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The Verdict: Braggin’ Rights Pre-Game Keys

Mizzou has one last chance to notch their marquee win of the non-conference schedule. What will the Tigers need to do to claim Braggin’ Rights?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-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 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. Film has been graciously provided by Matt Harris.

Note: Pre-Game keys are in standard font.

Now THIS is a neutral site game I can get behind.

For those who follow my musings across multiple platforms you’ll be unsurprised to know I’m generally opposed to college basketball’s obsession with playing games outside of home arenas. The reasons are extensive and won’t be shared here. But if there is one game that is made for a demilitarized zone, it’s Mizzou and Illinois hoops.

The Alton Telegraph

Since December of 1983, the Tigers and Fightin’ Illini have squared off every season at the equidistant outpost. In all but one of those years the game has taken place in St. Louis — an unfortunate exception being in 2020 due to Covid. Whether it was the old St. Louis Arena or the current Enterprise Center, these two teams will face off in the Gateway City for the 42nd time. They had met only 11 times on their respective campuses prior to the inception of the series. This history of this rivalry is rooted in neutral territory.

Mizzou has fared quite well in recent years, having won four of five contests with their foes from Champaign. The series stands at 33-20 in the Illini’s favor, 26-15 in St. Louis. From a Tigers’ perspective, the affair was pockmarked in the 2000s, with Mizzou losing 9 straight from 2000-2008.

Triple overtime thrillers. Popcorn falling from the stands. Mascots getting tackled on the court. The cheerleaders’ feats of strength. Javon Pickett. Kobe Brown. Kiwane Garris. Norm Stewart. Lou Henson. Bill Self. Marlo Finner. This series has something for everyone.

Without regard to the quality of the teams this is an event that’s circled on the sports calendar. Illini partisans decked out in garish hunter orange. Tiger faithful sporting a smattering of black and gold. A near-even split down the center court line. The joint is perpetually jumpin’ no matter who is running.

I-L-L...Z-O-U. If you know, you know.

Holiday cheer (and angst) brimming with every single possession. Braggin’ Rights has evolved into one of the more truly unique events in collegiate sports. A TRUE neutral site affair. And one I personally love. Friday will mark my 18th consecutive in attendance in St. Louis. While some outings are more enjoyable than others, it’s never a bad time. Even if the temperatures are solidly below zero!

Mizzou faces a stiff test this year, as is routine. The Tigers enter the contest 7-4 having lost their last two contests to Kansas and Seton Hall. Illinois enters 9-2 with recent wins against Rutgers and a suddenly quality Florida Atlantic program. The stage is set. Throw the records out the window.

It’s time to brag.

Open Strong

As the introduction strongly focused on, Braggin’ Rights is a unique environment in college athletics. The arena is never not loud. Nail a three pointer? It’s loud. Don’t get back in transition. It’s loud. It’s always loud. Momentum has proven to be an important factor in these contests.

Mizzou getting off to a fast start is imperative. Over the last 15 Braggin’ Rights games played in St. Louis, the eventual winner never trailed at halftime. In one of those contests, the teams were even at the break. In the other fourteen, whoever won the first 20 minutes won the game. During that time the average margin at halftime has been 9.8 points. The eventual average margin at the games’ conclusion is 9.2. Needless to say, what happens early is a strong indicator of what’s to come.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Mizzou has been plagued by inconsistency issues all season long. They saw a 9-point lead at Kansas get erased in favor of a 12-point deficit at half just minutes later. They led Memphis by 14 early only to see the lead evaporate and take a 15-point loss. The mounted a furious comeback against Minnesota, overcoming a 19-point deficit with 12 minutes to play.

Though Mizzou hasn’t yet been able to turn up the pressure in creating a stream of steals and open court conversions off of them, if ever there was a time to do so it’s shortly after tipoff Friday night. Whatever is needed to get the Tiger faithful on their feet early must be done.

Start strong. Stay strong.

Get the Ball Screen Offense Humming

Through eleven contests, Sean East II has easily been Mizzou’s most productive offensive player. As Sean goes, so too go the Tigers. Over his last six contests, East is averaging 19.7 points per outing, compared with 14 points per game in his first five. Sean is the engine that drives Mizzou’s half-court offense.

Parsing his data a Synergy Sports, a universal truth is discovered: Mizzou’s reliance on Sean East is largely driven by his work in the pick and roll. On the season, Sean’s ball screen offense usage his risen to 42.4% which rates 94th percentile nationally. His scoring efficiency on those actions is 1.068 points per possession, which rates 89th percentile. East’s work in the ball screen game has been nothing short of phenomenal. Yet, if a nerd on the internet can tell you this, the opponent assuredly knows it, too. Our esteemed colleague Matt Harris went as far as publishing a far more in-depth piece just two weeks back on this exact topic: Mizzou Hoops: How Sean East uses pick-and-rolls unlock to unlock his potential - Rock M Nation

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

Several opponents have had the ability to slow East down in these actions. Whether it’s icing ball screens — situating the on-ball defender to force East to the sideline — or hard-hedging high ball screens — where it appears the defenders may switch, but only momentarily, allowing Sean’s defender to recover after he’s pushed horizontally — teams have thrown a lot of defensive coverages his way. And some have been successful in spurts.

When it’s not Sean piloting these actions, Mizzou relies on Nick Honor to step up and take the lead. For a more in-depth read on Honor’s offensive profile, see: Mizzou Hoops: Nick Honor’s shot selection hints at a rotation under strain - Rock M Nation. Honor hasn’t been as dynamic but does offer the ever-present ability to punish defenders going under the screener or in instances of sloppy communication via the pull-up snipe.

Mizzou must have a counter to these looks, whether it’s slipping or popping the screener as Mizzou often does with Noah Carter. Or if it’s putting more faith in the 7’5” Connor Vanover to be an active rim roller and shooter, Sean’s partner in crime on these actions must be active and efficient. For if they aren’t, Illinois’ athletic — and efficient — defense will make quick work of the Tigers’ preferred form of half-court offense. And the Tigers have yet to get much traction out of their Point series this season that ripped the Illini to shreds last December.

  • Mizzou PnR Ballhandler Offense: 16.3% Usage — 0.942 PPP
  • Illinois PnR Ballhandler Defense: 19.8% Usage — 0.602 PPP

  • Mizzou PnR Derived* Offense: 31.3% Usage — 0.970 PPP
  • Illinois PnR Derived Defense: 31.7% Usage — 0.690 PPP

  • Mizzou PnR Roller Offense: 5.0% Usage — 0.907 PPP
  • Illinois PnR Roller Defense: 6.1% Usage — 1.180 PPP

*Includes offense produced on first passes from PnR sets.

Play Your Best Game Inside

Mizzou must recover from the bludgeoning that Seton Hall applied to the Tigers’ rim defense just five days ago. The Pirates were efficient in all manners in the paint, posting an absurd 18 of 22 in close range attempts. Not only must Mizzou recover, they must do it quickly. Illinois offers a similar — if not better — method of attacking opponents defenses that Seton Hall possessed.

The Illini seek to score in myriad of ways, but all roads lead to the rack. Brad Underwood’s group will take jump shots. Terrence Shannon, Luke Goode and Southern Illinois transfer Marcus Domask won’t shy away. Shannon, in the midst of an All-American start to his season, leads the way, and you’d be well-advised not to sleep on Goode, as both are capable of raining down backbreakers from beyond the arc. Yet focusing on any shooting prowess of Illinois’ squad seemingly neglects the bigger concern.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois is going to punish the paint. Though the actions they use vary, Mizzou’s interior defense must be prepared. The Illini will post Domask and Kofi Cockburn’s mini-me, Dain Dainja. Both have been elite in converting chances on the block. Illinois will apply pressure in transition, most typically with Shannon racing the court on-ball, but most of Illinois’ deep squad is comfortable as well. Dainja, Quincey Guerrier and Ty Rodgers have been the Illini’s most common cutters away from the ball, with Guerrier in particular a concern due to his size and athleticism. Perhaps of most concern, Underwood’s team rebounds 35.2% of their own misses. Dainja, Guerrier and the versatile Coleman Hawkins lead the way in that category. For a Tiger team that has struggled seemingly for years in cleaning forced misses, this presents a massive challenge.

What it all adds up to is Mizzou will be facing a squad that attempts only 46.6% of their shots via jumpers and 42.7% of their shots at the rim. Compare with a Mizzou team who themselves attempts jumpers 53.6% and rim chances 36.7%. The right guys from Illinois can make you pay if you leave them open, but the directive is clear. And Mizzou must be up to the task if they care to brag.

  • Illinois Rim Offense: 42.7% Usage — 1.22 PPS
  • Mizzou Rim Defense: 39.6% Usage — 1.13 PPS

  • Illinois Post-Up Derived Offense: 9.7% Usage — 1.074 PPP
  • Mizzou Post-Up Derived Defense: 5.2% Usage — 0.783 PPP

  • Illinois Offensive Rebound Putback Offense: 7.4% Usage — 1.274 PPP
  • Mizzou Offensive Rebound Putback Defense: 7.1% Usage — 1.270 PPP

  • Illinois Unguarded Catch & Shoot Offense: 54.3% of attempts — 1.17 PPS
  • Mizzou Unguarded Catch & Shoot Defense: 55.4% of attempts — 1.06 PPS