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The Verdict: Mizzou Hoops Dominates Braggin’ Rights

History repeated itself for the second game in a row. But this time it was very different.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Data Sources: Synergy Sports and Ken Pomeroy


Setting the Stage

The Braggin’ Rights game has been played annually in St. Louis since 1983, absent a brief COVID-induced departure in 2020. It also represents arguably my favorite event on the sports calendar. A mix between the holiday excitement, a bowl game type atmosphere — a good bowl, not the Gasparilla — and two regional rivals vying for a massively oversized trophy simply pushes all of the right buttons.

And it’s even better when Mizzou puts their size 12s up the Chief’s hind-parts.

This year’s iteration featured a freshly remade Tigers squad led by Dennis Gates squaring off with the Fightin’ Illini of Illinois, led by Brad “Daddy Brad” Underwood. The hopes of Tiger fans braving the tremendously terrible weather were likely reasonable — keep the contest competitive.

Mizzou did not do that. Not even close. They humiliated the 16th ranked team from Champaign.

A year ago, Mizzou limped into the contest having suffered some pretty tough losses. The Illini proceeded to lead by as many as 37 points midway through the second half before winning by 25.

This year? The Tigers dropped a 22-3 run in the first half to take a commanding 51-27 lead at the break. That lead ballooned to 74-39 in the second half, a 35-point edge. Mizzou would win by 22.

They were the same game. Just radically different for the bundled-up black and gold supporters.

It was a stunning beatdown that may shift the conversation on what this Tiger team is capable of in the 22-23 season. We’ll cross that bridge at another point, if necessary. However, if Mizzou’s season involves playing on a CBS network affiliate in late March, this game will have helped them get there. Although Illinois was not playing good basketball at the Enterprise Arena, they have built a top-line resume with which few compare — they currently own neutral site victories over the #4 and #6 teams in the country in UCLA and Texas.

What this means for the Tigers’ prospects this year remains to be seen. We’ll know more in short order with the Tigers facing Kentucky and Arkansas in their next two contests.

What we do know is Mizzou landed a knockout blow against the heavily favored Illini and notched the Tigers’ largest win in the history of the rivalry. And they did so by killing it in all of the key areas necessary.

And that’s the focus of this series. We’ll start with those areas identified pre-game that would be necessary for a win.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Scout: When Mizzou Has the Ball

  1. Attack the Pressure: In a 180-degree change from recent games, tempo is not Illinois’ enemy. It’s their friend. The Illini are indeed flyin’ once again. While many of Illinois’ defensive metrics are good, one that sticks out to me is their commitment to pressing opponents. They do it nearly as frequently as Mizzou and perform extremely well when doing so. Their turnover creation rate ranks 34th nationally. They create live ball turnovers. They run when they get them. Mizzou hasn’t been pressured much, but it appears they will be. How they handle it, how well they protect the ball and how often they’re able to beat the defense down the floor and score in transition will be major components in the outcome.
  2. Shoot it Well: That’s right, you’ll only get this hard-hitting analysis from your friends Matt & Matt! As you might imagine from the preceding key, Illinois is an athletic bunch. They’re also some big dudes. Their starting lineup has four guys standing between 6’6” and 6’10”. These little factoids lead to a predictable conclusion: they’ve defended the rim well. Really well. Illinois’ opponents have been on the struggle bus on rim conversion attempts. Unless Mizzou is able to beat Illinois down the floor, Mizzou will have to generate offense from outside to remain competitive. Take heart! While Illinois doesn’t allow a large number of catch and shoot jumpers or spot-up opportunities, they do struggle with contesting them. Opponents have dented the Illini defense pretty well.
  3. Find a Hero: You never want to go into a game with a key to victory needing some dude to be a hero. This isn’t quite that, but it’s not far off. Illinois’ defense has proven to be stout. They jam up ball screens, they choke off post touches and off-ball actions have yielded little. They’ve been a pretty impressive unit. They have struggled a bit comparatively with one-on-one isolation plays, while Mizzou has a maestro in these scenarios. Will that matchup even happen, or will he be logging minutes on the bench? We’ll see. Javon Pickett ain’t walking through that door this year, so the Tigers need someone to be that guy with a flamethrower.
NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Scout: When Illinois has the Ball

  1. Bring the ‘Paign. Cheesy? Yes. Trademarked? Maybe! No matter, getting Illinois out of its comfort zone will be paramount. The Illini haven’t faced a lot of pressure defense. When they have, they’ve struggled. They rate 283rd nationally in offensive turnover rate and 215th in offensive steal rate. Their points per possession against pressure nose dives. Unlike Kansas, the Illini’s marks in transition aren’t great. However, anyone can make open layups. Brad Underwood’s squad has been effective at getting behind the defense on overplays, however. There’s always going to be some risk in this pressure-creation strategy.
  2. Force Illinois Out of the Paint. Easier said than done. The bulk of Illinois’ offensive efficiency comes from inside the arc. They’re an effective cutting team, their pick and roll offense has been effective and they’ve been shockingly good in isolation. Furthermore, they’re an elite offensive rebounding unit. On the other hand, they’ve struggled comparatively on outside jump shooting. We’ve heard this story before though: Opponent X has outlier shooting performance against Mizzou. In Thursday’s contest, if Mizzou isn’t creating turnovers AND Illinois is hitting from deep, it’s simply going to be a long night. Because this Tiger defense can’t cover everything. Few can. For proof, Illinois defeated defensive wunderkind and temporary ward of the Travis County Jail, Chris Beard. Prevent the easier opportunities and take your chances.
  3. Find the Right Mix. For the dozen or so avid readers of this feature, you’ll know that Mizzou ran with their man-to-man defense against Kansas. Against UCF? They displayed a hefty portion of zone. This came in the form of a 1-2-2 press, a 1-3-1 half-court scheme that could shift to man, and a funky 2-3 zone that Dennis Gates has shown in prior years. There’s some virtue in changing defenses for the sake of confusing the offense, no matter the scheme’s quality. There’s the drawback of confusing yourself. Against Illinois, finding the right defense to achieve points #1 and #2 will be big. Springing it at the right times will be even bigger.
NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Performance

In reviewing the data of this contest, I was floored at how much it resembled that of a recent Tiger game: The Kansas victory over Mizzou just two and a half weeks ago. The victors in each case simply dominated across the board.

Attack the Pressure

In the pre-game keys, I pointed out that Mizzou needed to attack the pressure the Illini would inevitably bring. Dennis Gates’s crew treated Illinois’ pressure like a fat kid does cake. The Tigers simply devoured Daddy Brad’s team in the open court.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Press Offense: 6.5% Usage (% of Possessions) — 0.979 PPP (Points/Possession)
  • Illinois Pre-Game Press Defense: 32.8% Usage — 0.616 PPP
  • Result: 44.9% Usage — 1.129 PPP

Mizzou not only bested Illinois’ season average in efficiency defense via the press — they bested their own — a figure compiled against a relatively weak schedule. What Mizzou did Thursday night was illegal in 37 states. And it wasn’t just when facing the press that Mizzou excelled. The absolutely dominated the open court game offensively.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Transition Offense: 26.4% Usage — 1.157 PPP
  • Illinois Pre-Game Transition Defense: 20.7% Usage — 0.929 PPP
  • Result: 27.3% Usage — 1.381 PPP

The Tigers netted 29 points on 21 transition possessions. Kansas scored 33 on 20 possessions just two weeks ago. It was a dramatic role reversal. Mizzou excelled in ball security as well, posting a turnover rate of 14.5%, losing the ball just 10 times in 69 possessions. Nice! This was an important factor, as Illinois had caused turnovers on 23.2% of opponents’ possessions prior to Braggin’ Rights.

Given how MU slowly increased its defensive pressure, it’s understandable that the transition game took some time to crank up. Once it did, though, the Tigers feasted. Illinois’ two primary initiators – Skyy Clark and Coleman Hawkins – struggle with ball security, which shows on film. Hawkins, in particular, had a brutal evening. Yet the Tigers were also heady in stripping the ball from Dain Dainja in the post or forcing Terrence Shannon Jr. into a bad giveaway after he forced a baseline drive. And this led directly to open court chances.

Mizzou was also able to create early-clock opportunities that didn’t technically qualify as transition buckets. Dennis Gates has preached that the first 8-10 seconds belong to the players, and they didn’t miss.

Shoot it Well

You win some, you lose some. In this case, I did both. I spoke glowingly of Illinois’ interior defensive prowess and the need to hit shots from the perimeter to have a chance. On the one hand, Mizzou did shoot it well from outside. They hit for 10-20 three-point attempts which were a big component of the game. A big part of that was converting on catch and shoot opportunities.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Catch & Shoot Offense: 73.2% of Jumpers — 1.103 PPP
  • Illinois Pre-Game Catch & Shoot Defense: 51.4% of Jumpers — 1.042 PPP
  • Result: 60.7% of Jumpers — 1.765 PPP

Mizzou dinged the Illini for 30 points on 17 catch and shoot opportunities. Two weeks ago, Kansas notched 24 points on 20 opportunities. Mizzou actually did BETTER on converting the most premium opportunities.

And then there was the part where I was wrong. Mizzou absolutely eviscerated the interior of the Illini defense. Part of this could be attributed to Mizzou shooting it well. Covering the entire court defensively is difficult, after all. But no. No, I choose to give the credit where it’s due. Dennis Gates and his team executed with incredible efficiency around the cup. Mizzou finished 24-39 inside the arc and 17-25 at the rim.

Mizzou scored 11 points on six post-up opportunities. Rollers on ball screens notched six points on four possessions. Even Mizzou’s ballhandlers graded out well above average. But the biggest area where Mizzou succeeded was in the most efficient form of offense: Cuts. The Tigers were incredible at moving away from the ball and then delivering timely and accurate passes leading to easy buckets.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Cut Offense: 7.0% Usage — 1.364 PPP
  • Illinois Pre-Game Cut Defense: 6.7% Usage — 0.950 PPP
  • Result: 15.9% Usage — 1.538 PPP

Mizzou sliced and diced Illinois until all that was left was a meatless carcass. Fortunately for Illinois, the sub-zero temperatures prevented the smell of the rotten remains to permeate the facility. Mizzou tallied 19 points on 12 cuts. Two weeks ago, Kansas netted 19 points on 15 attempts. It’s staggering how similar their outings were. And folks, do we have some film for you on this point...

Anybody who watches Illinois sees this situation: the Illini go through the motions switching an off-ball screen and leaving a gap. Well, MU followed the lead of Penn State and Texas. Here, the Tigers enter the ball to Kobe Brown at the elbow, and he hits DeGray slipping to the rack.

Again, the Illini were a mess off the ball. This set, a staple in MU’s offense, shows how. After a guard cuts vertically to the top of the key, a pair of actions unfold. On one side, MU runs a down screen. On the other, there’s a flare screen. Nothing fancy. The first cut-up again shows the Illini botching the switch on the down screen, letting Brown slip free for a dunk. And in the second, Tre Gomillion drives baseline off the flare, draws help, and dumps the ball off to DeGray.

The mechanics of this set aren’t complex. On the strong side of the floor, MU runs an elevator screen. That decoy action draws the defense’s attention while a cutter bolts backdoor on the empty side. Gates has used this set as an option for an in-bounds play after a timeout, which is precisely the case in the first cut-up. But what’s different is to see it used as part of a typical offensive possession. Either way, it still exploits Illinois’ slipshod defensive work off the ball.

As a season progresses, it’s sometimes necessary to tweak sets to counter tendencies in a scouting report. That’s what we see here with MU’s horns set. Often, the Tigers have one big dive from an elbow while the other pops out. Or one will dive while the other steps out to set a ball screen. Against Illinois, though, the Tigers incorporated an Iverson cut, made famous by a certain point guard, who would run laterally over the top of both bigs and hope to shed his defender.

It helps DeAndre Gholston sprint into an empty-side rim attack while two shooters rotate to fill behind him. The result: an easy pitch backward to tee up a 3-ball from D’Moi Hodge. But the second clip is more satisfying. Hodge uses the AI cut to set up a split cut with DeGray while the ball is thrown to Brown at the elbow. Illinois botches the switch, leaving DeGray with an open catch-and-shoot.

Basketball can be any easy game. Pass and move. Pass and move. Dennis Gates’ attention to the beautiful game is on display here.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Find a Hero

Mizzou did indeed find its hero. It may not have needed one, but it got one anyway. Kobe Brown dominated the game in a way that even drew a standing applause from Javon Pickett. Brown notched 31 points (a Mizzou Braggin’ Rights record), 5 rebounds, 8 assists and 5 steals. Kobe has popped for big games before, but never on this stage. Let’s just “roll that beautiful bean footage...”

How do we know MU took ample lessons from Maryland and Penn State topping Illinois? The Tigers’ game plan was rooted in using Kobe Brown in situations similar to Jalen Pickett and Donta Scott. That meant hunting mismatches, especially using dribble-handoffs to isolate Brown on smaller guards like Clark and use the empty side of the floor to back him down.

Heading into the game, we worried what might happen when Illinois deployed a traditional big like Dainja. Well, MU kept it simple at times. For example, Brown is spaced to the top of the key, pulling Dainja to the perimeter. Brown uses his footspeed on the kick-out to slash into a middle gap and earn a 3-point play.

When MU did dial up sets to exploit Dainja on Brown, they were barebones. Like these pick-and-pops. In the first instance, Dainja gives ground to avoid a blow-by. Brown uses that room to take one dribble into a jumper. And the second clip shows what happens when Dainja tries to recover back to Brown after playing in drop coverage. Illinois fell directly into Kobe’s...Dainja zone. Moving on...

Brown also created opportunities for himself by running the floor in transition, like this 3-ball deep in the corner.

Every once in a while, you’re just in a zone. Kobe never left it.

Bring the ‘Paign

Mizzou’s defense as a whole this season hasn’t been great. With their offensive prowess, “good enough,” is an effective goal. Mizzou’s performance against Illinois was more than that. Their ability to create turnovers, disrupt Illinois’ offensive flow via pressure defense and not give up easy buckets while doing so was key.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Press Defense: 34.7% usage — 0.824 PPP
  • Illinois Pre-Game Press Offense: 7.1% usage — 0.788 PPP
  • Result: 31.8% Usage — 0.591 PPP

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Defensive Turnover Rate: 26.6%
  • Illinois Pre-Game Offensive Turnover Rate: 20.9%
  • Result: 24.7%

What’s more, in accumulating these impressive numbers, Mizzou wasn’t giving up easy buckets in transition or via cuts on overplays.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Transition Defense: 22.5% Usage — 1.009 PPP
  • Illinois Pre-Game Transition Offense: 20.1% Usage — 0.946 PPP
  • Result: 19.32% Usage — 0.647 PPP

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Cut Defense: 9.2% Usage — 1.034 PPP
  • Illinois Pre-Game Cut Offense: 8.0% Usage — 1.324 PPP
  • Result: 4.5% Usage — 0.500 PPP

The Tigers squeezed the life out of Illinois’ offense and were never made to pay. Mizzou’s ability to both create turnovers and disruption of Illinois’ offense were massive reasons why they themselves were so effective in the open court (see above for film/data).

While you can applaud MU’s overall defensive effort, opponents can still find quality shots if they get ahead of the Tigers’ pressure. The Illini were able to do that early on, but once MU started knocking down shots, it set up a token 2-2-1 press that choked off Illinois’ supply. It’s a prime example of complementary basketball. Making shots let MU set up its defense, capitalizing on calculated risks to create transition chances for the Tigers. Ironically, it’s precisely what Kansas did to MU in the Border War.

Force Illinois Out of the Paint

Mizzou’s interior metrics weren’t great. They allowed Illinois a 50% offensive rebound rate, which is fairly unsightly. They also allowed Illinois to convert 15 of 22 rim attempts. What they did do, however, was to cause the Illini to try to beat them from outside.

Spoiler alert: Illinois didn’t. They collectively shot 7-31 (22.5%) from beyond the arc. Mizzou forced Illinois to take jump shots at a 5% higher rate than compared to their season average. And they required Illinois to beat them off jumpers on the catch, instead of driving into the interior.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Catch & Shoot Defense: 67.4% of Jumpers — 1.094 PPP
  • Illinois Pre-Game Catch & Shoot Offense: 69.1% of Jumpers — 0.948 PPP
  • Results: 74.3% of Jumpers — 0.692 PPP

Mizzou has been strafed on catch and shoot opportunities all season long. Their pre-game points/possession allowed was unsightly. No matter, the hedged their bets here and won. Of importance, roughly 61% of Tiger opponents’ catch and shoots coming in were uncontested. Illinois only generated 42% open catch and shoots. The Tigers forced Illinois outside and made them shoot through coverage. It was really a remarkable job by the Tiger defense, to quote a pigskin Braggin’ Rights legend, Gary Pinkel.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Find the Right Mix

Folks, we’ve kept you long enough in this edition. I’m going to punt for the day, but don’t worry. My esteemed colleague is penning a piece detailing Mizzou’s evolving defensive strategy as we speak. The Illinois game will undoubtedly be covered in great depth there. We’ll leave you with a few film clips to hold you over.

What’s important to understand is MU engaged in escalation. They started in a conservative form of 1-3-1, stilting Illinois’ early flow offensively.

After a couple of minutes, MU shifted into a softer form of man that, at times, looked like a matchup zone. On switches, MU gave room for players to go through and sagged off. As a result, defenders off the ball are playing one pass away and not in heavy denial.

Finally, MU transitioned to its usual man-to-man look. That meant playing at the level of the screen in pick-and-rolls. Away from the ball, defenders are playing tighter to the Illini. And you started to see more aggressive forms of help defense, like Nick Honor digging down for a tie-up in the third clip.

But what’s notable is how timely MU communicated switches and rotated off the ball. That shows up in the first clip. And in the second snippet, we can see what timely help defense looks when Illinois tries to run a pressure-release set – one they likely borrowed from Kansas – only to have Ronnie DeGray III greet Clark at the rim.

And with that, we’ll call it a wrap. We hope you’re enjoying these deep dives...emphasis on deep. Drop us a comment if there’s something you would like to see. We love doing this, but ultimately, we’re here for you.