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The Verdict: The Chickenhawks come home to roost for Mizzou

If only for a day, the Tigers received a stark reminder that the road back to success and relevance is a bumpy one.

Kansas v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

Matt Harris (@MattJHarris85 on Twitter) and Matt Watkins (@DataMizzou) have shifted into game breakdown mode. Now that the data set has started to accumulate, and the schedule shifts into a higher difficulty mode we’re going to 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. Also, please note: the pre-game scouting reports were drafted prior to the game. They’re included as a guide to properly analyze performance through the prospective lens and not enjoy the benefit of hindsight.

Programming Note: Due to unforeseen technical difficulties, the film section will be absent. Honestly, you can thank us later.

Data Source: Synergy Sports and Ken Pomeroy.


Setting the Stage

On the afternoon of December 10, 2022, at 4:10 p.m. Central Standard Time, all was right with Mizzou Basketball. Mizzou Arena was packed to the rafters. The well-lubricated crowd was abuzz with anticipation. Both cheers and jeers rained down from Tiger supporters, depending on who was taking the floor for warmups.

It was Mizzou. It was Kansas. It was the Border Showdown War. If you had the fortune of witnessing a prior iteration of the contest, you knew it was back.

Twenty minutes later, the day was flatter than a Busch Light tossed aside in an arena trashcan.

The Tigers entered the game riding high. Buoyed by the softest of schedules, Mizzou had provided hope via a road victory at Wichita State. It wasn’t easy against the Shockers, but road wins rarely are. They had performed up to snuff against the scheduled wins, often laying beatdowns that teams only concerned with tournament seeding would be satisfied with.

Meanwhile, their foe came into Columbia sporting an 8-1 record. The makeup of that record was a bit different, with wins coming over annual contenders in Duke and Wisconsin, in addition to quality victories over North Carolina State and Seton Hall. Their lone setback was a 14-point drubbing by SEC colleague, Tennessee. Kansas had replaced their covetous feelings with simple disdain and returned to Columbia for the first time since 2012.

The opening minutes were electric with the teams volleying made baskets. And then the ice started to break. The Jayhawks, unphased by the atmosphere, hosted a clinic on defeating pressure, creating easy buckets and added in a dose of outlier shooting for good measure. The Tigers were never able to mount a legitimate push. They plunged into the cold waters. The day was shot.

A frustrating attempt at a return to basketball prominence (for those who checked out of the 2018 and 2021 seasons), but one that may serve only as a bump. Time will dictate the story of the Tigers return to the good ole days, as it always does.

Meanwhile, we’re here for the autopsy. We’ll start with the keys to the game I identified last week and dig into the guts of this disaster thereafter.

Kansas v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

The Scout: When Mizzou Has the Ball

  1. Pace of Play: A recurring theme from Wichita, you might notice. Kansas is perfectly content picking up the pace. However, the Jayhawks prefer to run on offense, and make their opponents settle in while defending. Kansas ranks 52nd fastest nationally on offensive possessions, where they rank 275th fastest defensively. The Jayhawks want to run when they have the ball, but they want a half-court game defensively. Mizzou? Warp speed all the time. The Tigers rank 9th and 65th respectively in those categories. Mizzou takes a huge share of possessions via transition and does so efficiently.
  2. Create Second Chances: There won’t be many occasions this year where I’ll point to offensive rebounding as an area where Mizzou can excel. Seize the day. Mizzou generates a fair number of put-back opportunities on the offensive end and converts them efficiently, though against a swath of overmatched opponents. Kansas allows a really high number of those same chances and opponents have done well in making them count. Mizzou ranks 95th nationally in offensive rebound rate and Kansas allows a rate defensively that ranks 177th. There’s an opportunity for Mizzou here.
  3. Get the Combo Forwards Involved in the Half Court: Here I’m speaking of Kobe Brown, Noah Carter, Aidan Shaw and Ronnie DeGray III. In terms of size, these teams match up similarly. Neither has a true post presence that’s going to dominate the game. Jalen Wilson is a highly skilled (and valuable) combo forward for Kansas. Mizzou has skill here as well. Whether it’s via playing through these players at the elbows or putting them in ball screen actions, pulling Wilson away from the basket does several things. One, it increases the chances of him picking up fouls. Two, it opens up cutting lanes for Tiger perimeter players. Mizzou has been incredibly efficient on cuts and Kansas has struggled somewhat in defending them. Three, if a ball screen causes a switch defensively, Mizzou forwards will have the opportunity to have a mismatch in attacking the rim.
Kansas v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

The Scout: When Kansas has the Ball

  1. Create Turnovers. Safely. Mizzou entered the game ranking 1st nationally in defensive steal rate while ranking 4th nationally in defensive turnover rate. The Jayhawks have protected the ball well, however, ranking 85th and 80th nationally in those respective categories. And they’ve done it against a pretty tough schedule. This is a necessary evil situation. Mizzou needs to create turnovers, either from a full-court press or in half-court trapping situations, for two reasons: First, it spurs their transition offense. Second, they haven’t been able to generate a lot of stops otherwise. But beware, Kansas has historically handled pressure well and they appear capable of doing so once again.
  2. Contain Kansas’s Ball Screen Offense. DaJuan Harris captains Kansas’s offense. Over 20% of KU’s possessions are used via ball screens. When included passes out of actions, the number is over 35%. Harris is the man typically on the ball. In fact, ball screen offense represents over two thirds of his offensive possessions used. Harris is a pass first point. He’ll look to score when the situation presents itself, but the goal is more often to find spot up opportunities or off-ball movement by their wings, Kevin McCullar and Gradey Dick (what a name!) You’ll also see Jalen Wilson on the ball at times for inverted ball screens (guard screens for the big). Their goal here is simple, hunt the mismatch on the switch, or collapse the defense and spray the ball to the wings and corners for spot-ups. Mizzou has done well at the point of attack, limiting opposing ballhandlers to a miniscule efficiency rating on ball-handler offense. However, once the ball gets moving, Mizzou’s defensive rotations haven’t been consistent.
  3. Win the Paint. Dispensing with the need to re-hash the team size conversation, Kansas has been effective at both generating and converting rim attempts as well as grabbing offensive rebounds to continue possessions. Mizzou has defended the rim well, albeit against a soft schedule. They’ve also struggled mightily to clean the defensive glass, though they did well in Wichita. Kansas is good enough, and well-coached enough, that they’re going to get looks somewhere. Ideally, those aren’t at the rim on primary actions or kickouts off of second chances. Should Mizzou win the battle on the glass, limit the number of point-blank attempts (especially by Jalen Wilson) and rotate soundly so as to contest spot ups off of ball screen chances or second chance kickouts, they would be well-served to do so.
  4. Flash Some Zone? The Tigers have done well early on when going to a zone look defensively, allowing just 0.543 PPP. Nearly 12% of half-court defensive possessions have come in a zone. Meanwhile, Kansas hasn’t seen much of it and their efficiency lags a bit behind when facing a man defensive look. If the Tigers aren’t meeting their first three keys defensively, and maybe even if they are, Dennis Gates rolling out a few possessions of his funky, corners-lifted 2-3 look, or even a 1-3-1 half-court option may be in store.
Kansas v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

The Performance

Friends, it did not go well.

Pace of Play

Mizzou wasn’t able to get their transition offense up and running. Kansas turned Mizzou’s offense into a half-court unit and squeezed the daylights out of them when they were there.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Transition offense: 27.7% usage — 1.170 PPP (Points Per Play)
  • Kansas Pre-Game Transition defense: 15% usage — 0.907 PPP
  • Game Result: 18.2% usage — 0.625 PPP

The thing the Tigers did best was simply taken away from them. Both in volume and efficiency. There are a host of reasons for that, one of which will be discussed below. But Mizzou was forced to operate in the half-court, an area where they’ve been less effective. And less effective they were.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Half-Court Offense: 72.3% usage — 1.009 PPP
  • Kansas Pre-Game Half-Court Defense: 85% usage — 0.788 PPP
  • Game Result: 81.8% usage — 0.778 PPP

Create Second Chances

If there was a key the Tigers converted, it was here. Mizzou was indeed able to generate a fair number of second chances on the offensive glass.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Offensive Rebound Rate: 32.1%
  • Kansas Pre-Game Defensive Rebound Rate: 28.7%
  • Game Result: 30.8%

The Tigers didn’t dominate the offensive glass, but they did beat expectation.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Put-Back Offense: 6.7% usage — 1.208 PPP
  • Kansas Pre-Game Put-Back Defense: 7.6% usage — 1.222 PPP
  • Game Result: 9.1% — 0.500 PPP

You’ll see the Tigers actually were above expectation in opportunities from easy second-chance buckets. They simply didn’t convert. They left 4-6 points on the table compared to the norm.

Combo Forward Prominence

The Tigers fell flat here as well. The quartet of Noah Carter, Kobe Brown, Aidan Shaw and Ronnie DeGray sang the blues, posting a cumulative stat line of:

  • Minutes: 74
  • Two Point FG: 5-13
  • Three Point FG: 1-5
  • Free Throws: 5-6
  • Assists: 0
  • Rebounds: 16
  • Turnovers: 5
  • Fouls: 7

What needed to be a strength turned into a weakness. When Mizzou plays in the half-court, these players are expected to be the “hub” of the offense. If they’re not scoring, they’re passing to create scoring. They’re often asked to be the playmakers, especially Brown and Carter. The group wasn’t able to make plays or much of anything, scoring 18 total points and providing no assists. If the Tigers weren’t going to score on the run, these players were who was going to make it happen. Especially with Isiaih Mosley occupying a seat for all 40 minutes.

Kansas v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

Turnover Creation Technical Difficulties

Where the Tigers have excelled this season, causing opponents to turn the ball over, turned only into an unmitigated disaster on Saturday. The numbers are stomach-turning.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Press Defense: 33% usage — 0.765 PPP
  • Kansas Pre-Game Press Offense: 7.7% usage — 1.000 PPP
  • Game Result: 32.8% usage — 1.120 PPP

The Tigers succeeded only in creating easy scoring chances for Kansas when rolling out any form of extended pressure. Furthermore, when we look at open court scoring opportunities:

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Transition Defense: 22.2% usage — 0.938 PPP
  • Kansas Pre-Game Transition Offense: 18.8% usage — 1.163 PPP
  • Game Result: 23.8% usage — 1.650 PPP (Not a Typo)

The Jayhawks simply obliterated the Tigers in the open floor and did it with frequency. It was doubly bad in that the Tigers were ineffective in attempting to apply pressure in the half-court as well, because they were gashed by cutting actions which often used their aggressive ball-denial defense against them:

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Cut Defense: 8.1% usage — 1.031 PPP
  • Kansas Pre-Game Cut Offense: 7.0% usage — 1.280 PPP
  • Game Result: 17.9% usage — 1.267 PPP

*Insert burning dumpster gif.*

Kansas scored 19 points on 15 possessions when shedding aggressive or lost Tiger defenders.

What’s more? Mizzou only forced a defensive turnover rate of 18.4% and a steal rate of 6.6%. Both are so far from their season averages they require a passport. Entering the game Mizzou had posted a 27.8% defensive turnover rate and 18.4% steal rate, if you were wondering. They didn’t get steals and they gave up easy buckets in exchange. The worst transaction. And the lack of turnovers forced directly impacted their transition offensive opportunities.

Mizzou gave up 6 points above expectation in press situations. They gave up 12 points above expectation in transition defense. And they gave up a whopping 11 points above expectation on cutting actions. One can’t simply add those numbers together since there are plays that fall under multiple categories. But you can safely say that at least half of the final deficit was caused by Mizzou’s pressure defense being nullified and turned into a destructive weapon against them.

Kansas v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

Ball-Screen Defense Implosion

The second big area Mizzou needed to hold serve on defensively was moderating the efficiency of Kansas’s ball screen offense. It was another system breakdown:

Pre-Game Mizzou Ball Screen (Including Passes) Defense: 18.8% usage — 0.819 PPP

Pre-Game Kansas Ball Screen (Including Passes) Offense: 35.7% usage — 0.867 PPP

Game Result: 15.48% usage — 1.538 PPP

You may notice, and correctly so, Kansas does appear to have “used” this offense as much. You’re correct in reading! But beware: Ball screen offense plus the corresponding pass-outs are limited to offense up to and including that first pass. In other words, once a ball screen is set, only the ballhandler’s offense plus the result of the first pass away player’s offense are included in the stat. When Kansas would pass out, they often whipped the ball around the court with multiple subsequent passes, spinning Mizzou’s rotations into the abyss. Truman descended from the rafters before the game, Dorothy and Toto came down after.

The cutting numbers above? Some started as ball screen sets. Kansas’s 45% three-point shooting? Some started as ball-screens before multiple passes were made to find a wide-open jump shooter. Kansas attempted 26 jump shots. 20 were catch and shoot jumpers and 18 of those 20 were open. They sprinkled in some passes to the roll-man for good measure, tallying 4 points on 3 chances there.

“There’s no place like home?”

Kansas Owned the Paint

Not only did Mizzou NOT win the paint. They lost it. Decisively. Most of the reasons WHY are covered in the preceding two sections. This section simply runs an accounting of the damage.

Kansas attempted 39 two-point field goals. 33 of those attempts were at the rim. They converted 23-33 on said rim attempts. Several of those attempts are juiced by the volleyball Kansas played on their few misses. Mizzou, a team that prides itself in both preventing rim points defensively and having their way at the rack offensively, was outscored 46-28 from point blank range.

Check, waiter.

Kansas v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

Flash Some Zone

I cringe writing this section. An oft-cited fix to the ills of a struggling defense, playing zone requires pieces that fit, practice doing so and matchups that call for it (save for Syracuse who meets the first two qualifications in spades).

However, I do think this matchup may have called for it. At least more of it. Dennis Gates has shown the zone defense more than most coaches in America. It’s a tool in his bag dating back to Cleveland State and during his time in Tallahassee. Furthermore, Kansas was cutting Mizzou’s pressure man apart with startling efficiency. The Jayhawks were getting to the rim with ease. Mizzou was also struggling to contain Kansas’s ball screen game.

The biggest culprit? Poor defensive rotations once the ball got moving.

The easiest way to mitigate ball screens opening up backdoors and open jumpers caused by faulty rotations? Take away the need for rotations. A zone can do that.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Zone Defense: 11.3% usage — 0.543 PPP
  • Kansas Pre-Game Zone Offense: 1.9% usage — 0.909 PPP
  • Game Result: 7.8% usage — 0.800 PPP

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Man Defense: 88.7% usage — 0.832 PPP
  • Kansas Pre-Game Zone Offense: 98.1% usage — 0.913 PPP
  • Game Result: 92.2% usage — 0.983 PPP

It’s certainly true that Kansas was shooting the ball well from outside. It’s also true that they have versatile forwards who can pass the ball and collapse zones from the free throw line. Both are granted. But if you’re giving up open threes and an excessive amount of high-quality rim attempts anyway?

It’s possible that Coach Gates was using this game for other reasons. After all, it was a 20-point shellacking a minute into the second half. Perhaps if the game was closer, the strategy changes? There could be a multitude of factors contributing to that decision. It’s less a criticism and more of a question. In the end, Mizzou gave it a shot for only five possessions. The results in those possessions weren’t perfect, but they were about as good as it got defensively on Saturday.