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The Verdict: Wichita State Pre-Game Keys

Mizzou returns home to face Wichita State after a big win in Pittsburgh. What can the Tigers expect?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to The Verdict series. You may have become acquainted with these pieces in the past, and in efforts to improve them, we’ve made a few subtle changes. Prior to each game receiving the full treatment, we’re going to release a series of pre-game keys to watch for in each matchup. After the results are in, we’ll return to those keys and analyze the performance with data and film. Credits for statistics to Ken Pomeroy, Synergy, Pivot Analysis and Matt Watkins.

On Sunday afternoon, Mizzou will resume what has become an annual rite of passage and bellwether contest in recent years. The Tigers will face Wichita State for the fourth consecutive season in an extended home-and-home series. The first three games have all been won by the visiting squad. The two Mizzou wins in the Sunflower State portended an invitation to the NCAA’s annual March event. The one loss? Well, that season certainly did not qualify.

As they say, the only constant is change. Both Mizzou and Wichita State exemplify this. We all know that Dennis Gates took over for Cuonzo Martin mid-series. Wichita State has now done the same. Issac Brown, who took over in 2020 after the fallout from the Gregg Marshall fiasco, was relieved of his duties last spring. In comes Paul Mills, a disciple of the Scott Drew family. You may recognize him from his greatest hits at Oral Roberts, notably seeing the Golden Eagles through to the Sweet 16 in 2021. You may also recognize him as Connor Vanover’s former coach — and had incoming Shocker Ronnie DeGray III been granted eligibility, a really fun storyline to follow.

NCAA Basketball: Richmond at Wichita State William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Mills has his team off to a 7-1 start with notable wins over St. Louis University and Richmond. His lone blemish is owed to an always-tough Liberty team in Conway, South Carolina. Mills managed to hold on to Xavier Bell, Kenny Pohto, Issac Abidde and Quincy Ballard from the 2023 squad. He hit the portal and added Colby Rogers from Siena, Harlond Beverly from Miami (FL) and Dalen Ridgnal from Georgia. And is so often the case with first year coaches, those seven players represent the entirety of his team that has averaged 5 minutes per game or more.

We won’t spend much time detailing Mizzou’s season here — if you’re interested enough in reading the nitty-gritty, I’ll presume you’re up to date. But this matchup is an important one for the Mizzou program. After a tough loss to Memphis, Mizzou went out on the road and defeated Minnesota in a wild comeback. They parlayed that momentum into a lasting scar, dropping their subsequent game to Jackson State. Mizzou once again returns from the road to establish forward momentum for a difficult December.

And with that, let’s get to the keys.

Win the Paint

Mizzou has been a bit inconsistent here this season. Facing its toughest interior task of the season, Mizzou performed exceptionally well in Pittsburgh. Facing a team that had length for days and complimented that with elite rebounding and two-point shooting figures — on both ends — Mizzou took the game to the Panthers. Mizzou won the rim battle shooting 14-23 and allowing a 5-14 effort. The Tigers won the offensive rebounding battle 31.4% to 26.5%. Per my own hand-tracked stats, Mizzou had paint touches on 58% of possessions and fashioned 1.237 points per possession (“PPP”) on those trips. They didn’t back down and they were rewarded handsomely.

A similar challenge awaits. Offensively, Mills’ Shockers want to get to the bucket. They do this in all manner of ways. Nearly 41% of their shot attempts come at the rim and they finish at an elite 1.27 points per shot (“PPS,”) rate. Comparatively, only 41.6% of their shots come from jumpers, which rates among the nation’s lowest. And that makes sense, as they’re converting at a below-average 0.93 PPS.

  • WSU Rim Offense: 40.4% Usage — 1.27 PPS
  • Mizzou Rim Defense: 37.7% Usage — 1.11 PPS

  • WSU Jumper Offense: 41.6% Usage — 0.93 PPS
  • Mizzou Jumper Defense: 50.4% Usage — 0.85 PPS
NCAA Basketball: Richmond at Wichita State William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Wichita State’s preferred methods of attacking the paint are via the ballhandler on ball screens, off-ball cuts and traditional post-ups. Bell, Rogers and Beverly are the primary pick-and-roll weapons. Bell and Beverly are more geared to get downhill and pressure defenses. Rogers is a mix and he utilizes a pull-up skill. The entire team gets into the action on cuts, the most effective of which are their bigs, Pohto and Ballard on lob attempts. For their back-to-the-basket efforts, look primarily for Pohto to be featured.

  • WSU PnR Ballhandler Offense: 17.8% Usage — 0.966 PPP
  • Mizzou PnR Ballhandler Defense: 10.3% Usage — 0.800 PPP

  • WSU Cut Offense: 7.8% Usage — 1.519 PPP
  • Mizzou Cut Defense: 8.3% Usage — 1.019 PPP

  • WSU Post Up Offense: 10.5% Usage — 0.800 PPP
  • Mizzou Post Up Defense: 4.1% Usage — 0.846 PPP

On the other side of the ball, Mizzou has similar goals offensively, but they go about it a little differently. Like Wichita, they do feature a pretty heavy share of pick-and-roll activity. They also like to free teammates for easy baskets with off-ball action. Unlike Wichita, Mizzou is perfectly fine spraying the ball after establishing a paint touch for a spot-up opportunity from outside. As such, their shot profile is quite a bit different.

  • Mizzou Jumper Offense: 53.4% Usage — 1.01 PPS
  • WSU Jumper Defense: 54.5% Usage — 0.79 PPS

  • Mizzou Rim Offense: 38.1% Usage — 1.22 PPS
  • WSU Rim Defense: 33.5% Usage — 1.01 PPS

As you can see, something will have to give. Wichita WANTS to prevent close-range scoring opportunities. In exchange, their opponents have hoisted a fair number of jump shots. Mizzou, conversely, is okay with that tradeoff. Mizzou has shot it pretty well, and WSU has defended those chances well. Something will have to give. Yet pulling this back on track, Mizzou cannot neglect working for these close-range chances. WSU is elite at preventing them. Mizzou is above average at finishing them. How can they do it?

  • Mizzou PnR Ballhandler Offense: 14.5% Usage — 1.000 PPP
  • WSU PnR Ballhandler Defense: 14.1% Usage — 0.806 PPP

  • Mizzou Cut Offense: 8.5% Usage — 1.288 PPP
  • WSU Cut Defense: 7.6% Usage — 1.28 PPP

  • Mizzou Spot Up Offense: 25.5% Usage — 1.013 PPP
  • WSU Spot Up Defense: 28.5% Usage — 0.681 PPP
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

These numbers indicate that Wichita has struggled a little bit containing the primary on-ball screen actions. Mizzou has excelled in this area, somewhat surprisingly to me. Sean East II has been dynamic with his newly featured three-point game. Nick Honor has struggled a bit, but still features the patented pull-up with defenders don’t play it right. Both will be vital factors on Sunday. Additionally, Mizzou’s off-ball threats will have to be active. Tamar Bates, Caleb Grill and Co. cannot afford to set up camp. Wichita has been excellent covering spot-up chances. However, they’ve leaked oil a bit on aggressive shooter defense, allowing opponents quality chances when they move. Mizzou must require WSU to make a choice on how to defend — and punish them no matter their choice.

Control the Game Flow

Wichita and Mizzou offers something in an interesting contrast. As the number below reflect, both teams want to play a little fast, but they go about it in different ways. The Tigers have hunted in transition but have also been fine playing into late-clock (last four seconds of shot clock) situations. Conversely, Wichita State doesn’t play in the open court, but rarely uses the entire clock, preferring to hunt early offense looks.

  • Mizzou Transition Offense: 22.1% Usage — 0.985 PPP
  • Wichita Transition Offense: 12.7% Usage — 0.824 PPP

  • Mizzou Late Clock Offense: 12.2% Usage — 0.793 PPP
  • Wichita State Late Clock Offense: 3.3% Usage — 0.737 PPP
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Although we haven’t seen it much this year, or at least to the extent of a year ago, turnovers could play a large role in this game. Wichita plays a decidedly half-court defensive game. Every single possession thus far has been man to man. Covering shooters and turning away rim chances is their vice, and turnovers created is the opportunity cost. Mizzou as we well know, wants to turn opponents over. If they can do it via live ball steals, and boost pace via open court offense, even better. What type of game Sunday turns out to be in this regard could play a significant role in the outcome.

  • Mizzou Offensive Turnover Rate: 17.1%
  • WSU Defensive Turnover Rate: 12.3%

  • Mizzou Defensive Turnover Rate: 20.6%
  • WSU Offensive Turnover Rate: 15.3%

Both teams pride themselves on protecting the ball, but only Mizzou really focuses on terminating possessions defensively via takeaways. This is further seen in their defensive steal rates:

  • Mizzou Defensive Steal Rate: 12.9%
  • WSU Defensive Steal Rate: 6.9%

Give Yourself the Best Chance to Win

This may sound silly. And to some extent, it is. However, Mizzou’s lineup usage has been the thing of much conversation lately. We’re not going to rehash what’s transpired up to this point, as the coaching staff has seemingly used home “buy” games to tinker, and used road games — especially Pittsburgh — to exploit. Post-game, we’ll feature a lineup usage analysis to see which path was chosen.