Twenty seconds into a November tilt against Emporia State, Jeremiah Tilmon stands along the Mizzou Arena baseline with all the intensity of a commuter waiting for a bus to pull up.
At the top of the arc, a spin cycle of motion rolls on as Kevin Puryear, Kassius Robertson and Jordan Geist run a three-man weave. Even as Jordan Barnett turns the corner, Missouri’s big man doesn’t burst into the pocket of space created when his defender steps up to clog a driving lane. Tilmon slowly lifts his hands to his waist and Barnett shovels the ball to his mitts.
For all the chatter over Missouri’s embrace of pace and space, there’s a certain irony to dump off plays becoming a preferred method of getting the ball to the paint.
By now, we’ve run out of poetic ways to state the obvious. The Tigers launched a lot 3-pointers last season.
Necessity dictated skewed shot selection on a roster that saw its supply of shot creators dwindle as the season wore on and forced MU to idle down its tempo.
Before back surgery rendered Michael Porter Jr. unavailable for all but 53 oxidized minutes, the Tigers offense — a blend of Fred Hoiberg’s scheme at Iowa State infused with elements borrowed from the Golden State — had the potential to wreak havoc attacking off the bounce. The modus operandi shifted once Porter went under anesthesia, a pair of point guards (Blake Harris and C.J. Roberts) decamped before SEC play, and Terrence Phillips’ would-be renaissance instead ended with his dismissal from the program.
Even if Missouri wanted to build in some more isolation elements, a winnowed-down roster only had eight bodies by late January — none of whom possessed the innate trait of conjuring offense out of thin air.
Adapt or die, they say. Coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff did their level best, jury-rigging their way to an NCAA tournament bid.
Robertson, who was wooed to Columbia to act as a deadly floor spacer, emerged as the reliable operator in a system that puts a premium on high pick-and-rolls. For all the flak and shrapnel Geist faced after late-game struggles in losses to West Virginia, Florida and Arkansas, the Tigers’ preternatural pest ably piloted the offense over the final month of the regular season. Meanwhile, Barnett’s improved perimeter stroke and physical length helped him carve out a niche as a 3-and-D wing.
None of them, however, would be categorized as a slasher.
Attacking the rim off the dribble became a lost art. If the Tigers didn’t feed the ball to Tilmon or Jontay Porter on the block, getting to the tin was rare. By season’s end, MU ranked 318th nationally for shots taken around the rim that didn’t start with a post-up, averaging roughly 13 per game, according to Synergy data. Only one high-major peer (Tennessee) finished lower.
Roster churn and an influx of new wings — K.J. Santos, Torrence Watson, and Javon Pickett — still make a question as pertinent as it is murky: Will anyone take the ball to the rack?
To find the answer, let’s tally up how many times Martin’s group got the ball to the tin, whether it was using a pick-and-roll, attacking a closeout, cutting off the ball, or in rare cases, having a player go it alone.
Generally, the Tigers’ efficiency (1.12 points per possession) in those situations was slightly below average at No. 208 nationally, per Synergy data. What worked, though, was off-ball movement. Almost half of MU’s rim attacks were the result of cuts.
|Pick-and-Roll - Roll Man||64||63||0.98|
|Pick-and-Roll - Ball Handler||26||27||1.04|
MU’s frontcourt thrived in situations that didn’t require a back-to-the-basket possession. Yes, the Tigers still finished 74th nationally in post-ups, per Synergy, but remember, the low block is also vital for how Martin’s bunch spaces the floor and becomes a play-making hub to hit shooters around the arc.
|Jeremiah Tilmon||87||90||1.034||Basket Cut|
|Kevin Puryear||85||97||1.092||Basket Cut|
|Jontay Porter||64||57||0.891||Basket Cut|
|Jordan Geist||40||43||0.915||Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler|
|Reed Nikko||29||29||1||Pick-and-Roll Roll Man|
|Cullen VanLeer||4||6||1.5||Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler|
Our granular analysis can merge play type with players. In total, there are 40 — yes, forty — categories. In many instances, the sample sizes are so small that making inferences is a stretch.
Looking at oft-used actions, however, is still productive; it’s how we know that Tilmon stepping into a gap and getting his hands up is among the best outcomes for a possession that manages get a player going downhill.
|Jeremiah Tilmon||Basket Cut||39||45||1.154|
|Kevin Puryear||Basket Cut||33||49||1.485|
|Jeremiah Tilmon||P&R - Rim Roll||23||28||1.217|
|Jordan Geist||P&R - Use Screen||17||15||0.882|
|Kevin Puryear||Flash Cut||17||9||0.529|
|Jeremiah Tilmon||Flash Cut||17||14||0.824|
|Reed Nikko||Basket Cut||16||15||0.938|
|Jontay Porter||Basket Cut||14||19||1.357|
Chopping up Synergy data is kind for MU’s frontline, but it also underscores lingering questions about the Tigers’ ball-handling.
Critiques of Geist’s handiwork could often be too cutting, but raw numbers show that the core of those assessments wasn’t entirely off base. On trips where Geist used a pick to drive the ball, he only netted 0.88 PPP. And while the number of possessions (17) is relatively small, the outcomes act as a drag on his overall efficiency.
At the moment, Geist is the only known entity in the Tigers’ backcourt and is slotted for more minutes at lead guard. Last season, events foisted the job on Geist, who will now have an entire offseason — in theory — to master reads that come with playing in an offense that uses handoffs and high pick-and-rolls to create mismatches.
He also showed signs of being effective in that role last season. Among SEC players who were heavily used in pick-and-rolls, Geist’s efficiency (0.94 PPP) was comparable to highly regarded lead guards like Chris Chiozza (0.94 PPP) and Jared Harper (0.94 PPP).
What about valuing the ball, though? Among the 20 high-usage players in the sample, Geist’s 15.9 TO% ranked fifth. His efficiency in high pick-and-rolls (0.96 PPP) and turnover percentage (16.8) were also among the best in the conference.
The standard against which Geist is measured — fair or not — is Monte Morris, who piloted this offense at Iowa State. When you look at Morris’ efficiency rate (0.95 PPP) in pick-and-rolls, it’s not wildly ahead of Geist’s handiwork. No, I’m not saying Geist is Morris, whose overall assist percentage was higher and turnover percentage lower than those owned by the Mizzou guard. However, Geist isn’t as bad as some might portray.
There’s an optimistic case to be made that he could improve his floor game and provide MU the type of guard it needs to capitalize on an offense whose structure can create chances to get downhill.
Next up, we’ll take a look at how the system goes about generating them.