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The Verdict: Crowding the paint, cutting and timely shooting keyed a win over Mississippi State

After back-to-back losses, Mizzou — and its postseason résumé — were in need in of relief. Subtle tweaks delivered the result the Tigers needed.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

After a substantial hiatus, preoccupied with bracket projection matters, The Verdict has returned to bring an in-depth look at Mizzou’s win over Mississippi State.

There are scant opportunities in a season to evaluate a team’s strategy — and execution — against the same opponent in somewhat rapid succession. We will not let this golden opportunity go to waste.

The Tigers, losers of two straight games, sat at 7-7 in SEC play and were searching for a win to avoid an uglier bubble prospectus. Mississippi State, on the other hand, entered as arguably the most bubblicious team in America. The Bulldogs, owning an 18-9 mark overall and 6-8 in SEC play, were in desperate need of a victory to solidify their March plans.

What we received as a result was one of the most hotly contested games of the season. Neither team held a lead greater than six points throughout the contest. True to form, 40 minutes of fierce physical competition was not enough to find a victor. No, this game needed an extra five minutes of scratching and clawing to determine the outcome.

In the end, the home team was able to claim the win. Many will remember the overtime heroics of Nick Honor and Noah Carter who helped deliver Mizzou’s first win over Mississippi State since 2018. And that’s perfectly reasonable.

However, we’re going to turn our focus to how the game got to that point, and how it differed from the contest Mizzou dropped by 11 in Starkville. This edition will be a little different because of that, but you’re still promised a full complement of statistics and film.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

On The Offensive Side

During Mizzou’s sojourn in Starkville, the Tiger’s offense spit and sputtered to a paltry 0.751 points per possession (PPP). Unable to find traction in any regard, Mizzou posted a 22.8% turnover rate and 38% effective field goal percentage (eFG), their third worst performance of the season in each category. The tepid performance was disappointing, but not altogether surprising, for the homestanding Bulldogs rank top 20 in both of those categories nationally. They are few more defensive units more legitimate.

While Mizzou didn’t exactly resemble the Harlem Globetrotters, they were more effective on their second bite of the maroon apple. Their overall PPP rose to 0.967, their eFG improved to 47.4% while their turnover rate dove to 17.6%. In a game where both teams played like they couldn’t lose it was the incremental improvements that proved to be the difference.

Mizzou Prioritized the Paint

There was no clearer difference between the two games than in how Mizzou relentlessly attacked the painted area the second time around. A particular stat I personally track is “paint touch possessions.” That is, the number of possessions in a game where Mizzou is able to get a paint touch prior to a shot going up or a turnover being made. I find this particularly important as teams that can penetrate the paint do two things: 1. Create higher percentage shots via close range; and 2. Collapse defenses allowing for higher percentage outside shots. As for their performance in those games:

  • Game 1: 53% of Possessions w/ a Paint Touch — 1.171 PPP
  • Game 2: 67.6% of Possessions w/ a Paint Touch — 1.109 PPP

While Mizzou was actually less efficient on those possessions where they managed a paint touch, the volume increased exponentially. In fact, the 67.6% rate was their second highest mark of the season. Despite the Bulldogs defense being elite in preventing both volume and efficiency in the interior, Mizzou relentlessly attacked their strength and it paid dividends. This helped improve their half court efficiency in a big way.

  • Game 1 Half-Court Offense — 86.67% Usage — 0.600 PPP
  • Game 2 Half-Court Offense — 84.81% Usage — 0.866 PPP

None of these numbers scream elite offense, but that’s not the standard. Winning games is.

Over the past three games, rim finishing has — at least on film — cropped up as an issue for the Tigers. On Tuesday, the Tigers missed seven point-blank attempts. Let’s say they converted four of them, a reasonable assumption given MU shoots 61.2 percent around the cup. That’s another eight points on the board — and probably a comfortable victory in regulation.

It was especially rough for Kobe Brown. In the clip montage, you’ll see he generated three rim attempts from five-out sets: slipping a screen into a post-up, driving a slower-footed big out of a throwback iso, and using a ball screen to get downhill. A horns set paved the way for a bully drive from the elbow. And we can’t omit the chippie from a last-second in-bounds play at the end of regulation.

While the results lagged, the process was important. When the dust settled, Mizzou scored 12 more points at the cup than in Starkville and Kobe paced the group with four makes.

Mizzou Created Offense Off the Ball

Unlike in their first contest, Mizzou was able to generate offense away from the ballhandler. This is most apparent in their efficiency and volume of cutting opportunities:

  • Game 1 Cut Offense — 4 Possessions — 5.33% Usage — 1.000 PPP
  • Game 2 Cut Offense — 10 Possessions — 12.66% Usage — 1.200 PPP

Put in plain terms, a cutting action is simply a player cutting to the rim off the ball and receiving a pass. In their first outing, Mizzou scored four points in this manner. In Game 2? 12 points. We’re seeing quickly how an 11-point deficit turned into a two-point win.

It might seem foggy now, but one of D’Moi Hodge’s best traits at Cleveland State was cutting defenses apart. In Columbia, though, those touches have become scarcer. On Tuesday, though, they made a much-needed cameo.

Like Auburn and Texas A&M, the Bulldogs’ roster is full of length and athleticism. It uses that physicality pressure crucial junctions in your offense: deny passes to the pinch post, bump cutters when switching split action, blow up dribble handoffs, and play up the line to deny reversals.

Cutting is a cheat code. And Hodge used it early on.

Frequently, those looks came from hunting the baseline after Mizzou inverted the floor, and three of the clips are essentially the Tigers playing in 5-out alignments. But the scheme only goes so far. Hodge proved keen at reading the body positioning of defenders, whether it was a backdoor cut from the slot or altering his path when coming off a pin-down.

Anecdotally, MU appeared to call more five-out-based sets, using spread ball screens to get an initial touch, kick out, and then work back to the second side of the floor. So even if State reacted quickly enough to cut off a driver, the initial action had already seeded the ground for success: the screener who rolled was now a safety valve in the short corner.

Mizzou Got Just Enough Jump Shooting

While Tuesday’s outing won’t be confused with any of the Tigers’ best performances on the year, it was an improvement from their road trip.

  • Game 1 Catch & Shoot Offense — 18 Attempts — 55.6% of Jumpers — 0.833 PPP
  • Game 2 Catch & Shoot Offense — 22 Attempts — 78.57% of Jumpers — 0.955 PPP

Again, put in simplest terms, Mizzou scored 15 points on 18 jumpers attempted off the simplest of shots in Game 1. Last night? 21 points. This was buoyed by two such shots in extra time that proved the difference between the two outings and as it so happened, the outcome of the game.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

On the Defensive Side

Mississippi State will not be confused with an elite offense. The Bulldogs have struggled with shooting to a tremendous degree. But they’re competent and know their identity: Score just enough from mauling the rim to allow their defense to win ball games.

Last night, Mizzou prevented them from doing that. In arguably their finest defensive effort of the season, Mizzou held MSU to 0.937 PPP. While that was only a moderate drop from Game 1 when they allowed 0.956, it was enough to prove the difference.

Typically, when Mizzou scores well in the defensive metrics, it’s by virtue of killing the opponent with takeaways. That wasn’t the case last night when they forced turnovers at a rate of 20.5%. That represents only a 0.8% increase in Game 1. Instead, they did it the old-fashioned way. They rolled up their sleeves, forced misses and collected rebounds.

MSU’s shooting eFG landed at 42.5%, their sixth lowest of the season. It was the lowest Mizzou had allowed since their early-season introductory slate. MSU, a top 25 team in offensive rebounding — who gets 34.4% of their own misses back by offensive rebounds — only retrieved 32.5% of opportunities. While certainly not an elite mark for the Tigers, it was a huge win, for Mizzou ranked dead last in defensive rebounding rate nationally (of 363 teams) allowing a rate of <38%. Not only avoiding a total disaster — the Tigers held their own.

There is one particular area I want to focus on in this defensive segment.

Mizzou Stopped Mississippi State’s Playmaker

In 2023, it’s rare that the hub of a team’s offense is a monster on the low block. But when it comes to MSU, that’s exactly the case. Tolu Smith is that monster.

The fourth-year player from Mississippi is averaging 15 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists per outing. The first time the teams hooked up he posted 25, 12 and 2 respectively. Last night his numbers nosedived, finishing with a comparatively modest 14, 10 and 0. But it’s not just about his individual stat line, it’s about the impact removing him from the equation had on the game as a whole.

For starters, we can look at Mississippi State’s three-point shooting. The Bulldogs rank 359th nationally in accuracy, converting just 28% of long balls — 0.84 points/attempt. Comparatively, Mississippi State attempts 41.3% of their shots at the rim and converts them for 1.240 points per attempt, both among the nation’s best. The picture was clear: Protect the rim at all costs and take your chances.

Last night, while MSU did come out hot in the first half, they finished 7-28 (25%) from three-point range. I was more intrigued by the latter number. 46.7% of MSU’s shot attempts came from behind the arc. On the season, only 35.8% of their shots come from distance. Forcing an opponent to do something they’re bad at is good!

But Mizzou also shut down Mississippi State where they were best. Consider their performance on post-ups and cutting actions. Much of MSU’s offense is predicated on entering the ball to Smith at the block and playing off of him. Weakside players dive to the rim when doubles come to defend him as a primary option. When executed well, it’s a hard gig to stop.

  • Game 1 Post Up Offense + Passes From — 13 Possessions — 18.1% Usage — 1.000 PPP
  • Game 2 Post Up Offense + Passes From — 8 Possessions — 10.1% Usage — 0.750 PPP

Mizzou was able to both prevent these possessions and reduce their efficiency. The lopped 7 points of the board in this category from Game 1 to Game 2.

  • Game 1 Cutting Offense — 13 Possessions — 18.1% Usage — 1.846 PPP
  • Game 2 Cutting Offense — 14 Possessions — 17.7% Usage — 1.000 PPP

Mizzou was not able to drop the volume, but the reduction in efficiency was notable. The Tigers improved from allowing 24 points on these prime opportunities to just 14. Again, when we’re talking about the narrow differences between a win and a loss, this was a massive result.

Mississippi State v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Over the past five years, posting up on the block has become a dying trade. Today, most offenses are built around spacing the floor and running a parade of ball screens. Increasingly, bigs aren’t backing down on the block. Instead, they’re picking and popping. They’re short rolling. Or they’re just camping out in the short corner.

Not in Starkville. Watching Mississippi State would make Hakeem Olajuwon grin.

No big man in the SEC posts up more than Tolu Smith, whose efficiency only trails Oscar Tshiebwe, Liam Robbins, and Johni Broome. And in some ways, those touches are a fulcrum for coach Chris Jans’ squad. Its guards are some of the nation’s worst pick-and-roll operators. And the Bulldogs rank No. 359 for efficiency on catch-and-shoot jumpers.

Their counter is simple: Throw it to Tolu. For example, Smith’s passes to spot-up shooters net 0.911 PPP, per Synergy Sports. That’s not great. Yet it’s also 7 percent better than State’s usual handiwork. And when Smith every so often hits a cutter, those rim attempts (1.214 PPP) are gold.

It also makes for an easy scout: choke off touches for Tolu and watch State stall. But, of course, that’s easier said than done.

Just watch.

Smith’s frame is sturdy, but he’s agile enough to maneuver to a deep position and evade attempts to front. Once he gets a clean entry pass, he’s comfortable drop-stepping to the baseline from the left block, going straight at the rim over either shoulder from the right block, or burying you on a duck-in. Finishing with either hand lets him play patiently, and he’s got enough counters to defy help rolling his way. Meanwhile, if your big switches on to a guard, State’s competent enough to hunt the mismatch and find a big loitering around the restricted area.

We’ve discussed this before, but good post defense starts with preparation. Doing your work early. On its visit to Starkville, MU failed at that – a lot. Tuesday, however, proved the Tigers took that lesson to heart.

To start the above montage, we see Noah Carter, who struggled mightily in the first matchup, atoning the second time around. Tolu receives a pass on a short roll at the elbow instead of his preferred deep post. Carter holds his ground until Kobe can stunt and force a kick out.

Next, we can see that Mizzou’s bigs fought like hell to deny entry passes, whether using three-quarter fronting on the block or fully fronting on potential high-lows. Even the Tigers’ lean guards – Hodge and Sean East II — scrapped and clawed when caught in risky switches. And when they were on the perimeter, they mercilessly harassed guards – pressure that changed the angle and timing of entry passes.

Notice how most of those possessions ended? An impatient State settling for contested jumpers or turning the ball over.

On trips where the ball did reach the low block, MU tweaked how it sent help. It didn’t send a defender from the baseline side. Instead, the response almost always came from the top side and with a wall up. For good measure, a guard like Honor might reach in for a tie-up. Or Hodge might arrive from the back side to swat a shot. Occasionally, the Tigers ginned up some corner traps.

It’s easy to equate improved post defense with rolling out more size. But on Tuesday, the Tigers had a minus-11 scoring margin when they deployed Mohamed Diarra or Mabor Majak. Meanwhile, Smith got the better of Kobe Brown several times. Ironically, State’s worst rim finishing (0.955 PPP) came when Carter handled the five spot.

The goal — realistically — was not so much to shut Smith down as it was to take him out of his comfort areas. It was about winning the battle for real estate.

On Tuesday, Tolu was no longer RE/MAX.

Good post defense is an extension of good team defense and Mizzou showed us that first-hand.