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The Verdict: Utah State’s pace and positional flexibility pose a stiff test for Mizzou

We break down the internal matchups to watch in the Tigers’ first tournament appearance in two years.

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

March 19, 2010, was an otherwise non-descript Friday.

Of relevance to this discussion, it was also the last date the Mizzou Tiger Basketball program won an NCAA Tournament game. That team, led by a pair of senior guards — J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor — defeated a feline of a different hue, the Clemson Tigers. Now Graduate Assistant, Phil Pressey, had committed to Mizzou the previous September but had not yet donned the black and gold.

NCAA Basketball: Division I Championship-Missouri vs Connecticut Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Fast forward 4,745 days, and Mizzou is still in search of an ever-elusive Round 1 win.

Folks, it’s been a minute.

On Thursday morning the Mizzou contingent will invade Sactown and face a high-powered foe in Utah State. We’ll brief you fully on them momentarily.

In the interim I suggest taking a beat and enjoying the moment. Mizzou has appeared in two of the last five NCAA tournaments, playing in both the 2018 and 2021 iterations. Nonetheless, Mizzou will be provided the opportunity to wear their home uniforms in the sporting world’s best singular event. Once the final horn sounds a little less than three weeks from now and “One Shining Moment,” plays, we’ll be without college basketball for seven months. This moment should be savored like the last bite of a plate of grilled chicken nachos after an evening out downtown.

It’s not a total shock that Mizzou has made it this far. The rehab project last spring was significant, and this very scribe said that a tournament bid was not an unreasonable expectation, even if not THE expectation. What’s more surprising is the manner in which it’s been accomplished. Mizzou has proven to be a high-octane — and volatile — unit even without the services of one of the most proven scorers in D-I basketball for significant portions of the season. They finished fourth in a deep SEC conference and notched numerous impressive wins. To top it off, The Tigers added two buzzer-beaters to really get the fanbase’s collective juices flowing.

Mizzou is once again made for March. How far they will go is fully dependent on how they perform from this date forward. Everything else is just noise.

We’re going to take a stab at the important factors to watch for in the always difficult game number one.

When Mizzou Has the Ball

In what should prove to be one of the higher scoring games of the opening round, Mizzou’s strength and Utah State’s strength are the same: OFFENSE!!!

We won’t rehash much of what you’ve seen already this year. Instead, let’s focus on areas where Mizzou would do well to exploit.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Semifinals - Alabama vs Missouri Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

1. Run When It’s Advantageous

To preface most of these conversations, Mizzou is not an incredibly deep team due to a host of injuries and absences. What was a 12-man scholarship depth chart has been whittled down to effectively playing 7-8 men on a given night. Tre Gomillion’s availability has also been in question the latter half of the league slate. But they’re still deeper than Utah State. The Aggies have four players that see over 75% of minutes, one who sees 66% and three who see between 28-35%. They play eight, but only rely on five.

Mizzou, comparatively, has not a single player that reached the 75% threshold. Of the eight that we assume to be available, their season minute rates are: 73%, 71%, 71%, 57%, 57%, 52%, 24% and 21%. Diarra’s 21% is effectively more in-line with 40% over recent weeks. An active Gomillion will add an additional player at 31%. It goes without saying, but Mizzou’s distribution is far more uniform.

Putting a little pep into this game has several advantages. First, Mizzou likes to play in transition, and they do it well. Over 22% of their offensive possessions come on the run and their 1.117 PPP (points per possession) are among the nation’s elite. Comparatively, Utah State defends only 10.8% of opponents’ possessions in transition and uses only 13.7% of their own offensive possessions in that manner. Put simply, Mizzou likes to run. Utah State will but prefers to let their half-court game do the talking. And that makes sense when you consider the minute allocations.

The Aggies defense DOES defend well in transition. Not to take anything away from the schedule they’ve played — the Mountain West is a very good league — facing a Mizzou team that pushes pace will be a challenge for them. It posed problems for NCAA Tournament squads from the SEC. And it will be a challenge to keep their primary players on the floor for 30+ minutes chasing the Tigers by their tail. Playing fast could pay dividends on multiple fronts.

2. Punish the Paint

Whether it’s in transition, or in a half-court setting, Mizzou need not be drawn into a gunfight from beyond the arc. While the Tigers are capable of matching blow for blow, there’s an opportunity at the rim that shouldn’t be ignored.

Utah State sports a very solid defensive eFG (effective field goal percentage) inside the arc, ranking 27th best nationally in the country. However, if you dig deeper, you see the advantages are present.

For starters, Mizzou’s two-point eFG ranks 13th best in the country. The Tigers like to work the interior in multiple ways. Whether it’s beating the opponent down the court, running isolations and/or pick and rolls against advantageous matchups, cutting off the ball or utilizing Kobe Brown and Noah Carter as playmakers at the high and low posts. Mizzou grades out well in each of these areas.

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

Meanwhile, Utah State’s defense has faced an extreme amount of actions involving post-ups, isolations and cutters. They do not grade out well on an efficiency basis on any of them. In fact, they’re among the nation’s worst in defending those areas. Weird how that happens, huh?

Those actions are prime opportunities for Mizzou’s strength to consistently expose Utah State’s soft underside. The Aggies are a tall team, but they’re primarily perimeter-oriented in nature. The buckets will be there. As an additional bonus, so too will be potential fouls on their primary players.

Challenge the Aggies physically.

3. Connect on ENOUGH Jumpers

While the opportunities should be available inside, Utah State is well-coached. If they start getting gashed on the interior, or perhaps even before, they’re going to adjust. In order to prevent double teams eating up Mizzou’s preferred course of action, Mizzou must present the threat of burning the Aggies from outside.

Mizzou, on balance, has been good as a jump-shooting club. However, they’re prone to boom or bust outings. In thirteen games, Mizzou has connected on 40%+ shots from beyond the arc. They’re 13-0 in those games. On the other hand, there have been 11 games in which they’ve hit 30% or less. They’re 4-7 in those games, two of which were against Southern Indiana and Lindenwood.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Quarterfinals - Missouri vs Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

When Utah State Has the Ball

Mizzou may not necessarily need a “boom,” game, though it would be lovely. They can’t withstand a “bust,” effort though. Utah State will get theirs on offense and in order to keep up on the other end, Mizzou will need the precious paint space to create points. Fortunately, Utah State has struggled in defending catch and shoot opportunities this season which are exactly the looks that will be available if Mizzou is humming inside. They also have a tendency to lose shooters on the perimeter when they cut backdoor, opening up opportunities for easy buckets.

1. Slow Utah State Down by Speeding Them Up

If that doesn’t make any sense, you’re probably still reading. That’s good.

Utah State is an elite offensive club. Much like Mizzou, they rank top 15 among all teams in adjusted offensive efficiency. However, most of their points come in a half-court setting where they proven to be ultra-efficient. The Aggies can, and will, score efficiently in transition. It’s just not their preference (see the above conversation on minutes for a potential reason why.) Their “transition” offense is really early offense. Get down the court, get set up and find the first best shot.

NCAA Basketball: Utah State at UNLV Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

A token press may be just the trick to slow them down. USU is not particularly prone to turnovers. The press probably shouldn’t have that as its primary goal. If you’re able to force some open court mistakes that turn into cheapies at the other end, great! Just don’t gamble and create odd man advantages.

Rather, despite skewing towards half-court game, the Aggies play fast. Really fast. Having watched some film of recent games, they’ll move the ball quickly into the half-court and operate at warp speed. There’s not much dribbling. It’s organized chaos of passes, cuts and screens. They’re a well-oiled machine. Having to defend that offense for 25+ seconds each trip down is a recipe for good looks and bad outcomes for their opponents.

Instead, forcing their guards to walk the ball up, or dribble quickly into pressure will work two-fold in Mizzou’s favor. First, it burns time. Instead of getting set up five seconds into the shot clock, you’re only having to defend their scoring actions for 15-20 seconds. Utah State’s offensive efficiency REALLY drops in late-clock settings.

Second, it burns energy. As we’ll discuss below, Utah State is a jump-shooting club. Forcing their prime targets, who already operate at 75%+ of minutes, to work against 75 feet of pressure for 40 minutes will inject fatigue into the equation. Tired legs often equate to errant jumpers.

Speed them up. Slow them down.

When the Aggies do run, their guards get wide and run to the corners. And their lead guard needs to get to the middle of the floor and attack the middle gap, which coach Ryan Odom dubs the chute. But unlike his teams at UMBC, the Aggies’ bigs don’t always run right to the front of them rim or operate as a trail shooters. They can grab and go, too.

Odom’s schematic worldview overlaps with Dennis Gates in one fundamental way: the first seven seconds of the possession grant autonomy for players to attack. To do it, the Aggies strip their offense to bare essentials. If the ball is in the middle of the floor, Trevin Dorius or Daniel Akin can set a flat ball screen. Or the Aggies will flow into a drag pick-and-roll from the slot. But the third clip is a cheeky call: what looks like a ball reversal and a through cut is really a back screen for Ashworth. Sprinting of it springs him for a 3 in the corner.

2. Treat Every Shooter as a Existential Threat

Of the eight players who see regular time for Utah State, four of them have both attempted 75+ three-point attempts AND made 37% or better. These guys can fling it.

Steven Ashworth, Max Shulga, Sean Bairstow and Taylor Funk can all drill jumpers. The latter two are 6’9”. These four just so happen to be the players that see the highest percentage of minutes. These are their dudes. They each possess lightning-quick releases and incredible accuracy. They can shoot on the move and certainly when spotting up. Ashworth particularly is adept at pulling up off the bounce.

NCAA Basketball: Utah State at Colorado State Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Treven Dorius and Dan Akin are their “interior,” players that will rotate to form a 5-out concept with the primary quad. Neither are perimeter shooters. Instead, they set screens and execute dribble hand-offs to free shooters. They’re road graders. If their defender jumps to double the ball, or defensive miscommunication results, they’ll slip to the rim and convert opportunities at a high rate. Akin especially is a threat in this manner.

On a related note, Mizzou must do a better job of terminating possessions. They’ve been effective at generating turnovers this season and that may continue on Thursday. But it may not as the Aggies don’t give the ball away a lot. The Tigers haven’t been good at holding opponents to “one and done.” When they do force a miss, opponents grab their misses at a shockingly high rate. Utah State isn’t an elite offensive-rebounding unit, which helps. But they’re incredibly efficient without them. Giving additional opportunities is a recipe for recent history repeating itself.

3. But Don’t Overplay

Speaking of grilled chicken nachos...did you ever think El Rancho was a good idea at the time, but later kinda regretted it?

The analogy continues.

While it’s true that Utah State can, and will, beat you from behind the arc, what if I told you that setting up a defense to take that away might make them even better?

NCAA Basketball: Utah State at UNLV Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Enter: Modern Offense. The Aggies scheme is truly a sight to behold. Their spacing is superlative. Their movement is masterful. Their passing is pristine. It’s a really fun thing to watch.

At its core, Odom’s offense relies on four guards spaced around the arc — two on one side and one on the weak side — and one big man low in the short corner. Fundamentally, the Aggies want to create double gaps. How? Take a look.

Watch Dorius in these two snippets. In the first clip, he sets a ball screen for Rylan Jones in the slot and trots to the dunker spot. Bland, right? But notice how Jones now has a big guarding him. And look Jones’ right. See all that room? There’s your double gap.

Jones attacks that space, gets headed off, reverses course, and runs a dribble hand-off — letting another Aggie attack that opening. In this case, it’s Funk, who is a nominal four man. Simple action. Multiple paint touches. And every guy on the floor feels comfortable putting the ball on the deck.

And just for the sake of clarity, the next clip shows you what a normal spread pick-and-roll would look like. That’s another core component of USU’s attack. There are possessions where the Aggies clear out a side of the floor and just cycle guards through them.

Utah State does a lot of things “on the ball.” That is, they run a lot of ball screens, they frequently use hand-offs and on a rare occasion, they’ll even isolate a mismatch. But where they get really tough is what’s transpiring away from the ball. One specific set I recall seeing had two shooters, in the paint, playing ring around the rosie. Unfortunately for their opponent, this wasn’t mere child’s play. Two players circled one another while their defenders chased themselves into a whirlwind, only to split off in various directions for wide open looks. It’s just a microcosm.

Let’s study those aforementioned handoffs.

While the Aggies have the freedom to turn the corner and attack, DHOs are often a trigger for action that unfolds on the opposite side of the floor. For example, the Aggies will use it to overload a side, reverse the rock. From there, the fun begins.

For example, it can set up hitting a big diving to the block after a back screen. Quite often, though, it flows into a spread pick-and-roll. But the Aggies don’t stand and observe. In the second clip, Jones’ drive gets a defender to stunt toward the middle. Bairstow, for his part, relocates. There’s also a cutter dashing along the baseline. The pass is off target. So, USU briefly resets, and Jones drives another gap before kicking to Funk in the corner.

Utah State runs off-ball screens effectively and uses cutting actions more than just about any team in the country. Want to overplay a jump shooter? Cool, they’ll burn you back door. Want to cheat on a down screen? Even better, they’ll slip unevaded to the rim.

During this trip, USU runs a pinch play that flows to curls off of a down screen, tees up a middle ball screen, and lets Bairstow operate in an empty-side post-up. The moment the lowest defender rotates over, Dorius slips to the rim.

This Euro pick-and-roll sets off two drive-and-kick attacks and eventually pulls the defense toward the baseline. Again, Dorius just finds a seam for a dump-off.

Or a simple through play can turn a spacing cut into an opportune moment to set a cross screen that gets Bairstow, a point forward, an easy post touch.

By having five players along the perimeter, the Aggies create space for all of this fun stuff. Mizzou has a tendency to get beat on cuts due to perimeter pressure. They have a tendency to buy shot fakes and perform fly-bys on shooters. These are all things Utah State will look to expose.

For Mizzou to be successful, they’re going to need to play disciplined defense. That doesn’t mean playing relaxed, but rather understanding that Utah State has a cheat code for anything you try to do. The Tigers will need a great team defensive effort.