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Missouri didn’t attack the rim enough in 2017-18. How will that change next season?

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Missouri finished near the bottom nationally for attacking the tin. Who will the Tigers rely on to improve?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Louisiana State
Jordan Geist
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Miami v Missouri
Jeremiah Tilmon
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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.

Rim Attacks

Action Possessions Points PPP
Action Possessions Points PPP
Cuts 164 176 1.07
Pick-and-Roll - Roll Man 64 63 0.98
Spot-Up 37 33 0.89
Pick-and-Roll - Ball Handler 26 27 1.04
Isolation 18 23 1.28
Total 309 322 1.04
Synergy Sports

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.

At-the-basket production

Name Possessions Points PPP Best Action
Name Possessions Points PPP Best Action
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
Total 309 322 1.042 Basket Cut
Synergy Sports

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.

Choice options?

Player Action Possessions Points PPP
Player Action Possessions Points PPP
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
Kevin Puryear Spot-Up 12 12 1
Jordan Geist Spot-Up 11 13 1.182
Synergy Sports

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.