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Picking and Choosing: How Mizzou uses 5-out and ball screens to find offensive rhythm

Stuck in a shooting funk, the Tigers’ schematic pivot plays to the strengths of Isiaih Mosley — and potentially a new way to unlock opportunity for its backcourt.

Arkansas v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Officially, Missouri guard Isiaih Mosley’s seven-game absence ended at the 16:36 mark of the first half against Arkansas. But in practical terms, the combo guard’s return came three minutes later.

Late in the shot clock, Kobe Brown reversed the ball to the right slot, trotted over, and, well, got in the way of Davonte Davis. That was enough operating room for Mosley. And while that jumper thumped off the front of the rim, the scene was a familiar one – and a welcome one.

In case you were unaware, the Tigers have connected at just a 23.9 percent clip from behind the arc over the past six games. To call it a slump feels too gentle, and the inability to stretch the floor is a drag on the entire offense. Since knocking off Kentucky, MU has averaged 0.968 points per possession in non-garbage time and posted a minus-11.6 net rating.

Opponents now feel at ease shrinking the floor. Last Wednesday, Arkansas also got physical with MU off the ball. Three days later, No. 4 Alabama, equally stocked with length and athleticism, deployed a pack line to clog up gaps – except for blowing up points of connections like handoffs. Under those conditions, it’s hard for facets of MU’s attack, namely those based on Princeton concepts, to get a toehold.

Enter Mosley, whose game thrives when an offensive set is stripped down to its essential elements. At least in the short term, the Tigers’ attack has opted to keep things simple: space the floor in a five-out alignment, fire up a conveyor belt of ball screens and let guards go to work.

Against the Crimson Tide, coach Dennis Gates’ squad relied on pick-and-rolls to generate a shot on 20 possessions, per Synergy Sports’ tracking data. Before last week, the Tigers averaged just 7.3 possessions per game. If they tallied more than 10, it was an outlier.

And as you can see, the spike coincides nicely with the end of Mosley’s hiatus. It’s hard to know how durable that increase will be. Perhaps it was simply the byproduct of facing a pair of man-to-man defenses that required Gates and his staff to emphasize another section of the playbook.

Tonight, for example, MU faces an Ole Miss squad whose coach carved out a niche using a variant of a 1-3-1 zone. Next comes Iowa State, which deploys the en vogue no-middle approach to downing side ball screens and loading up help to that side of the floor. Still, it’s worth looking at how MU pivots when confronted with stylistic roadblocks.

Conceptually, MU’s approach is easy to grasp.

First, MU relies on five-out spacing to leave the paint empty and, crucially, create what’s called a double gap. How? Two Tigers occupy one side of the floor, one in the corner and another in the slot. We call this the two-side. Meanwhile, a shooter camps in the weak-side corner.

After that, the mechanics are straightforward: one Tiger sets a middle ball screen for a teammate. Changing personnel tweaks the matchup you’re trying to hunt. In these clips, the Tigers aim to switch Brown on to a smaller guard, allowing him to bully his way toward the rack.

And if a help defender – namely the one on the play side – stunts toward him, Brown has a kick out. Or if help collapses down, Sean East II can cut diagonally from the weak slot. The alignment changes slightly in the second clip, though, with Brown attacking a side of the floor with an empty corner – and no help defenders nearby to aid Anthony Black.

That’s the kind of flexibility that comes with Brown in the rotation. His handle is competent enough to attack a middle gap, and it’s less work to generate a rim attack than trying to catch and maneuver on the low block. Brown’s passing is also adept enough to pick out an open teammate if an opponent gets aggressive in its pick-and-roll coverage. For example, D’Moi Hodge or Nick Honor can flare off, spot up, and knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers.

Often, the Tiger on the ball is a guard receiving a screen from a nominal big. Pick-and-roll coverages run the gamut, but Arkansas and Alabama deploy standard fare: drop. The ball handler gets channeled toward the screen while the screener’s defender sits two steps below. That defender hems in the dribbler by hanging back and keeps tabs on the roll man.

That coverage also dares a ball handler to put up a long 2-point attempt off the bounce. It’s also insurance for a big that’s lacking foot speed. For brevity’s sake, I’ll avoid going through the reads a guard can make. What matters is Mizzou’s guards defy modern conventions. They’re willing to take the concession the defense puts on the table.

Statistically speaking, the median value of dribble jumpers is modest: 0.831 PPP. But the Tigers have a pair of above-average shooters off the bounce in Honor (0.919 PPP) and DeAndre Gholston (1.105 PPP), making those attempts palatable. As for Mosley, he’s struggling (0.414) this season, but his efficiency over the previous three seasons (1.108 PPP) on heavy volume proves he’s potent when in rhythm.

There aren’t clips on display here, but MU can also exploit it for pick-and-pops, especially for Noah Carter. Or, if you want to get really funky, have one guard — Hodge — screen for another guard and pop.

Running a high pick-and-roll also offers a different trigger for a set. Gates talks about how his offense borrows from the lineage of Tex Winters’ triangle or Greg Popovich’s fabled split action. But coaches borrow and rename liberally. And those two pro concepts owe a debt to the Princeton offense, which inverts bigs at the top of the key and the elbow to initiate a set.

But as we progress toward February, the scout of MU is out. Opponents know the fulcrum of sets. They need to pressure the big reading off-ball action while switching cleanly on split action and down screens. If that doesn’t work, the Tigers might flow into a handoff. To counter that, a foe might have a defender blow up the exchange.

Using a ball screen to start a set isn’t new, but it allows MU to keep the clutch from sticking as it turns over the gears. In the first clip, the pick-and-roll lets Brown reverse the ball cleanly to Gholston as he releases off a down screen. Next, they can team up for a slot ball screen. Brown notices that Arkansas is playing at the level of the screener. His next move? Slipping to the block for a post-up.

Or the dribbler can use the screen, attack the middle gap, force help to rotate, and pass behind. That’s what East opts to do, hitting Mosley in the corner. Now, the defense is flattening out, and Mo Diarra cuts toward the front of the rim.

What happens, though, if Mizzou relocates its base of operations?

When playing in the slot, Mizzou relies on a spread ball screen. The alignment remains the same. Two shooters fill the corners, even with the rim, while a high wing stands even with the top of the key. They aren’t passive, either. They’re diagnosing what’s unfolding and how it manipulates help.

The screener angles their torso to force a defender to fight over the top, allowing the dribbler into the double gap. The two-side wants to hold the sideline, stretching the defense and keeping a gap clear. On the one-side, the shooter in the corner monitors how the defense reacts to a roller. If his defender steps in to tag, that shooter lifts toward the slot.

And the ball handler? He needs to decide whether to reject the screen. If he can get downhill, he shouldn’t hesitate. But if he meets help, where did it come from? Is the roller free? No, then who is tagging? These aren’t hard and fast reads, but they achieve the objective: find the best player with the best advantage.

For example, Mosley rejects Aidan Shaw’s screen and attacks the middle gap. Shaw doesn’t roll, so East doesn’t have to lift from the corner. DeGray cuts baseline, perhaps anticipating Jaden Bradley helping over on the drive. Instead, Mosley drops in a floater against drop coverage.

In the following clip, Honor essentially snakes the ball screen coverage while Rylan Griffen jams up Carter. While Noah Clowney isn’t tagging a roller, he is sliding toward the midline. Shaw can’t lift, so he cuts to the opposite short corner for a dump-off.

But we also see some limitations that come back to decision-making. For example, Shaw might run the proper spacing cut to clear the gap for Mosley, but the senior guard might settle for a step-back 3-pointer. And sometimes, a ball handler makes the wrong read when feeding a roller.

There’s still another wrinkle MU has at its disposal: ghost screens.

They’re one of the most common actions in five-out and dribble-drive offenses. Also called veer or brush screens, they’re a con job early in a possession. A player sets up a ball screen but doesn’t actually make contact. That allows a screener to pop out to the 3-point arc. Then, run at full speed, they can vex a switching defense, create a downhill attack, or produce and pick-and-pop.

At Missouri State, ghost and drag screens were a common tool to get Mosley going toward the rim. As for Gholston, once he gets into the gap, his his sturdy frame and strength can withstand contact on a straight-line drive and as he finishes at the rim. But they even a leaner-framed East. Even if a defender beats him to a spot, the JUCO transfer’s floater remains lethal.

But again, they’re also a workable trigger for an entire set.

Admittedly, none of this is a cure-all for what ails MU’s offense.

At some point, MU’s wandering shooting stroke needs to return. Gates’ squad is shooting around 51 percent inside the arc, which is close to the Division I average. And while he seems miffed at officials, the Tigers’ free throw rate over the past six outings (0.421) would rank in the top 20 nationally. Without a reliable supply of jump shooting, this offense can’t backfill for a defense that we know doesn’t keep a tight seal on opponents.

What’s heartening is the shift toward these sets again reflects the flexibility of this staff. It also eases the burden imposed upon the Tigers’ backcourt. Opposing scouting reports now demand tracking Hodge tightly off the ball. In addition, MU’s willingness to slow the tempo against Arkansas or struggle to speed up Florida means a dwindling supply of transition possessions.

Utilizing five-out sets and ball screens, though, play to Mosley’s strengths — and force opponents to divide their attention. So far, he’s made 9 of 11 shot attempts inside the arc. Imagine what happens once his 3-point stroke dials back in. It could create the kind of gravitational pull that will free up Hodge for the unguarded jumpers he needs to thrive. Meanwhile, putting Mosley on the ball means less grunt work for Honor, who is comfortable flexing as a floor spacer.

Will the dosage always be this heavy? We’ll see. But MU would be wise to incorporate actions that put Mosley and other guards in advantageous situations. Or maybe this was all part of Gates’ plan — concealed behind a stoic demeanor and measured words.

It’s still just Year 1, but these moves might be clever enough to position Mosley for a late surge — and return Mizzou to the field of 68.