sOn Saturday, Vanderbilt’s theoretical time of death arrived with 13:18 left in the second half. At that moment, Missouri’s Kobe Brown had just finished mashing down a missed D’Moi Hodge layup, capping a 19-4 surge and pushing the Tigers to a 53-42 lead.
But when the horn sounded, anyone watching No. 20 Mizzou’s 85-82 victory probably felt more relief than joy.
That’s what happens when you spend would-be garbage time trying to collaborate in a comeback. Poring over the film, a viewer could easily snip 20 snafus for teaching tape. It’s a collection defined by diversity, and no moment encapsulates the whole.
It starts with Vandy center Liam Robbins tiptoeing the sideline, breaking the press, and pinging a pass to a cutting Jordan Wright. Next, the Tigers lose track of three shooters in as many transition possessions. Sometimes, MU defenders fail to contain a dribbler at the point of attack and cede a gap. And even when coach Dennis Gates’ crew knuckled down for a stop, its undersized rotation frequently failed to shag misses, giving Vandy a plus-10 edge on the offensive glass.
When it was over, the Tigers tumbled 27 spots to No. 184 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. As of Tuesday, just four high-majors – Florida State, Notre Dame, Louisville, and Georgetown – were rated lower, a quartet that’s a combined 20-45 this season. Notching victories over UCF, Illinois, and Kentucky – and building a solid team sheet – created optimism and momentum. Pulling it off, though, has meant MU’s potent offense, a blend of pace and Princeton concepts, now serves as a sump pump.
Last weekend, we saw what happens when it craps out. With MU turning toward the back half of the regular season, starting tonight at Texas A&M, the lingering concern is how often it happens – and whether it drowns postseason aspirations.
Plotting MU’s defensive efficiency leaves little room for doubt. Since wrapping up a soft opening, the trend lines in the half-court and transition have steadily climbed. In its seven games against KenPom top-100 opponents, MU has allowed 0.938 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports tracking data. That’s equivalent to 328th nationally. Meanwhile, only one of those opponents, Kansas, ranks higher than 109th in offensive efficiency.
There’s also a dark irony. Early in non-conference play, folks fretted about MU’s ability to guard the 3-point line. Yet those shots are prone to wild swings in variance night to night, and throughout a season, most teams see those percentages regress toward the Division I median. Currently, opponents knock down 34 percent of their catch-and-shoot attempts from behind the arc – or just 0.4 percentage points above the median.
MU’s proficiency in guarding spot-ups has improved as its schedule ramped up. However, a closer inspection of play-type data clarifies where the seepage occurs. For example, opponents briefly got traction by cutting hard. That’s understandable. Mizzou’s defensive scheme relies on off-ball defenders to play in heavy denial. As a response, their man counters an overplay by bolting back door. Meanwhile, MU’s aggressive help rotations to cut off dribble penetration in a middle gap creates room for dump-offs.
Steadily, MU deployed its countermeasure: a zone that uses a 1-3-1 alignment but incorporates some 2-3 principles. The dosage depended on the opponent, but the mashup made it harder for opponents to pick the Tigers apart in middle ball screens, allowed MU to remain gap-sound and forced opponents to settle for contested mid-range shots. And at worst, it was a firebreak to slow an opponent during a run.
Still, it’s been hard to plug all the leaks. So again, let’s use play-type data as our guide. It might be hard to see among the jagged lines, but MU is more vulnerable in transition. Kansas feasted on the break, and Arkansas used those touches to expand its lead midway through the second half. And against Vandy, the same issue reared its head.
Often transition defense starts when your team hoists up a shot. A player might rotate back and spring to the paint to prevent a leak out. Next, you stop the ball and try to force it toward one side of the floor. Once you’ve protected the lane, halted the ball, and pushed it to one side, off-ball defenders close gaps.
Sometimes, though, MU fails to do any or all the above. Moreover, almost half of its shots a 3-pointers. Long shots tend to produce long misses – and can spur secondary breaks.
You won’t be surprised by the other source of frustration: rebounding. Functionally, MU’s rotation is the smallest among high-major programs. Mizzou ranks 356th nationally in defensive rebound rate, and SEC opponents snatch almost half their misses. KenPom top-100 teams are averaging 1.184 PPP on putbacks, an efficiency rating equivalent to 319th in Division I.
It would be understandable if the Tigers fought but still came up on the losing end of 50-50 balls. But there are times when they don’t even get a body on a free runner toward the rim. Over the past four games, Illinois (1.125 PPP), Kentucky (1.100 PPP), Arkansas (1.444 PPP), and Vanderbilt (1.333 PPP) have feasted on second chances.
Lastly, we should keep close tabs on how well perimeter defenders hold up in ball screens. Facing higher-caliber foes, MU has allowed 1.108 PPP, per Synergy data. That would be the worst nationally if carried for an entire season. Fortunately, opponents only generate a handful of scoring attempts out of those actions each game.
However, it’s not comforting to see what happens against a team like Vanderbilt, which grades out well in those situations, gets two feet in the paint with such relative ease. Sometimes, their guards didn’t even need a screen to get downhill.
There’s not much slack left in the rope, either. Once we strip out garbage time, Mizzou’s offense posts 1.154 PPP against high-quality opposition, according to data compiled by EvanMiya.com. That raw efficiency would currently rank No. 8 in KenPom. Even then, the Tigers only own a 7.3 net rating in those games. By comparison, MU finished with a 32.7 net rating in buy games.
Does the schedule offer some relief? Eventually. Five of MU’s next six opponents are above average on the break, and three of them — Florida, Ole Miss, and Iowa State — can punish you on the glass. But if MU goes .500 over the next two weeks, the Tigers enter a stretch where eight of their 11 games come against foes currently rated lower than 100th in adjusted efficiency, and none of them are particularly potent in the open floor.
What the Future Holds | Offensive Efficiency | Mizzou Opponents
While there’s still time for improvement, enough possessions have piled up that those expectations should be modest. By this point in the season, you are what you are. MU’s an undersized team that plays an aggressive form of man-to-man. Forcing turnovers tilts the possession math in its favor. The question now – and one we’ve repeated in the past – is whether the Tigers can make gains at the margins.
The stakes are also pretty clear.
MU’s adjusted defensive rating currently sits at 102.9 and ranks 179th in KenPom. In the past decade, only five high-major programs with equal or worse metrics earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Only one – Notre Dame in 2016 – was seeded higher than 10th in the bracket. Like MU, most of those squads preferred to blitz the pace and were among the nation’s best offensive attacks.
Adjusted Defense Comps | At-Large Teams | 2012-2022
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Early January is too early to start panicking about your spot on the S-Curve or in bracketologists’ projections. Based on MU’s current résumé, the Tigers wouldn’t sweat out Selection Sunday. Yet defensive efficiency is moderately related (R=0.404) to a program’s slot in the bracket, and MU would land on a line of best fit somewhere in the range of a No. 11 seed.
That typically means you’re one of the last teams to receive an invite, or your road starts in Dayton.
Maybe the offense doesn’t stop humming. Perhaps some self-scouting reveals critical tweaks that plug holes. Or maybe playing opponents on track to finish in the lower half of the SEC standings starts changing some of the math.
There’s still ample time to get it right, but these issues could undermine Mizzou’s aspirations before it even considers travel plans come March.