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

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On Second Look: Mizzou’s stable rotation powers stellar start

Good health, an adapted offensive philosophy, and a perkier tempo have fleshed out clear roles for the Tigers’ veteran roster.

Ahead of the annual Braggin’ Rights clash, how much space do you think was dedicated to Javon Pickett, Mitchell Smith, or Parker Braun in Illinois’ scouting report?

Even if Pickett’s reputation in the matchup earned him more mentions, the safe assumption would likely be that much of the Illini’s focus was elsewhere on the Tigers’ roster. The game also unfolded in a way the Tigers’ longtime rival coveted. Ayo Dosunmu poured in 36 points, while two of Missouri’s stars in Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith were mired in foul trouble—depriving MU of scoring punch, steady off-ball defense, and rim protection.

Yet at the final horn, then-No. 6 Illinois shuffled off the floor with an 81-78 defeat. And it was a group of relative laymen from MU’s bench who tallied up a crucial 26 points and helped the program run its winning streak in the series to three.

No doubt, the consistency of Tilmon, Xavier Pinson, Mark Smith, and Dru Smith has boosted the Tigers to a surprising start, rising to No. 14 in the polls this week. However, its supporting cast has also been a critical development during a rebuild that’s run into a series of delays.

If they dispatch Bradley, a potential contender out of the Missouri Valley Conference tonight, modest preseason expectations will get ratcheted up again ahead of SEC play. We might still be trying to comprehend how MU upended the consensus view. Yet, on close inspection, we can see how Martin and the veteran roster at his disposal evolved into a potential contender.

NCAA Basketball: Oral Roberts at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Older, wiser and faster

There’s an often used adage pounded into our skulls: Old wins.

It most certainly describes the Tigers. With almost 2.5 years of experience, this group is the most grizzled among high-majors. For optimists, that seat time was a central component of an affirmative argument for the Tigers taking a step forward in Martin’s fourth season.

Age alone, though, doesn’t correlate with boosting a win total.

Sure, no other SEC program returned as much production as MU. However, that same group limped—literally and figuratively—to a win 15 wins last season. Set aside the fact Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith missed 21 games combined. Even at full strength, headliners like Smith (80.9 offensive rating), Tilmon (94.7), and Pinson (93.5) struggled in tilts against teams in the top 100 of KenPom’s ratings.

Injuries and inconsistency torpedoed any notion of stability.

Generally speaking, power-conference programs make tradeoffs between tempo, bench usage, and how consistently they portion out playing times. The correlations are slight, but data hints that teams who play fast rely on their bench more, making them less rigid in which players see the floor.

Last season, though, MU was a quixotic case. The Tigers played at a plodding speed, ranking 53rd among high-major peers, per KenPom. But MU was sixth in bench minutes and 25th in continuity.

So, the Tigers played slow. But Martin subbed liberally. And his lineups retained a degree of stability.

If you watched Mizzou, none of those statements would contradict each other. Mizzou’s ethos is defensive-minded, a mentality where the Tigers sat down in gaps and forced tough shots. Offensively, they spent the first 20 or so games futilely creating spot-ups by playing off Tilmon in the post or chugging through slow possessions filled with off-ball screening. None of it mattered because the shots they slogged to create clanked off the rim—so much that defenses shrank the floor and dared MU to punish them.

And for his part, Martin’s never leaned on a traditional second unit. Usually, Martin defaults to a loose pattern of shuttling players in, mixing and matching after that to find a group that settles into a groove. Once Tilmon and Smith went down, the lineup became a Rubik’s cube he had to solve from game to game.

Until, that is, he elevated a pick-and-roll sub-package to the Tigers’ base offense. As we’ve noted, the late-season shift concentrated the offense in the hands of Pinson and Dru Smith, with the supporting cast ebbing and flowing around them. It was a revelation, one that led Martin to boost his program’s operating speed.

Through five games, you can see the results. So far, the Tigers have averaged 70.1 possessions per game—the perkiest adjusted tempo of Martin’s career. Almost 22.1 percent of them come in transition, according to Synergy. And they take nearly 34.7 percent of their shots on the run, which is 66th nationally, according to Hoop-Math.com. Consider that last season, MU finished 279th.

Plenty of coaches espouse their desire to play fast. Martin’s actually done it. And yet the Tigers sit fifth nationally—behind only UCLA among high-majors—in the continuity (77.3 percent) of their minutes.

Rather than simply running it back, MU’s philosophical shift helped Martin find creative ways to use the same parts and crystalized roles for a roster of older heads.

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

Piecing together a pecking order

Almost a year ago, I wondered who Cuonzo Martin would count on as Mizzou prepared to shove off and embark on its SEC schedule.

At the time, the Tigers only called on their top-three lineups 15.7 percent of the time. That ranked dead last in the SEC, and that was before Tilmon and Mark Smith’s injuries created even more uncertainty. Twelve months later, though, MU’s starting five alone uses 17.2 percent of minutes, and almost 51.4 percent of its minutes are concentrated among 10 combinations.

In five games, those starters have amassed 64 possessions together, according to Hoop Lens. Last year, it took them a dozen to reach a similar volume.

Admittedly, it’s still early, but the Martin’s reliance on his starters and usage of his bench bears a closer resemblance to his tenures at Tennessee, Cal, and first two seasons in Columbia. That’s somewhat reassuring as we take a cursory look at the roughly 70 combinations MU’s used this season and isolate those that have gained the most traction.

From those groupings, we can also break down the minutes each player logs at a specific position and create a thumbnail sketch of the roster’s pecking order. After the starting five, it’s easy to see Mitchell Smith, Pickett, Buggs and Parker Braun serve as the supporting cast.

Often, Martin attempts to keep three starters on the floor at any point in time. As group, they’re exceptional table-setters, positing a plus-15 scoring margin to open games and a plus-37 net rating per 100 possessions. Yet once Martin begins deploying his bench, the pattern rarely circles back the group who led it off. In fact, it’s only happened twice, and one of those occasions lasted the final 15 seconds before the break against Oregon.

The first pivot point is at combo forward and Mitchell Smith, who usually checks in around the first media timeout. Simply inserting the the redshirt senior enables Martin to toggle seamlessly between different approaches. If Smith relieves Kobe Brown, MU gets longer and more defensive-minded at the combo forward spot. Or he can lift Tilmon, using Smith as a small-ball five.

When Mitchell Smith takes Brown’s place, the offense does see a dip in efficiency, averaging just 0.84 points per possession. Mechanically, though, the Tigers can tweak their sets in the half-court. The Tigers still move Tilmon around as a screener in mid-post, at the elbow, or have him lift a defender off the baseline by working in the slot.

Operating with Smith at the four, however, alters some of the options on those screening actions. For example, a common action in the Tigers’ offense involves Dru Smith inverted on a low block, cutting over a Tilmon screen near the elbow, popping out for pass, and waiting for Tilmon to set another screen in the slot. That sequence can tee up a two-man game via the pick-and-roll—or Dru can reverse the ball to Mitch for a wrinkle.

Once Mitch receives the ball at the top of the key, he also has options. He can run a hand-off with Dru. Or pass to a guard on the wing and chase it into ball screen that lets a player like Javon Pickett drive into a gap. But on this particular possession against Wichita State, Tilmon uses his roll to the rim to bury Trey Wade in the post on a duck-in, setting up a high-low feed from Mitch.

A minute or so later, though, is when the lineup undergoes its first substantial revision. Buggs comes off the bench to replace Pinson, but Martin might also send in Pickett for Mark Smith. And in some cases, Braun relieves Tilmon. By overlapping playing time and scoring margin, we can see which of these groupings tend to pan out.

As you can tell, the volume of possessions is relatively modest for four of those groups, sample sizes that can be skewed pretty easily by circumstances. These rotations are logical when you consider the context of MU’s offense, which often requires two ball-handlers on the floor to flourish. That adaptation pushes Mark Smith from combo guard to the wing, where he’s an optimal catch-and-shoot threat to space the floor. The changes also nudged Pickett to the bench.

However, paring back Pickett’s playing time hasn’t been detrimental. During the offseason, we mused whether the junior would knock down enough corner 3s to keep the offense humming. So far, that’s been moot. His portfolio of duties is slimmed down: defend, rebound, sprint the floor, make heady cuts, and occasionally attack on straight-line drives.

Making A Dent | On- and Off-Court Impact | Missouri - 2020-21

Player Poss. Off. PPP (On) Def. PPP (On) Net (On) Net (Off) Impact*
Player Poss. Off. PPP (On) Def. PPP (On) Net (On) Net (Off) Impact*
Dru Smith 310 1.09 0.96 0.132 0.28 -13.2
Mark Smith 268 1.1 0.85 0.247 -0.1 34.7
Jeremiah Tilmon 240 1.06 0.88 0.179 0.11 6.9
Xavier Pinson 237 1.08 0.89 0.19 0.08 11
Javon Pickett 168 1.16 0.92 0.237 0.19 4.7
Kobe Brown 168 1.08 0.97 0.113 0.09 2.3
Mitchell Smith 155 1.05 0.97 0.076 0.2 -12.4
Drew Buggs 100 0.99 0.97 0.02 0.21 -19
Torrence Watson 77 1.08 1.01 0.065 0.07 0.5
Parker Braun 56 1.18 1.08 0.095 0.16 -6.5
Jordan Wilmore 16 0.81 0.89 -0.082 0.16 -24.2
*Impact is the difference between on- and off-court net ratings multiplied by 100 possessions. Source: Hoop Lens

Reviewing each player’s impact—how their presence changes MU’s net rating—illustrates that Pickett (plus-4.7) is still contributing like a starter even after his move to the bench. As we saw against the Illini, the Metro East native’s scoring punch was timely. He notched 10 of 14 points during stretches where MU turned to reserve-led units stretch the lead out against a rival.

The utility of using Mitchell Smith at the five and Pickett’s skillset on the wing also showed up with the Tigers’ most productive lineup, which also featured Brown, Pinson and Dru Smith. With a plus-12 scoring margin, it was the most productive quintet against Illinois, helping Missouri nurse a small lead in the first half and expand it to double digits after halftime.

Going small five allowed MU to pick up the pace and isolate Kofi Cockburn in space in the half-court. Watch how Brown operates after this baseline in-bounds pass against the Illini big man to set up a fall-away jumper.

In the second half, Tilmon headed to the bench with his third foul, and the lineup optimized its base offense to spur a Dru Smith-led spurt that opened up a 13-point lead. Instead of Tilmon acting as the screener for Dru, Mitchell took over the role, helping the Tigers’ point guard attack a seam and flip in a runner over Cockburn.

A possession later, the Illini snuffed out that initial action, but MU countered with a handoff from Mitch to Dru, who spotted Pickett back cutting while Dosunmu ball-watched.

So, this lineup gets better once Tilmon returns, right? Nope. Instead, its net rating slides to minus-10, and it posts a paltry 0.76 points per possession on offense, per Hoop Lens. Digging through play-by-play offers us a plausible explanation: Eugene Omoruyi. The Oregon combo forward chewed up Mizzou’s defense, but he was instrumental with Brown on the floor, especially in the second half after the Tigers built 59-45 lead.

But we can draw an obvious lesson: circumstances matter. It’s reinforced when we evaluate lineups featuring Braun. When the redshirt sophomore shares the floor with Buggs and all three Smiths, the scoring margin (plus-12) and net rating (plus-125) are gaudy over 14 possessions.

Again, let’s mine the play-by-play data from Statbroadcast.

The lineup’s perceived effectiveness stems from a two-minute blitz against Oregon, where Mark Smith accounted for eight points during the 10-2 run. A game later, playing with pace spared them from unlocking Wichita State’s zone defense. Late in the first half, Dru Smith noticed the Shockers didn’t pick up Braun on a rim run during a secondary break and connected with him on a lob. Two possessions later, Dru drove the lane early in the shot clock, sucked in help defenders, and kicked the ball out to trailing Braun at the top of the arc for an open 3-pointer.

Blending in Buggs, who often spells Pinson, has also been a boon. Even if Dru Smith remains on the floor, Buggs allows him to slide off the ball. Or the Tigers can sit him with Pinson, opting to put Mark Smith at combo guard alongside Buggs, who can get the Tigers into their offense.

Exchanging Pickett for Mark Smith, though, produced results that are markedly different. Smith’s absence is acute against a set defense, which doesn’t have to account for a reliable knock-down shooter. Opponents defend pick-and-rolls with drop coverage, over-help to the middle of the floor, and drift in from the corners to backstop the paint.

You can also spot it when assessing the metrics for four heavily used lineups that wind up on the wrong side of scoring margin and net rating.

Cue up video, and you can see MU’s offense bog down. Screeners don’t pick off defenders, and they don’t roll to the rim hard or with purpose. Not only is it easy for Pickett’s defender to go under when Mitchell Smith screens in the slot, but there’s a thicket of defenders lurking in the paint.

The same factors come into play when Braun comes in from the slot, where he’s trying to pull his defender up from the baseline to run a pick-and-roll with Buggs. The defender ducks under, Braun gets tagged rolling, and the defender camped out in the restricted area doesn’t fret about leaving Mitchell Smith unattended in the corner.

Heading into Braggin’ Rights, the group owned a minus-five scoring margin, and, on paper, might have been a dicey option against the Illini. Illinois’ guards, especially Dosunmu and and Curbelo, have the quickness and agility to thrive in pick-and-rolls. And while Braun’s added some weight, trying to dislodge or front Cockburn was likely a losing proposition.

And sure enough, those very scenarios played out when the group was on the floor late in the first half. But again, picking up the pace served them well. A couple of long rebounds off missed 3-pointers led to run outs by Pickett and Braun.

Pinson later stripped Curbelo, feeding Pickett in transition for a layup that resulted in a goaltending call.

And ironically, enough, replacing Braun with Tilmon led to an eight-point swing — plus-2 to minus-6 — in the other direction for scoring margin. With a traditional big back on the floor and the tempo revved down, Dosunmu started wreaking havoc out of high pick-and-rolls, while Cockburn lurked in the paint for dump-offs and cutbacks.

As the season’s unfolded, though, Martin’s been able to balance that circumstantial evidence with the skillset of each player, tailoring his rotation accordingly.

While Martin’s turned the right knobs and calibrated his team early, how durable those settings remain is an open question. Ironically, this iteration of MU is the one we expected to see last season. Martin’s willingness to make tweaks has helped it — at least so far — live up to that potential. At the same time, the ongoing pandemic has exacerbated the value of continuity, especially after traditional offseason development programs were undermined.

How quickly will other programs that experienced more roster churn or skew young close the gap? It’s hard to know, but in the near term, MU’s stability is a boon.

That said, MU’s conference peers can take stock in this fact: they know the Tigers’ personnel well. The method behind its use has changed, but familiarity still counts for something. To what degree will be tested early on with a visit from Tennessee, the preseason pick to win the SEC, and a road trip to Arkansas whose adjusted efficiency margin trails Mizzou by the slimmest of margins.

And when we stop navel-gazing at Statbroadcast, spreadsheets and video, we draw a more important takeaway: Martin knows who he can rely on.

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