally, the third clip adds a rescreen in the second slot. Penn’s choice of drop coverage worked the first time. Not so much for the second. Now for a nerdy bit. Honor’s defender is fine trailing because he’s pushing the Tigers guard toward the sagging big. But that big has to hold until the guard is fully recovered. If there are two on the ball, somebody is open. The obvious answer: Carter.

The Northern Iowa transfer pops instead of rolling into a congested lane. Honor lassos a pass back to him. Usually the Penn defender in the corner would rotate, help the helper, and close down Carter. Doing so, though, leaves Hodge open for an open corner 3 or plenty of runway to take off and assault the rim. This is why shooting and proper spacing matter. The result is an open 3 for Carter.

It’s subtle but vitally important to note Penn did a great job Friday of protecting the rim. They held Mizzou to 12 made 2-point field goals. That’s half as many as any other Tiger game thus far. Mizzou adjusted. They hunted catch and shoots. They relied on Honor to manipulate the screen and find the open man. A plan executed to perfection.

Every coach has a unique lexicon for their sets. This one is a numeral: five. As in the number of fingers Gates and the point guard put up when calling it.

At its core, the series serves to generate post-up touches. The first clip shows us basic sequencing. The ball is entered into the nail. East runs off of staggered baseline screens and curls to receive the pass. Carter is the second screener, and he flips around to bury his defender on the left block — his preferred side of the lane — and go to work. While Carter didn’t convert, he still used a right hook shoot over his left shoulder, his proven method of success.

Now, a quick note. MU seems to run this action with Tre Gomillion or DeAndre Gholston receiving the initial pass. At least for Gomillion, it’s a spot where he has success using his strength to get his shoulders past a defender on a drive. Or he crab dribbles into a post-up. So, the other CSU transfer could break off a called play, operate in isolation, and get a bucket.

The second clip is the same setup, with Hodge coming over the screens to take a dribble handoff and ball screen from Gomillion. That action is denied. Mizzou once again had to execute from beyond the arc.

Instead of the baseline stagger in the third clip, Kobe passes out into another slot pick and roll. This causes Honor’s man to switch assignments. Honor attempts to exploit the bigger defender, but Penn’s paint defense forces the pass-out. Gomillion found space and hit the prime look.

Honor was on his game.

In the first edition of The Verdict, we introduced you to the “punch” play. Today, we present fist. It’s what a lead guard raises when initiating the action.

Fundamentally, a screen-the-screener play, it starts with Gomillion reversing the ball and angle cutting toward the block. Suppose he’s open for a post-up. Great. Dump it down. Don’t turn down a quick hitter at the rim.

Gomillion’s covered, though. So, MU reverses the ball for a second time, and it’s Aidan Shaw’s turn to try a similar angle cut to the block. But once Shaw clears Gholston, who is setting a screen, Kobe Brown sets a down screen for Gholston to pop out at the top of the key. Instead of launching a 3, he attacks an open seam for a layup.

Mizzou took some time to trot out sets against Lindenwood that we hadn’t seen in their first two affairs, but the goal remained the same: exploit the paint. They succeeded, and the results showed. They tallied 26 made two-point attempts on 36 opportunities, including a 20 of 25 effort on shots at the rim.

In this particular set, they’re running a continuity ball screen action. Think of continuity as another word pattern. It just keeps repeating and recycling. It’s also straightforward: passes on the perimeter are followed by ball screens until finding the desired matchup. Here, Gholston exploits a mismatch off the dribble, driving his smaller defender to the block extended. Shaw lifts to the wing on the weak side, and when his defender’s attention is elsewhere, the freshman darts to the restricted arc for the dish and finish.

Again, good offense isn’t always complex. MU is trying to set up a rip screen, where the strong side player on the block sets a back screen for a weak side perimeter player. Here that’s Gomillion and Kobe. Mizzou’s timing is a little off as Kobe flashed with his man buried under the rim. Honor momentarily gains an angle and gets the feed. Advantage: Mizzou. A half-hearted double team was no solution to Lindenwood’s struggle on this trip.

A Hodge-podge

D’Moi Hodge had a coming-out party on Tuesday night against SIU-Edwardsville. The fifth-year senior scored 30 points on a modest 19 field goal attempts. That he did it was good. How he did it was better.

This should be no surprise if you took the time to read our preview series. Hodge thrives on catch-and-shoot jumpers. It’s an area where his game really improved at Cleveland State. A year ago, on catch-and-shoot opportunities where he was left open, he turned 1.121 points per possession.

That’s well above average, and he’s once again up to his old tricks. Almost 65 percent of his overall attempts are catch-and-shoots, and he’s connecting at a 36.7 percent clip, per Synergy Sports.

The other aspect of D’Moi’s game that was superlative was his rim finishing ability. That’s especially true in the open floor. Last season, he was among the top 20 nationally in transition possessions, and his efficiency ranked in the 97th percentile.

That skill was also on full display against SIU. Hodge is a plus athlete and he has a nose for where to be on the break. When he leaked out last season, he put up almost 1.9 PPP, per Synergy Sports. He’s a great example of a modern wing: excels on catch and shoots, finishes in transition, provides excellent on-ball pressure, and operates at high efficiency.

Defense: The Fast and Furious

Mizzou’s man-to-man defense is different than it was under Cuonzo Martin. Both can be effective if played correctly, but they’re done differently. This first video gives you a taste of what we mean.

The Tigers are switching a lot. They’re not fighting through screens and hedging on every play. They switch religiously. Unless they know they can recover, they swap man assignments.

Additionally, they deny everything a pass away. They play up on their man to prevent the ball from quickly swinging around the perimeter. They help aggressively when the primary defender is in trouble. There’s beauty in the chaos that it creates.

None of these sets are full-court presses. Nor are there any traps. It’s simply a hyper-aggressive man-to-man half-court defense. This style disrupts the offenses flow and can lead to turnovers (see below). However, breakdowns do occur, which can also lead to easy buckets (also see below).

We’ll eventually start digging into the nuances, such as how Missouri opts to defend ball screens and specific scout-related tweaks. But these cut-ups give you a good sense of its overall vibe under Gates.

Defense: Disrupt The Flow

Mizzou predicates its defensive scheme on creating turnovers. We’ve written about this very topic in the past. Here it is in the flesh.

We start with MU throwing out a 2-2-1 press and marauding a ball-handler. After that, it’s a parade of half-court hounding. It begins with relentlessly pressuring a dribbler. You disrupt the timing of handoffs. You deflect passes after cutting off a driver. You see ball and man while staying in heavy denial against a cutter. And you send hard double teams to swarm bigs in the paint.

If there’s a way to generate ball insecurity by the opposition, Mizzou will try. Through four games, their defensive turnover rate is north of 26 percent. And that number is outstanding. This is how they do it.

Aside from creating headaches for executing offense, turnovers also, by definition, lose possession of the ball. Both are great things!

But what if we told you that they were also the purest form of offense generation?

Why is Mizzou succeeding at two-point opportunities? Why are they putting up absurd numbers on rim-finishing attempts?

This is big reason why. The Tigers create a ton of opportunities through their aggressive defense. Whether it’s full-court pressing, half-court trapping, or simply aggressive man-to-man defense, Mizzou is scoring through their defense.

Why doesn’t everyone do this?

Defense: Homework Assignments

To answer the pending question: Because it’s tough.

The Tigers have improved significantly over their first four games on the defensive end, but there have been bumps along the way. The biggest roadblocks have been defensive communication on screen coverages and the ensuing rotations off the ball.

One of the best ways to thwart aggressive pressure is to use the middle of the floor. As a bonus, it messes with help responsibilities for off-ball defenders. And imagine if your opponent also has occasional gaffes switching.

But unless you have a genuinely elite pass-first point guard, you can’t always create those problems with a bland pick-and-roll. It would help if you spiced it up. That’s what Penn and Lindenwood tried to do.

Let’s begin with Penn. The Quakers opted for a Spain pick-and-roll — or sometimes called Stack. The concept, imported from Europe, isn’t hard to break apart.

  • Step 1: Set a middle ball screen
  • Step 2: Have another player immediately set a screen for the would-be roller
  • Step 3: Mess with the defense’s mind

You can see the general concept in the first clip. That possession, though, was done in by a side pick-and-roll later on when no one tagged a roller heading to the rim. It leads to an easy bucket.

The second clip is the same play. If you didn’t notice it the first time, the Quakers have Jonah Charles, the top 3-point threat, popping or flaring after setting the screen. In some ways, it’s another form of roll-and-replace. Gomillion and Carter cut off the dribbler. Kobe Brown tags the first screener rolling to the rim. Nobody has Charles.

And it’s not broken, don’t fix it. After being beaten on a kick-out and a roller pass in the earlier plays, Mizzou attempts to play this one straight up. Coming over the screen, Carter is a step behind, and his man can get to the rim for a conversion.

Penn tried varying looks to get Mizzou’s man defense to move and recover. The results were several high-quality attempts.

Lindenwood eyed the same opportunity to get Mizzou’s defense moving but did it differently. They were running variations of the horns set, based around an alignment that stations one player at each elbow and one player in each corner.

The first clip is as simple as it gets. Show a ball screen and then run a rub screen on the helper. In this case, it was Kobe Brown. If it looks like offensive pass interference, that’s precisely the plan.

The second clip is another horns action. East aggressively helps off the weakside wing to cut off the dribble penetration from the top of the key. Lindenwood was looking for just that. A pass is whipped from the paint to a wide-open jump shooter before Kaleb Brown can fully rotate.

The third clip may be the best example of the strategy. A screen and roll start Mizzou’s defense moving. Gomillion leaves his man to tag the roller as he veers to the bucket. His man pops, causing East to help over. Remember: two on the ball means somebody is alone. Realizing this, a miscommunication ensues. Both help back to the wing. No one is left to stop the ball.

In the last clip, Carter helps off his man, who ducks to the block to help Kobe contain the ballhandler.

The last two videos are extensions of the same theme: get the Tiger defense moving in the half-court. A team with many new faces requires a little time to acclimate and iron out communication. Team defense is a skill, and Mizzou’s working to master it.