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The Verdict: kansas Pre-Game Keys

Mizzou faces a stiff test from their foes to the west Saturday. What should we be looking for?

Longtime Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart gives a short speech at halftime of Missouri’s game against Wichita State on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, at Mizzou Arena. Stewart coached Missouri from 1967 to 1999 and won the Big Eight Conference six times. (Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation)

Welcome to The Verdict series. You may have become acquainted with these pieces in the past, and in efforts to improve them, we’ve made a few changes. Prior to each game receiving the full treatment, we’re going to release a series of pre-game keys to watch for in each matchup. After the results are in, we’ll return to those keys and analyze the performance with data and film. Credits for statistics to Ken Pomeroy, Synergy, Pivot Analysis and Matt Watkins. Film has been graciously provided by Matt Harris.

Note: Pre-Game keys are in standard font. Post-Game analysis and data are in bold and italics.


Sitting in the crowd this past Sunday afternoon, I listened to Norm Stewart speak while being recognized for his exemplary work with Coaches vs. Cancer. His words — as always — were poignant and direct. He ended his remarks with, “Let’s beat those Shockers.” An appropriate conclusion, but one that left me slightly surprised. As he spoke those words, I was certain that he was going to cap his speech with a resounding “Let’s beat those Jayhawks.”

Coaches come and go, but few faces better represent a basketball rivalry than Stewart does with Kansas. He fashioned a 33-41 lifetime record in the rivalry as head coach. Considering the Jayhawks’ historical pedigree, an impressive record indeed. I mean, they don’t give every visiting coach a chair as a retirement present, right? Norm was the headliner in Lawrence. His brash commentary about the state to our west was adored by Mizzou supporters and reviled by those that wore the red and blue. His very presence at his rivals’ fieldhouse was a show unto itself. A long-held suspicion of mine was that he intended to fuel the disdain among opposing supporters so the bulk of the ire was directed his way, instead of his players.

Stewart’s last matchup in the rivalry was fittingly a 71-63 victory in Allen Fieldhouse on January 24, 1999. A perfect way to exit the rivalry for a legendary coach was followed by an imperfect performance by the Tigers program in the Sunflower State since. That win was the last Mizzou has secured in the unfriendly confines.

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Illinois at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Over the following two decades following Stewarts’ retirement, much has changed. Mizzou bolted for greener pastures in the SEC. Kansas remained behind in what can now only be described as a festering carcass of a once proud league. The two teams went nearly a decade without squaring off. The rivalry hit this dormant phase when the Jayhawks head coach played the role of a raging teenager deprived of IPhone privileges. When not stomping his feet at Mizzou, Bill Self was racking up level three NCAA violations faster than he could construct stripper poles for all to see. Self even added a player this offseason with a pungent history of domestic violence — who promptly reoffended — to cap off the prairie unholy trinity. When others went low, Bill went lower. His metamorphosis into the low brow antagonist of the rivalry is complete.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, their performance on the court in the rivalry hasn’t done anything to shift the narrative. Saturday afternoon, Mizzou will seek to change that. The Tigers enter the contest at 7-2 and will face an 8-1 Kansas team that owns three victories over teams rated in Ken Pomeroy’s top 25. The hill will be a steep one, but every new chapter needs a first sentence.

Let’s take a look at the keys that could allow Dennis Gates to etch his name into the annals of Border War lore.

Keep Your Head Above Water

Road games are hard to win. Road games at Allen are near impossible. Over their last 50 home games the Jayhawks have put together a 47-3 record. This isn’t exactly surprising stuff. Neither is how they do it. Looking back since the start of the 22-23 season as a sample, Kansas has been blitzing opponents to their demise. They say college basketball is a game of runs. No place is this more evident than in Lawrence.

NCAA Basketball: UMKC at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Over that 21-game grouping, Kansas has had 28 runs that netted a +10 in the scoring column — think 10-0, 11-1, etc. They have conceded just 10 such runs to visiting opponents. The average Kansas run yields a 14.4-1.6 advantage. Only twice in 21 games have they not put together at least one of them. In six games, they’ve tallied two or more. Just four times has an opponent put together a run that was more valuable than any the Jayhawks could muster.

That’s a lot of random data. Suffice it to say, for Mizzou to have any chance of winning this game, they must avoid these decisive bursts, for they rarely go the visitors’ way.

Impose Your Game

Mizzou isn’t exactly the high-powered transition behemoth they were a year ago. Yes, they still run. No, their efficiency isn’t the same and they don’t crank up the tempo as much. In an unusual twist, Mizzou’s half-court offensive efficiency is virtually identical of that to their half-court, which is rare — especially for them. Theoretically — and often in practice — scoring is more efficient in the open court than against a set defense.

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

No matter, Mizzou’s best chance in this game is two-fold. First, Mizzou must continue to rack up blocks and steals — they rank 3rd and 14th in those categories nationally — to generate defensive stops. Second, they must cash in a portion of those in the form of transition points. Mizzou still brings a fair amount of pressure via a press defense, and that is the surest way to accomplish this task.

  • Mizzou Defensive Block Rate: 18.6%
  • Kansas Offensive Block Rate: 6.8%

  • Mizzou Defensive Steal Rate: 13.4%
  • Kansas Offensive Steal Rate: 9.5%

  • Mizzou Transition Offense: 21.1% Usage — 0.993 PPP
  • Kansas Transition Defense: 12.0% Usage — 1.000 PPP

  • Mizzou Press Defense: 31.0% Usage — 0.677 PPP
  • Kansas Press Offense: 5.4% Usage — 0.865 PPP

Protect The Paint Defensively

Kansas has proven to be a well-balanced scoring attack in the early stages of the 23-24 season. But it doesn’t take much digging to see how they want to do damage. The Jayhawks are 8th nationally in three-point shooting but rate 299th in three-point attempt volume. They can certainly bury you by launching jumpers, but their preference is taking primo chances at the rim.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

They do this in a variety of ways. They have a fairly robust transition offense led by Kevin McCullar and freshman Elmarko Jackson. Once set up in the half-court, they have a moderate level of involvement with their ball screen game helmed by Columbia native, DeJuan Harris — but it’s the only the starting point of their strategy. No, Kansas wants higher value shots than that. McCullar, KJ Adams and the shit-disturber du jour, Hunter Dickinson are well schooled in reading defenses and cutting for easy buckets against ball-watching defenses. Adams and Dickinson also been dynamic as ball screeners in pick and rolls, with Adams most keen to take lobs for dunks and Dickinson to pop for mismatches. That duo is also heavily used on the block as a playmaking hub for back to the basket buckets and kickouts for open three-point opportunities. When the kickouts occur, McCullar and Australian Johnny Furphy are there to convert.

Even if you do shut down the paint, Kansas still has weapons to make you pay. But if you don’t have success defending the onion bag, you won’t need to worry about anything else. A year ago, when Kansas arrived at Mizzou arena, they absolutely demolished Mizzou’s defense by getting the ball moving side to side and punishing the Tigers’ late rotations and slow recoveries. They will certainly attempt to do the same on Saturday, and Mizzou must be prepared and effective in defending the multiple ways Kansas will pressure the restricted arc.

  • Kansas Transition Offense: 19.7% Usage — 1.132 PPP
  • Mizzou Transition Defense: 16.4% Usage — 0.941 PPP

  • Kansas Cut Offense: 13.4% Usage — 1.424 PPP
  • Mizzou Cut Defense: 7.6% Usage — 10.55 PPP

  • Kansas PnR Roller Offense: 6.0% Usage — 1.098 PPP
  • Mizzou PnR Roller Defense: 1.8% Usage — 1.308 PPP

  • Kansas Post Up Derived Offense: 14.1% Usage — 1.227 PPP
  • Mizzou Post Up Derived Defense: 5.1% Usage — 0.838 PPP

  • Kansas Rim Offense: 44% Usage — 1.39 PPS
  • Mizzou Rim Defense: 37.2% Usage — 1.11 PPS

Bring Your Shooting Shoes

Mizzou’s offense has taken a small step back over a year ago, but much of the theory remains. Create high quality looks at the rim and knock down jump shots. Last year, Kobe Brown was the playmaker in Mizzou’s offense, creating opportunities for both himself and others. This year that mantle has been passed to Sean East. The two go about it in different ways, but the principles are the same. Exploit mismatches individually, find open teammates when help the defense reacts. Mizzou would be well advised to do both on Saturday.

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

The following areas are those that I’ll be paying particular attention to. East has been nothing short of dynamic in a high usage role in ball screens. His ability to manipulate defenses, penetrate the lane and use a wide array of finishing skills has been on full display. What’s more, his efficient mid-range pull-up game has translated behind the arc. East has been the straw that stirs the drink when the Tiger offense is humming and will be vital in this weekend’s affair.

So too will be Mizzou’s supporting cast of jump shooters. Kansas’s rim defense is exceptional. Teams are often resigned to heaving long range jumpers in order to put points on the board. Fortunately for Mizzou, their roster is filled with capable hands. How Mizzou performs behind the arc on catch & shoot opportunities will be paramount.

  • Mizzou Rim Offense: 37.0% Usage — 1.21 PPS
  • Kansas Rim Defense: 30.6% Usage — 0.98 PPS

  • Mizzou Jumper Offense: 54.3% Usage — 1.01 PPS
  • Kansas Jumper Defense: 58.8% Usage — 0.83 PPS

  • Mizzou PnR Ballhandler Offense: 15.2% Usage — 1.010 PPP
  • Kansas PnR Ballhandler Defense: 17.7% Usage — 0.789 PPP

  • Mizzou Spot Up Offense: 26.3% Usage — 1.000 PPP
  • Kansas Spot Up Defense: 25.9% Usage — 0.829 PPP

  • Mizzou Catch & Shoot Offense: 68.8% Usage — 1.02 PPS
  • Kansas Catch & Shoot Defense: 60.4% Usage — 0.94 PPS