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The Verdict: A missed opportunity for Mizzou in Fayetteville

The Tigers trotted out a game plan to slow the pace and force jumpers. Yet Arkansas found shot making in the second half, and Eric Musselman’s equally stellar scout stymied MU’s key cogs.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-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 traveled south for their first league road contest of the season Wednesday night. The Tigers raced to a 25-8 lead early on in the game, but eventually fell to a talented Arkansas Razorbacks squad 74-68.

Mizzou, riding a wave of momentum from first half scoring bonanzas against Illinois and Kentucky once again build a sizeable lead. Unlike those two games, however, the Tigers were not able to surf the tide long enough to grab the win.

There’s not much to be discouraged about though. Despite being a little shorthanded, Arkansas is every bit of a top 20 team. Most projection systems had this as the second least likely victory remaining on the Tigers schedule bested only by Tennessee. The metrics used by the committee saw little change in the wake of the loss. No harm, no foul.

Still, there’s a little bit of disappointment in not securing a win. The two programs, joined in an arranged marriage of contempt by conference realignment, have grown to see those feelings flow naturally. This week’s game SHOULD leave a sour taste.

We here at Rock M are not immune to those feelings. But we’re paid life-changing money to set our biases aside and analyze with the coldest of hearts. And that’s what we shall do.

Before jumping in, I’ll announce at the outset that we’ve tweaked the format a little to attempt to streamline the discussion.

Let’s do it.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Mizzou Offense

Handle the Stage

Pregame Key: It’s a repeat?!?! Yes, indeed. Not that I’m one to disbelieve what Mizzou has done so far this year. Not by a long shot. Rather, a trip to Bud Walton represents a different beast. It’s going on 30 years, but lest we forget that the most successful Tiger team over that span suffered an epic beatdown in that very building. One worse than even last season’s railroading. This is of particular importance in the present for one main reason: Arkansas hunts for turnovers. There’s no quicker way to play yourself out of an important game and get an arena going crazy than sloppy ball-handling. Arkansas ranks 8th in steals created while Mizzou, for all their qualities in protecting the ball, does allow opponents to create steals at a level that ranks 217th. The Razorbacks’ best offense is a great defense. The Tigers must protect the rock.

Discussion: In a game where Mizzou could have its performance nit-picked, this area was not one of them. The Tigers showed a great deal of poise throughout the game and kept calm heads. Whether it was responding to an Arkansas run, getting smacked in the face with no call to follow or simply handling the environment, the Tigers passed the test. This isn’t to say there weren’t “failures,” along the way. Nor was the game devoid of “what’re ya doin?!” moments. Rather, as a whole, Mizzou showed a good deal of composure in a tough environment.

One particular statistic I was monitoring was turnovers.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Offensive Turnover Rate: 16.5%
  • Arkansas Pre-Game Defensive Turnover Rate: 24.9%
  • Result: 15.2%

Facing an opponent that thrives in creating thefts and converting them for buckets, it was imperative that Mizzou controlled the ball. They did so, and they did it really well in fact.

Attack the Interior

Pre-Game Key: If I could be accused of being a non-believer in point number one above, consider me a Kool-Aid drinker here. Mizzou has repeatedly proven me wrong in recent weeks about success inside the arc and at the rim. And I think there’s an opening here. Arkansas is very good in transition defense and guarding catch and shoots, both in efficiency and volume. Teams try, but often fail at winning via spot up opportunities and through ball screens. The Razorback defense is stout. Their roster is uncommonly long and athletic across the board. They are not deep, however. They’ve struggled in defending cutting actions, isolations and have given up quite a few rim attempts. While converting on outside jump shots will undoubtedly be important, if for no other reason to help make this more possible, Mizzou must be in attack mode.

Discussion: To be honest, I was a little surprised this was a potential weakness for Arkansas for the above-stated reasons. Nonetheless, it was an important facet of the game for Mizzou. Though Mizzou’s outside shooting has really come around recently, their game is converting high quality opportunities inside the arc.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Rim Attempt Offense — 48.4% Usage — 1.418 PPP
  • Arkansas Pre-Game Rim Attempt Defense — 49.9% Usage — 1.115 PPP
  • Result — 48.1% Usage — 1.000 PPP

The Tigers performed ably here, but they fell below their season norms. On their 26 attempts they grabbed 26 points. Their season average would’ve result in approximately 37. Against Kentucky, Mizzou finished 16-23 rim attempts. Against Arkansas? Only 12-26. The volume was acceptable, but the efficiency lagged.

Unsurprisingly, Mizzou’s best stretches unfolded when the Tigers got traction before Arkansas set its defense. They had Sean East II to thank for those hyper-efficient touches, whether it was an early spot-up, attacking a gap as Arkansas matched up, or utilizing a drag screen to get two feet in the paint.

When MU’s base offense clicked, it came by creating an advantage from an initial action of a set and when Arkansas’ rim protectors had no choice but to leave the lane. Personnel also mattered. When Kobe Brown or Ronnie DeGray III were on the floor, the Razorbacks defaulted to keeping a big anchored in the paint. That’s harder when Noah Carter, who can shoot off the catch, runs at the five and plays on the perimeter. Dennis Gates would also slot him into lineups with four guards or Aidan Shaw.

In three of our clips, Carter is the screener and putting a big into action, and in two of them, Shaw commands attention. That opens the lane for angle cuts, high-low entries, or back-screen lobs. Meanwhile, there were possessions where MU would plant Carter in the weak side corner while its guards screened and ran action on the other side.

For its part, Arkansas excels at the core components of an elite defense. Almost every Razorback can sit down, slide and contain the dribble. (It also helps that Muss stacked his roster with long and agile bodies.) That curbs pressure on off-ball defenders to frantically respond like immune cells when a ball-handler gets in a gap — and keep a big stationed at the front of the rim.

In the first clip, Kamani Johnson barely sets foot outside the paint. However, he can slide over as Ricky Council IV stays even with Tre Gomillion. Unlike Illinois’ Main Dainja, big man Makhi Mitchell can move his feet well enough to stick with Kobe Brown and drop behind to swat a shot off the rim from trail position. Anthony Black, a 6-foot-7 lead guard, sticks with Nick Honor and has Mitchell backing him up. Finally, additional rim protection removes options, such as pinging a pass to DeGray as he dives to the rim.

It also puts added pressure on you to execute when opportunities crop up. Unfortunately, MU didn’t snatch them. Instead, they let two chances go by down four in the final two minutes. First, Tre Gomillion forces a shot in transition. Next, Sean East II passes on an open gap, where he could have attempted a pull-up or floater. Instead, he fired an errant pass behind D’Moi Hodge, who was drifting to the corner.

Musselman and his staff also introduced some savvy wrinkles divined from a stellar scout of MU’s personnel. For example, they would not rotate out to Tigers deemed non-shooters. If DeGray and Shaw, who are a combined 23.8 percent from deep, beat you with 3-balls, tip your cap. But if that’s not happening, just let Makhi Mitchell lord over the paint.

The beauty of Hodge’s game is how he’s stripped it to the studs. Typically, the wing thrives on open-floor chances or drilling catch-and-shoots in the half court. On Wednesday, however, MU’s game plan throttled down the tempo, and in the process, limited the Cleveland State transfer to a handful of run-outs.

And in the half court, Davonte Davis, one of the SEC’s better defenders, put on a clinic tracking Hodge and remaining attached off the ball. Do you want a jumper after a ball screen in the slot? Not happening. Oh, looking for a handoff via a UCLA cut? Hodge (almost) has to fight for breathing space. Curling off of circle action? Devo can get skinny, too. The spot-up off a ball reversal? Yep. Black can take Davis’ place and close it down.

Part of Mizzou’s underperformance was not getting many opportunities off of cuts. The Tigers did convert for 8 points on four attempts — a great efficiency rate — but the volume wasn’t there. For comparison, against Illinois, Mizzou converted 12 opportunities for 19 points. A big difference.

Another area where they fell a little short was in the transition game, which inherently affects rim attempt quality.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Transition Offense: 26.1% Usage — 1.196 PPP
  • Arkansas Pre-Game Transition Defense: 12.7% Usage — 0.811 PPP
  • Result: 22.9% Usage — 1.118 PPP

The Tigers didn’t fail here so much as they lost at the margins. Lose enough margins and the result can swing. It did. It’s also no coincidence the only time Hodge emerged overlapped a period in the middle of the first half where the Tigers found ways to (safely) ramp up their pace. Oh, it’s also when they extended their lead to 17 points.

Prepare for Kobe Brown to be Taken Away

Pre-Game Key: I’m not of the belief that Kobe will get kidnapped or anything, but if there’s one thing I’ve seen from Eric Musselman it’s this: He’s going to concoct extreme game plans to neutralize what/who he believes is his biggest threat. Coming off of back-to-back 30-point outings where much of Mizzou’s offense runs through him, Kobe will be considered exactly that. Virtually everything has turned over in these two programs since the last time Mizzou ventured to The Mineral State, except for: Eric Musselman and Kobe Brown. I will even provide evidence as to how the Muss Bus feels about Mr. Brown:

Discussion: So the game plan wasn’t as extreme as in the past, but it was still in effect. Combine it with an at times perplexing whistle, and Mizzou’s leader didn’t carry them to victory. That’s not to say he had a bad game... he didn’t. He hit the magic 30% usage threshold and posted a respectable 107.5 offensive rating. That is to say, he was heavily involved and performed above average.

The problem was that he was only on the court for 20 minutes. Much of that was related to only playing five minutes in the first half due to foul trouble. His finally line reflected the lack of reps: 11 pts — 2 reb — 2 ast — 2 to — 4 fls. The lack of rebounds is worthy of an entire team-wide discussion, but add another 10 minutes to his game at those rates and 16 points with 3 assists hits a lot different, no?

During broadcasts, you might hear a color analyst talk about a “scouting report” play. Folks, this is what they look like. Just look at Council. It’s been drilled into him that Brown will look to bully drive and use a crab dribble from the elbow. So, Council gives enough ground until Kobe is deep enough that the jumbo wing’s length presents a difficult finishing angle. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks bigs understood that Kobe attacks the baseline after facing up and will spin off a defender to drop-step toward the baseline.

Mizzou Defense

Keep the Pace in Check

Pre-Game Key: Yes, you read that right. The team who ranks 29th nationally in adjusted tempo may be well served from keeping the possession total lower. I’m NOT suggesting that Mizzou doesn’t run on offense when the opportunity arises. After all, they’re very good at it. What I am suggesting is that Arkansas is also an elite team in the open court on offense. A gambling, pressure defense may well do the Razorbacks a big favor. Their goal is to murder the rack. A spaced-out defense gives them the ability to do so.

Discussion: Fair warning, this is a mixed bag. The final result of 66 possessions fits well into the idea that a reduced pace could help them win the game. I do think Mizzou performed pretty well in reducing the pace and betting on their half-court offense to outperform Arkansas in that category. They also protected the ball and yielded only 6 Arkansas transition points directly off of Tiger live-ball turnovers. Those things are good.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Half-Court Defense: 76.9% Usage — 0.829 PPP
  • Arkansas Pre-Game Half-Court Offense: 82.5% Usage — 0.896 PPP
  • Result: 80.5% Usage — 0.818 PPP

The Tigers did well in suppressing the Arkansas half-court attack. The problem(s) were two-fold. First, Mizzou didn’t do particularly well offensively in the half court.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Half-Court Offense: 73.9% Usage — 0.991 PPP
  • Arkansas Pre-Game Half-Court Defense: 87.3% Usage — 0.758 PPP
  • Result: 77.1% Usage — 0.860 PPP

The problem wasn’t that they went to this style of play. They actually won the half court battle! Rather, the problem was they didn’t win it by enough, or force Arkansas to use it enough.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Transition Defense: 23.1% Usage — 0.984 PPP
  • Arkansas Pre-Game Transition Offense: 17.5% Usage — 1.160 PPP
  • Result: 19.5% Usage — 1.250 PPP

The Tigers drained enough shots in the first half to get back and set up their zone. Steady ball handling also choked off a supply of turnovers that usually catalyzed the Hogs’ transition attack.

But in the second half? Not so much.

Even if MU missed short around the rim, Arkansas could quickly crank up the pace. And heaven help you if it’s a live-ball turnover. Arkansas hit Mizzou for 20 points on 16 possessions in transition. Slice that number of attempts in half, which Mizzou assuredly wanted to do, and you have a different outcome.

The Tigers came into this affair obviously wanting to keep easy buckets in the open floor to a minimum, even if it meant stifling their own transition game (they pressed ~10% less of defensive possessions, for example). They simply couldn’t push the ball to the top of the hill.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Control the Pick and Roll Game

Pre-Game Key: Led by Anthony Black and Ricky Council IV — and Nick Smith, Jr. should he play — Arkansas is a team that heavily leans on the ball screen game. Their ball-handlers are not typically the focal point of the offense but are able to exploit mismatches going downhill. Instead, they typically look to find cutters or the roll-man to generate offense. Makhi Mitchell and Jalen Graham headline the latter in former Tiger Trevon Brazile’s absence. One thing that has always struck me about Musselman’s teams over the years is that they’re an elite passing team in close quarters. Should Arkansas be able to space Mizzou out in the half-court, they become very dangerous.

Discussion: Again, a bit of a mixed bag. Mizzou threw multiple looks at Arkansas (see below) which inherently will stymie the use of a ball screen offense. The scheme is typically used against man defenses. That helps explain the usage rate of the following. However, Mizzou wasn’t up to snuff in keeping the efficiency of these plays at a passable margin.

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Pick & Roll + Pass Defense: 16.7% Usage — 0.904 PPP
  • Arkansas Pre-Game Pick & Roll + Pass Offense: 27.5% Usage — 0.942 PPP
  • Result: 13.41% Usage — 1.091 PPP

The Tigers did well to reduce the reps but the conversion rate here got a little out of hand. It wasn’t the reason they lost, or even close. But I alluded to margins above. Here again, Arkansas did just enough to juice their point total over the threshold.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Turn into The ‘Cuse?

Pre-Game Key: Ok, maybe not all the way. But considering the above two keys and the fact that Arkansas has seen a lot of zone defense thrown at them and have handled it poorly, this may be a fairly straightforward game plan. Mizzou has several iterations of the zone, but one that may be particularly effective has been highlighted by Matt Harris. It’s a funky, compact, not quite a 1-3-1, not quite a 2-3, not quite a matchup look that has kept the interior pretty clean and reduced opponents to a jump shooting unit. And what do you know, the Muss Bus has been the Struggle Bus on all manner of jump shots, including catch and shoots. For a team looking to get inside, a defense that best prevents it may be the best laid plans.

Discussion: Mizzou did, in fact, run zone defense. Actually, it ran a whole lot of zone defense in this contest. The zone giveth, but it also taketh away. Coming in, Arkansas was taking approximately 57% of field goals at the rim, an insanely high number. Comparatively, they were only attempting 39% of field goals via jump shots, an insanely low number. And there’s good reason for this. Their rim attempts had garnered 1.372 PPP while their jumpers sat at only 0.853 PPP. Makes sense, right? Take the shots you’re good at, avoid those that you struggle with. Easy enough.

As an opposing coach, your thought process is the same, but reversed. Take away the shots Arkansas is great at and make them take the ones they struggle with. Enter Dennis Gates’ zone defense.

The plan worked like a charm through the first 20 minutes. In the first half, Mizzou ran 24 of 37 possessions in a zone. Arkansas struggled with it and mustered a 0.708 PPP.

Arkansas’ passiveness against the zone proved a little baffling. Black, Council, and Ware are all larger bodies capable of valuing the ball against pressure at the nail. Yet they rarely cut hard to the middle to make a play. Instead, the Hogs were content to aimlessly swing the ball, hoist up jumpers, and trust that their work on the offensive glass would get them over.

Fast forward to the second half and things flip-flopped. Mizzou only ran 8 possessions of zone in 29 half-court possessions. They yielded...wait for it...1.625 PPP. A drastic change!

There are two competing issues here. First, Arkansas made some adjustments as to how they were going to attack it. Second, despite the defense’s efficacy, Mizzou simply couldn’t rebound out of it.

Early on, Arkansas was content to probe the zone, pass around the perimeter and take catch and shoot jumpers. It did not go well. But then something changed...

  • Arkansas First Half Jump Shots: 55.2% Usage — 0.500 PPP
  • Arkansas Second Half Jump Shots: 53.8% Usage — 1.429 PPP

In lieu of passing the ball around the perimeter, probing the defense on occasion, and either forcing a drive or a long catch and shoot...Arkansas did something that’s fallen out of favor. The took 1-2 dribbles in from the arc and hoisted mid-range attempts. 75% of their jumpers in the first half were three pointers. 75% of them were catch and shoot. In the second half? The former number dropped 57% and the latter 50%. They hit for 8 points on 5 long two-point attempts. What had been early stops turned into later buckets.

How? Arkansas began screening the zone to give some operating room to Davis, Black, and Council. And sometimes favorable big-little switches emerged as the Tigers rotated to stop those incursions.

Ideally, Mizzou’s version of the zone forces opponents to settle for contested mid-range attempts. Yet the Razorbacks’ roster features two players — Council and Davis — who max them out. So, even if a defender was in the proper position, they might still fall prey to shooters who want to take a mid-range pull-up off one or two dribbles.

Mizzou couldn’t sit in the zone any longer, especially in light of their rebounding woes. An undersized team playing a zone who isn’t forcing many misses is a recipe for disaster on the glass. And folks, this one was...

  • Mizzou Pre-Game Opponent Offensive Rebound Rate: 36.2%
  • Arkansas Pre-Game Offensive Rebound Rate: 28.3%
  • Result: 51.7%

To put in other terms, over half of the available rebounds on Mizzou’s defensive end were gobbled up by the Razorbacks. And they did what good teams do. They attempted 14 putbacks for 20 points.

The defensive game plan offered a solid reward. For much of the game, it seemed that it would bring the game within grasp. Unfortunately, the inherent drawbacks of the plan were thrust onto the scene, and it proved too much of an obstacle to overcome.

No matter the result, however, you have to appreciate the thought process the coaching staff put into this. Mizzou forced Arkansas to be a jump shooting team. The Razorbacks just adjusted what jumpers they were taking, caught fire and were relentless on the glass. A process guy has to appreciate that.