We knew this is how Missouri’s season would meet its demise.
At some point along the road to revitalization, the duct tape and bungee cords lashed together around its battered roster would give way. The only questions were when and under what circumstances the parts would end up strewn all over the blacktop.
The moment arrived as Friday turned into Saturday inside Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena during the eighth-seeded Tigers’ 67-54 loss to Florida State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
When junior guard Jordan Geist crashed to the hardwood midway through the second half, it was the last gasket to go as MU tried to rally from a 22-point halftime deficit. Sure, Mizzou showed some spunk, slicing the Seminoles lead to as little as six, but wafer-thin depth, rickety ball-handling, foul-prone big men, and scattershot jump-shooting were too much to overcome.
After Geist slowly rose from the floor and held a limp wrist, it wasn’t unreasonable to wonder whether MU would have to make do with six bodies.
- Just minutes earlier, cramps attacked Geist’s left calf.
- Once again, Michael Porter Jr. lacked lift.
- Again, whistles chained Jeremiah Tilmon to a folding chair on the sidelines, the freshman post fouling out with a paltry two points and two rebounds in 12 minutes of action.
And that’s on top of Jordan Barnett’s one-game exile after his arrest last Saturday for driving while intoxicated.
The offensive malaise that set in during a first-round exit from the SEC Tournament tailed MU to Nashville and lingered during a putrid first half. Meanwhile, FSU’s size, athleticism, and tempo were magnified by lazy transition defense and miscues in the half court.
How bad did it get? The Tigers went scoreless in their final 15 possessions of a first half that included twice as many turnovers (10) as baskets (five). And those traits doomed MU when the Noles threw a 14-0 counterpunch after the Tigers pulled within 50-44 and 9:53 remained.
When the end came, we suspected it would a foul-smelling slurry of poor 3-point shooting, defensive breakdowns, and turnovers. And at the moment, no one wants to hand out plaudits, even if Mizzou’s flaws shouldn’t be permanent blemishes on a season that was a resounding success.
Now, to the box.
One last time: MU needed a point guard
If you’re looking for a silver lining in the wake of Mizzou’s exit, it cleared out the schedule for Cuonzo Martin to find a seat inside JQH Arena at 4:30 p.m. today for the MSHSAA Class 5 showdown between Webster Groves and Chaminade. It allows him to continue his pursuit of Courtney Ramey.
While I laud Geist for stepping into the breach, it’s abundantly clear he’s not a lead guard. Against Florida State, which extends ball pressure and shrivels gaps, it takes a true point guard to put the Seminoles in a rotation and on tilt. Instead, Geist aimlessly circled the perimeter and passed on probing the lane and exploiting FSU’s tendency to rally to the ball like white blood cells.
So it fell to Kassius Robertson to take over the task. Only Missouri didn’t deploy high ball-screens in early-clock situations or hand-offs out of weave actions at the top of the key to spring him for quality looks. Meanwhile, FSU cloaked Jontay Porter on the low-block, relying on its standard protocol of fronting all big men when the ball is on the wing. When Porter did get the ball — a risky proposition for a group that struggles at times to toss accurate lob passes — he was smothered in a hard double-team, cutting off his line of sight for opposite-side kickouts.
Meanwhile, Porter Jr. was clearly far from the height of his powers, even if he did stitch together a stat line of 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Outside of the Tigers’ would-be rally in the early minutes of the second half, Porter struggled to get downhill and certainly didn’t look explosive finishing amid contact.
Put simply, Mizzou lacked a catalyst to spur its offense into converting potential energy into kinetic. Had MU been able to get FSU into a scramble drill, there likely would have been ample opportunities to bury Leonard Hamilton’s crew in a barrage of 3-pointers. Just as important, it would have sliced Mizzou’s turnover percentage, which finished at 22.5 for the night, to a more acceptable figure.
Normally, the opportunity cost of a giveaway is the points that MU doesn’t tally up in its column. But on Friday, a sound transition defense — MU ranks 62nd nationally, according to Synergy — went missing as FSU racked up 16 points on fastbreaks.
Barnett’s absence hurt, but not how you think
To start out, I’m not absolving Jordan Barnett for a bone-headed and selfish decision. By not being in the building, he put Mizzou in the untenable position of asking a threadbare roster to give more of itself than was possible.
Ire tends to be directed toward the offensive production sapped from the rotation. But Porter Jr.’s production was almost a carbon copy of what Barnett has provided as a secondary scorer and dogged rebounding wing.
The pain was actually more acute on the defensive end of the floor. When you sift through analytics, you’ll discover that the senior was MU’s best pick-and-roll defender, giving up 0.65 points per possession according to Synergy Sports. He also happens to be stellar at containing wings who slash into gaps on closeouts.
Anytime you pull a 6’7 wing off the floor, it robs you of size and length, but it’s especially problematic against an attack like the one FSU deployed: a ball-screen continuity offense. Put simply, the Noles structure their sets to consistently generate a loop of actions, which can be run on either side of the floor, that involve a pick-and-rolls or pick-and-pops for big wings and combo forwards like Terance Mann, Braian Angola, and Phil Cofer.
Instead of switching Robertson on to the drivers, you wind up with smaller defenders like Robertson and Geist, or defenders who lack as much lateral agility (Kevin Puryear) to contain the dribbler. All of that puts stress on your help-side rotations and your big men on the back line. When they step up to cut off the drive, it creates openings for posts like Mfiondu Kabengele, normally a low-usage player who finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
On a typical night, Mizzou only allows 14 points at the rim on plays that don’t start as a post-up on the block. They allowed 20 against Florida State. And that’s without accounting for the impact Barnett could make by closing out on perimeter shooters in a game where the Noles shot 46.7 percent from behind the arc.
As the season unfolded, Barnett had a tendency to disappear offensively a half at a time. But his presence on the defensive end is arguably far more valuable because the Tigers’ penchant for stymieing the opposition could help them limp along in games where shots weren’t falling. By subtracting him from the rotation, MU’s defense buckled.
Jontay and Jeremiah remain the program’s cornerstones.
There’s no getting around the ugly stat line: two points on 1-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, and five assists in 40 minutes. On a night where MU needed all its freshmen post duo could muster, Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon were unable to meet the moment.
For his part, Tilmon didn’t get the lenient whistles he needed, sitting for long stretches and then promptly making up for lost time by committing a quick offense and taking his seat once again. While the East St. Louis blue-chipper clearly made progress as the season unfolded, he still averaged 8.7 fouls per 40 minutes against KenPom top-100 teams. If he can’t defend without fouling, he’ll squander the prodigious gifts that could make him one of the SEC’s most lethal low-block presences.
And for advanced as Jontay’s skillset is at such an early age, FSU’s big men roughed him up while fronting the freshman on the block. The doubled team blocked his stellar vision, keeping him from spying either an open shooter or a cutter brave enough to bolt down the lane.
Over the last two games, opponents carried out a rather simple task: challenging Porter’s toughness. Life is different when you’re the focal point of a team’s scouting report, and Jontay learned that lesson in recent weeks.
While there’s been some concern as to whether Jontay might also test the NBA waters, showing up on draft boards isn’t the definitive arbiter of whether you should stay or go. Scouts will still wonder about Jontay’s lateral quickness. They will worry about whether his potentially average athleticism. And figuring out what his positional fit should be is tricky.
Assuming each stick around, they’ll be counted to serve as the fulcrum’s for MU’s offense, an attack that still has to figure out who can provide what in a backcourt laden with questions.