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The Verdict: Mizzou administered a Big Blue beatdown

The Tigers moved to 1-0 in SEC play on the heels of another impressive exhibition of offensive basketball.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-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 Source: Synergy Sports and Ken Pomeroy.


Setting the Stage

Mizzou and Kentucky met in their respective conference opener on Wednesday night. The road-tripping Wildcats had held a 10-2 lead in the series since Mizzou donned the “SEC” logos on the court. However, those two Tiger victories came in Kentucky’s last three trips to the Show-Me state.

Mizzou was coming off an impressive bludgeoning of rival Illinois in the annual Braggin’ Rights affair. Already one of the “surprise,” teams in the country, Mizzou was looking to win their first SEC game of the year for only the fourth time in 11 seasons in the conference.

Kentucky, on the other hand, was 8-3 overall but 0-3 against teams currently in the top 50 in America. No matter, SEC basketball is Kentucky basketball. They’ve reigned over the conference for as long as the sport has been played. If a team wants to challenge the hierarchy, they must go through the Wildcats from Lexington.

Mizzou went above, below, around and directly through the Wildcats. An offensive onslaught was launched just minutes into the game with the homestanding felines going on a quick 13-2 run to take an early 10-point advantage. The cat fight wasn’t much of one.

Kentucky was never able to fully recover from Mizzou’s early run. Their offense was stagnant early, and their defense couldn’t string together stops late. I’m unsure whether John Calipari has nine lives this season, but he has no more than eight left after his visit to the 573.

Mizzou’s offensive output landed at 1.309 points per possession (PPP). That represents the fourth highest figure a Calipari-led Kentucky team has allowed. Ever. It was roughly equivalent to the number put up against the Quakers of Penn.

If Mizzou was wanting to make a statement to open up league play, consider this a full-blown filibuster.

Let’s look at how they did it.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Scout: When Mizzou Has the Ball

  1. Handle the Stage: Mizzou has pulled off an overtime victory in Wichita. They played in front of dozens (DOZENS!) in Sunrise, Florida before a DeAndre Gholston heave decided the game. They had their doors blown off in front of a full house against Kansas. They themselves blew the doors off of Illinois in front of a neutral, but more orange crowd in St. Louis. The Tigers are now tested. Another sell-out home crowd looms for the start of conference play against the Kentucky empire. Rising to the occasion will be paramount. Specifically, Kentucky is adept at creating steals and Mizzou has given away more than the staff would like. Mizzou will need to show their veteran character and poise.
  2. Create Real Estate: Over the last 4 games, Mizzou has fired 40 three point makes in 92 attempts, good for a 43.5% conversion rate. On the season, Mizzou has performed well on catch and shoots. They rank among the nation’s best in both amount and efficiency. Much like Illinois, Kentucky’s defensive metrics inside the arc are great, ranking 19th nationally in 2-point defense. Can Mizzou hit enough outside shots to open up the paint? If not, can Mizzou still navigate the interior adeptly as they did in St. Louis on off-ball movement? Can Mizzou create their space in the open court by running in transition? As it is, it comes down to location, location, location.
  3. Neutralize Oscar: It’s unusual that your offensive scouting report includes neutralizing a defensive player. Oscar Tshiebwe is an unusual player. By that I mean he’s a freak of nature. His size, athleticism and motor combine for an exceedingly rare skill set. Any successful game plan will involve working around him. We don’t yet know who he will guard, but that player will be important. Whether it’s Kobe Brown, Noah Carter or someone else, they’re a key. Mizzou will assuredly try to draw him out of the paint either via high post touches for his mark or in ball screen defense. How Mizzou is able to perform in those actions will loom large for the outcome. So too will their ability to hold him in check when he gets his mitts on the ball.
NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Scout: When Kentucky has the Ball

  1. Check the Right Shooters: Kentucky’s three best outside shooting threats — Cason Wallace, Antonio Reeves and C.J. Fredrick — who are shooting a collective 72-163 from three-point range (44.2%). The remainder of the roster is 21-70 (30%). Reeves and Fredrick are used almost exclusively on spot ups off the catch and running in transition. Wallace is a more versatile player than the other two but is similarly efficient from outside. Mizzou cannot afford to lose these three on faulty rotations or gambles defensively. They will make you pay.
  2. Narrow the Margins on the Glass: If there’s one area that’s poised to be a total mismatch, it’s this. Kentucky rebounds 37.6% of its own misses, 12th-best nationally. Mizzou has allowed opponents to rebound 35.7% of their misses, 347th-best nationally. Kentucky has the most gifted offensive rebounder in the game in Tshiebwe. Mizzou won’t win the game here, but they can certainly lose it.
  3. Disrupt the Cats’ Rhythm: Kentucky is comfortable and effective playing in transition. They have proven shotmakers from behind the arc. They have an All-American on the interior. They have a bona fide distributor running the point. They simply haven’t put all of those pieces to best use...yet. Mizzou will likely need to do a good job of switching defensive looks as they have their last two outings. Kansas saw a steady dose of pressure and man defense, which they promptly shredded. UCF and Illinois were often confused when Mizzou would throw a zone press out to drop back in man. Or when simply fell back into a compact 1-3-1 or 2-3 half court one possession followed by a pressure man defense the next trip. Mizzou has to generate empty possessions some way. Simply counting on sound shot defense and defensive rebounding is the recipe for a long night. Their ability to create steals, hurried attempts or contested attempts is arguably the most important key to this game.
Kentucky v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Performance

Handle the Stage

If the Tigers’ stage presence was a key to victory, consider them Luciano Pavarotti. Mizzou’s veteran team showed a poise throughout that was obviously missing the last time a blueblood came to town.

After opening up the game in dominant fashion, Mizzou’s offense hit a lull and Kentucky was able to pull within four at 17-13. Mizzou immediately pushed the lead out to 27-14.

Midway through the second half, Kentucky closed the lead to 56-47 minutes after Mizzou had opened an 18-point lead. The Tigers responded with a run of their own, pushing the lead back to 69-51.

Kentucky wasn’t able to mount much of an attack, but when they mustered something, Mizzou immediately blew out the flame.

A big reason for this was how well Mizzou took care of the ball:

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Offensive Turnover Rate: 16.9% (% of possessions ending via turnover)
  • Kentucky Pre-Game Defensive Turnover Rate: 19.4%
  • Result: 11.7%

The Tigers protected the ball as well as they had all season. Turning it over only eight times total despite a stretch of five turnovers over six first half possessions, Dennis Gates’s crew made Kentucky get stops and make shots. Cal’s crew couldn’t do either enough.

Create Real Estate

As noted in the opening, Mizzou played really, REALLY well offensively. This can be seen in the simple box score statistics of a team who shot 10-25 from three-point range (40%), 18-32 from inside the arc (56.2%), and 23-28 (82.1%) from the free throw line. But you didn’t come here for a rehash of that, right?

Mizzou won this key in three big ways. First, although the volume was a little lower than one might hope, Mizzou was wildly efficient in transition. Second, they excelled on spot-up shooting and catch and shoot opportunities. Finally, they won a game at the point of attack when hunting mismatches. Consider:

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Transition Offense: 26.5% Usage — 1.174 PPP
  • Kentucky Pre-Game Transition Defense: 11.3% Usage — 0.939 PPP
  • Result: 21.1% Usage — 1.563 PPP

Although the Tigers only mustered 16 transition opportunities, among their season low, they converted for 25 points on them. A truly outstanding performance, reminiscent of both the Illinois game and what Kansas did to Mizzou earlier this season.

One explanation for the lower possession volume might be a lack of live-ball turnovers that fed into fast breaks. Instead, Mizzou found itself more reliant on turning UK misses into secondary breaks or noticing when the Cats were slow to sprint back after made buckets.

The Tigers are so reliant on transition that each Tiger has carved out their own particular niche in the open floor. D’Moi Hodge, for example, feasts on leak outs or sprinting to the wing for spot-ups. But you knew that already.

When Sean East II checks in, he helps juice the tempo as a passer. Yet he’s also adept at recognizing when the defense fails the first rule of transition defense: stop the ball.

And while we’ve focused a ton on Kobe Brown’s recent improvement as a jump shooter, his monster games also feature the senior stealing a handful of buckets in the open floor. He might leak out, run the wing, or take advantage of a sagging defense as a trail shooter.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Spot Up Offense: 24.6% Usage — 1.004 PPP
  • Kentucky Pre-Game Spot Up Defense: 23.7% Usage — 0.845 PPP
  • Result: 25% Usage — 1.158 PPP

Mizzou didn’t shoot it incredibly well, but they shot it well enough. They were able to best their season norm by a fair amount and Kentucky’s season average by a large amount. This is evidenced by both the catch and shoot shot type (below), as well as spot up opportunities (above) which include both catch and shoots and dribble attacks on closeouts.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Catch and Shoot Offense: 72.3% of jumpers — 1.143 PPP
  • Kentucky Pre-Game Catch and Shoot Defense: 55.6% of jumpers — 1.034 PPP
  • Result: 68.8% of jumpers — 1.091 PPP

Perhaps most surprising in the game, Mizzou absolutely exploited Kentucky in 1v1 isolation opportunities. When you think of a rebuilt Mizzou roster replete with small school transfers and holdovers from a 12-win team and match it up with a John Calipari Kentucky team, you normally don’t peg the matchup as advantageous for the former in this category. But that’s why this exercise is great!

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Isolation Offense: 5.3% Usage — 0.870 PPP
  • Kentucky Pre-Game Isolation Defense: 5.9% Usage — 0.529 PPP
  • Result: 10.5% Usage — 1.625 PPP

Kobe Brown scored four points on four isos, Honor had four points on three isos, and Carter, East and Shaw combined for five points on four isos. They hunted matchups and exploited them.

Early in the second half, MU’s intentions were clear: pick on Lance Ware. By our count, the Tigers tried to isolate the combo forward at least seven times. And they weren’t trying to disguise it. For example, Gates called the same set three times in the first two minutes to put Ware in the mixer.

Let’s look at the progression. In the first clip, Mizzou’s running decoy action out front as Tre Gomillion sets a ghost screen for Nick Honor. That takes Chris Livingston out of the play. Meanwhile, Hodge recycles out to set an empty-side ball screen for Brown. Ware and Cason Wallace switch, but Brown’s already barreling downhill.

Next, MU has Nick Honor sprint off a pindown set by Brown, who spins into a post-up on Ware. The Tigers’ combo forward thrives when he’s decisive. Here, he quickly steps out to a face up, rips through, and attacks.

Even when Brown took a breather, the Tigers keep seeking out the same matchup. Noah Carter just steps out, receives a pass, waits for East to run a spacing cut, and goes to work with a bully drive to the rack.

Sometimes, good offense is recognizing where you have a comparative advantage. Ware is a handy tool for Cal to ease some of Tshiebwe’s burden on the defensive glass, and the junior understands angles to provide some rim protection. But he struggles at times in isolations. So, Gates and MU made it a focal point.

Imposing that little bit of structure — orienting the offense around one matchup — helped MU operate more efficiently in the half court than they did in the first half.

For fun, the Tigers also played some of their greatest hits.

Neutralize Oscar

A big way in which Mizzou neutralized Oscar when the Tigers had the ball has been covered already. Running in transition and exploiting mismatches against his teammates being the main reasons.

On defense, the Tigers did a solid job as well.

When it comes to post-ups, proximity isn’t always synonymous with efficiency. Instead, most of those touches are on par with a mid-range pull-up. Unless you’re Tshiebwe, who ranks among the 85th percentile nationally, per Synergy data.

But here’s another surprise: UK doesn’t funnel its offense through the reigning Naismith Player of the Year. In fact, he only gets five touches on the block each game. And despite the Tigers obvious lack of interior size, the ‘Cats only dumped the ball inside to Tshiebwe seven times.

The results? Mixed.

When Tshiebwe thrived, his touches came early in the shot clock, often on duck-ins before the Tigers set their defense.

At its core, post defense is about territory and who claims it first. Watch how Tshiebwe is able to bury his defenders around the top of the restricted circle. Doing so pretty much makes any approach — fronting, three-quarters denial, or playing behind — irrelevant. Meanwhile, guards need to pressure passers, taking away optimal angles to enter the ball and forcing Tshiebwe to disengage and try to relocate. The Tigers did not do that.

So, there were a handful of possessions where Tshiebwe gets his favored spot and a clean feed. Good luck when that happens. He’s already going up to finish a play before a help defender is on the scene.

Setting up defensively, however, gave MU a fighting chance. Stilted as it looks, UK prioritizes perimeter threats with its primary action in the half court. (Notice how the Cats try to shake C.J. Frederick loose using floppy action.) That emphasis sometimes renders Tshiebwe a secondary threat as a roll man or hanging out in the short corner. It also means post-ups come after the Tigers have loaded up.

In those situations, MU’s nominal bigs force Tshiebwe to operate farther away from the block, and the Tigers’ defensive shell can respond quickly once the ball goes inside. Keep this in mind, too: Tshiebwe excels as a passer out of the post. So, Mizzou tasked quick-handed guards like East and Hodge with digging down from the wing — after Tshiebwe committed to attacking to the rim.

Check the Right Shooters

Kentucky entered the game as one of the ten best three-point shooting teams in America, converting 39.9% of attempts. On Wednesday, they converted for 8-23 (34.8%). The key component of this figure is that the three shooters identified in the pre-game scout shot a combined 5-17 (29.4%). Fredrick left the game early with an injury after going 0-1, Reeves finished 0-3 and uber-talent Cason Wallace was 5-13. The home squad did a solid job of preventing these three individuals from winning the game.

Instead, Sahvir Wheeler and Adou Thiero were the only Wildcats aside from Wallace to convert. Credit to the Tigers for helping make that happen. A big reason for this was Kentucky’s performance on catch and shoot jumpers and spot up opportunities:

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Spot Up Defense: 28.5% usage — 0.956 PPP
  • Kentucky Pre-Game Spot Up Offense: 28.0% usage — 0.911 PPP
  • Result: 25.9% usage — 0.810 PPP

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Catch and Shoot Defense: 68% of jumpers — 1.054 PPP
  • Kentucky Pre-Game Catch and Shoot Offense: 71% of jumpers — 1.079 PPP
  • Results: 91.7% of jumpers — 0.955 PPP

One could look at these numbers than think, “had Kentucky shot better, this would’ve been a different game.” That person would’ve been right. A normally good outside shooting group was getting a lot of shots they might normally convert, but simply didn’t. That’s part of the game. Mizzou has been bludgeoned by outlier outside shooting performances over the first month of the season and has had a little “luck” go their way the last two.

It’s also worth mentioning that Mizzou’s defensive philosophy shifted a bit later on in the game when Kentucky started gaining footing in the paint. They opted to take away the easier conversions in lieu of giving up a few looks to a team struggling on jumpers. It paid off in a big way.

Kentucky v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Narrow the Margins on the Defensive Glass

Mizzou did not fare particularly well in the defensive rebounding category.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Opponent Offensive Rebound Rate: 35.7%
  • Kentucky Pre-Game Offensive Rebound Rate: 37.6%
  • Result: 42.4%

Rebound rate is simply the percentage of rebounds that a given team wins. Mizzou’s performance here wasn’t great, but it wasn’t so bad that Kentucky could capitalize.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Putback Defense: 7.6% Usage — 0.924 PPP
  • Kentucky Pre-Game Putback Offense: 7.6% Usage — 1.086 PPP
  • Result: 12.4% Usage — 1.100 PPP

Kentucky won both the efficiency and volume game on easy buckets off of misses. They scored 11 points on 10 such opportunities. Such is life when you’re a relatively small team facing the reigning Naismith who just happens to have the 4th best individually offensive rebound rate in America. Tshiebwe got his in the form of nine Kentucky’s 14 total offensive rebounds.

Kentucky v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Disrupt the Cats’ Rhythm

I was very intrigued to see Mizzou’s defensive strategy unfold in this one. I’ll lay out some game-level statistics, and then Matt Harris will walk you through the strategy and in-game adjustments with film.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Man-to-Man Defense: 84.9% of Half-Court Defense — 0.849 PPP
  • Kentucky Pre-Game Man-to-Man Offense: 94.0% of Half-Court Offense — 0.901 PPP
  • Result: 62.7% of Half-Court Defense — 0.939 PPP

Coming into this tilt, there had been a growing consensus around the idea that Cal and UK need to strip their offense back down to the studs, and we tend to agree. The Wildcats try to run structured sets. Yet the timing is frequently off. The Cats jog through cuts. And they set half-hearted screens.

No doubt, MU did a good job communicating switches and remaining attentive off the ball. That said, there were long spells where UK looked listless and didn’t put the Tigers under stress. The Wildcats best offense came early. You already know one source — finding Tshiebwe early in the shot clock. And the Wildcats looked better when rolling out time-tested dribble-drive concepts.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Zone Defense: 15.1% of Half-Court Defense — 0.689 PPP
  • Kentucky Pre-Game Zone Offense: 6.0% of Half-Court Offense — 0.886 PPP
  • Result: 37.7% of Half-Court Defense — 0.800 PPP

If you want an in-depth breakdown of MU’s zone, it’s elsewhere on ye olde blog. What you need to focus on here is who the Tigers put in the middle. Instead of stationing big at the free-throw line, Gates tasks guards with cycling in and out. Why? Quick hands. The Tigers might lack size, but the likes of Ware, Toppin, and Tshiebwe aren’t exactly reliable dribblers. So, when UK enters the ball to the nail, MU can — at the very least — disrupt the timing of the Cats’ zone offense. UK was close to whittling the Tigers’ lead to single digits when Gates dusted off the 1-3-1 look. It forced two turnovers in as many possessions, feeding fast breaks that helped MU stretch the edge back out to 17 points midway through the second half.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Press Defense: 34.4% Usage — 0.805 PPP
  • Kentucky Pre-Game Press Offense: 6.2% Usage — 0.933 PPP
  • Result: 35.3% Usage — 0.875 PPP

The math tells us the Tigers fared pretty well, but the tape should temper our enthusiasm. No, UK didn’t replicate Kansas’ success in the open floor, but the ‘Cats were able to find quality shots if they withstood the first layer of MU’s press. And opponents can still exploit MU in transition.