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Show Me My Basketball Opponent: Missouri (I)

Show Me My Basketball Opponent: Missouri (I)

CUUUUUUOOOOOONNNNNNNZZZZZOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!


He’s back again!!!! I’ll spare you the introduction, but a quick catch-up if you’ve somehow lost track of Cuonzo Martin since his departure from Tennessee:

  • Cal (2014-15 to 2016-17): 62-39, 29-25 Pac-12, one NCAA Tournament bid (lost to 13 seed Hawaii in Round of 64), one NIT bid (lost to 8 seed Cal State Bakersfield in first round)
  • Missouri (2017-18 to present): 29-16, 10-8 SEC, one NCAA Tournament bid (lost by 13 to 9 seed Florida State in Round of 64)
  • Total NBA Draft picks on rosters: 5
  • Total NCAA Tournament wins: 0

There you go! It’s a meaningless point, but I never faulted Cuonzo for leaving Tennessee; it obviously wasn’t going to work here long-term and getting paid is getting paid. However, you’ve got to allow us as Tennessee fans to bask in the glory of – hmmm, what do you call it – being right yet again?

You hate to see it! You really do.

Cuonzo’s second team at Missouri follows the Michael Porter, Jr. Sorta Was Here I Guess season, where Porter got hurt in preseason, came back for two meaningless games, looked awful, and then Missouri got blown out of the NCAA Tournament. (By the way, Porter, Jr. STILL has yet to play in an NBA game. Remember when every doofus said he was the #1 pick in a draft where Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton existed?) A 3-3 start (shocker!) that featured a 15-point loss to a massively disappointing Kansas State team and a follow-up home loss to Temple has ended with a 6-0 run, now with wins over UCF, Xavier, and Illinois.

If you watched any of Cuonzo’s run at Tennessee, none of what you’re about to read will be terribly shocking. Per Bart Torvik, Missouri has five 90+ Game Score performances in 12 games and seven of 80+. They also have Game Scores of 20 (a 55-52 win over #338 Kennesaw State), 24 (82-67 loss to Kansas State), 53 (Temple loss), and 59 (76-59 road loss to Iowa State). They’re very inconsistent, are a good defensive rebounding team, shoot it well from outside, and struggle with turnovers. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, a man walks into a bar…


WHAT THEY BRING

Several good shooters

Around 42% of Missouri’s shot attempts are from downtown, and 39.3% of them go in. In all but two games so far, they’ve hit 8 or more threes, hitting double-digits in five games. They are very dangerous. In order of made threes, here’s their top five:

Mark Smith (30 of 65, 46.2%):

Jordan Geist (25 of 65, 38.5%):

Torrence Watson (15 of 40, 37.5%):

Javon Pickett (13 of 36, 36.1%):

Kevin Puryear (12 of 30, 40%):

Watson is the backup 2-guard, but this represents 80% of Missouri’s starting lineup and five of their top six players. They’ve rarely run the Super Shooter Lineup – Geist/Watson/Smith/Puryear plus backup PF/C Mitchell Smith (4 of 9, 44.4%) – but they should at some point. Three-pointers are a cheat code, and they single-handedly carried Missouri to an overtime win over a UCF team that will be in the NCAA Tournament. In that one, Missouri shot 11 of 34 from two, allowed UCF to shoot 13 of 20, made 6 of 11 free throws…and won, because they shot 12 of 29 from three.

Considering Missouri’s unusual struggles from the free throw line (69%, 198th nationally), their three-point shooting rate may be unsustainable. However, even a small dip (for convenience, we’ll say they shoot 37.3% the rest of the way, or 50th-best nationally) still means they’re deadly from outside. Tennessee must defend the perimeter with vigor, as they have most of the season.

Everything else offensively: blah

Quick summary: they’re garbage in transition (15th-percentile nationally). This is because dudes just run to the rim and get blocked on loop.

In general, it’s a weirdly mediocre rim-shooting team despite being a pretty athletic group. Out of 353 D-I teams, Missouri ranks 180th in FG% at the rim (60.9%). The worst offender is point guard Jordan Geist, who’s missed half of his layup attempts:

If you’re used to the Jarnell Stokes/Jeronne Maymon school of play from Cuonzo, Missouri’s style won’t come as any surprise; only Tennessee ranks higher nationally among SEC teams in plays run through the post. Jeremiah Tilmon (starting C) averages nearly six attempts at the rim per game; here’s him missing a dunk, one of three (!) missed dunks from him this year:

Backup C Reed Nikko is their Fulkerson in terms of range; he’s attempted one shot from further out than 7 feet all season. (He missed a 9-footer.) Kevin Puryear, the starting PF, plays with his back to the basket about as often as Schofield does (so, not much), but can be a threat inside (13 of 22 at the rim).

I don’t know where else to fit this tidbit, but: Missouri has zero midrange game. (Gee, who could’ve seen this one coming…) None of Missouri’s starters are hitting more than 34.3% of their non-rim two-point attempts, and only Xavier Pinson (backup PG) has shown any proficiency (6 of 14 in a limited sample). Javon Pickett, who will be defended by Bowden/Pons, is 4 of 19. Puryear is 12 of 35, Tilmon 9 of 30, Geist 8 of 24, etc. Puryear’s 34.3% rate would rank sixth-best on Tennessee’s roster, just ahead of John Fulkerson’s 33.3%. Pretty good.

Turnover problems

You won’t believe what you’re about to read, folks: a Cuonzo Martin team struggles with turnovers. A full 20.5% of Missouri offensive possessions have ended in turnovers this year, ranking 255th nationally and 13th of 14 (Georgia!) in the SEC. Missouri had a better shooting percentage and rebound percentage against Iowa State and lost by 17 because they committed 18 MORE TURNOVERS. Jeremiah Tilmon has a 26.1% TO rate:

Backup PG Xavier Pinson sits at 29.6%:

Excellent perimeter defense…with a caveat

Despite allowing 40% of opponent attempts to be shot from three, Missouri’s held said opponents to just 32.7% from downtown. That’s a good rate! Illinois made just 8 of 29 attempts, Iowa State 8 of 25, Oregon State 6 of 24, Xavier 6 of 19…all seems good, right?

Two problems:

  1. Allowing 40% of opponent shots to come from three is a long-term problem.
  2. 48% of their catch-and-shoot threes have been unguarded.

On the second one, Missouri’s already seeing some serious issues: 41% of those open threes have gone in, which slots them in the mid-200s nationally. A few more threes than expected have gone in, but the national average is that around 37-38% of those shots are made. Missouri’s not far off line with that. Iowa State only shot 32% from three, but they made 4 of their 8 unguarded catch-and-shoot threes:

On the flip side, the other half of the threes – those that are guarded – have had an airtight seal on the basket. 27.5% of Missouri’s guarded catch-and-shoot threes have fallen, which puts them in the top 40 nationally. It’s not unusual for a team to have some amount of a gap between their guarded and unguarded outcomes, but to have a 200+ spot split is, obviously, hard to sustain. When they do guard threes, they guard them well enough:

The problem is that they’re not guarding enough of them and that opponents are getting a lot of good looks. Tennessee, of course, should shoot a few from outside for fun.

Flaming garbage interior defense

No silly comments here; all I can tell you is that Missouri has allowed a 69.2% FG% at the rim and that their shot “challenges” can look pretty hilarious.

Jordan Geist, the starting PG, is a bad defender:

Their post-up specific defense does somehow rank in the 96th-percentile on Synergy, but this seems to be more about very good luck on missed shots than anything the defense is actually doing. A very Grant Williams play:

So, to recap: you can get open shots from three and you can go to the rim with ease. This is the coach everyone wants a fawning profile of?

Specific matchups to target

We’ve already highlighted PG Jordan Geist, who Jordan Bone (and Lamonte Turner) should attack relentlessly. Tennessee’s coaching staff has likely already highlighted backup PG Xavier Pinson, too, but for a different reason: he’s been an atrocious three-point defender. 63% of opponent catch-and-shoots with him defending have gone unguarded:

Likewise, Tennessee should be finding quality looks for the Mitchell Smith (backup PF/C) matchup. Smith has played about 75% of his minutes at the 4, meaning a likely Grant Williams/John Fulkerson matchup. Fulkerson can’t extend the court at all, so ensuring Williams is in the game when Smith is in is ideal. Smith doesn’t like to step out on shots beyond 10 feet, and it appears to be a major reason why he’s played just 22 minutes in the last three games:

Opponents have done excellent work of making Smith defend an outside shooter; scheming something to switch Schofield onto him would make for an ideal night.


HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT

Continue running your offense through the post

This works in various ways. Tennessee’s been lights out on threes on post-up pass-outs from Williams and Alexander; 14 of their 32 attempts have gone in, including this one you may remember.

Past that, you have Kyle Alexander’s continuously developing offensive game against a Missouri offense that’s struggled mightily at the rim. Imagine Alexander taking this shot a year ago:

John Fulkerson (or Derrick Walker, I guess) likely plays 8-12 minutes in this one; this probably means two shot attempts or something for him, all of which should come off of plays like this.

All of these are pretty simple offensive plays for Tennessee, and they’ll come against a Missouri team that’s allowed opponents to hit 69.2% of attempts at the rim and 50+% of two-point attempts in 7 of 12 games, including all five of their Tier 1 or 2 games. Missouri’s defense ranks 311th nationally in block rate. I feel like I’m being mean, but I don’t think it’s for the sake of being mean; this simply doesn’t feel like one of Cuonzo’s better defenses.

Grant Williams

That’s a Tennessee threeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Or whatever the “new tradition” is:

Please, let Mitchell Smith defend him, even if it’s just for a five-minute stretch of play. Even Tilmon works here.

Seriously, please go to the rim

Until they prove otherwise, it’s a defense that can’t stop a soul on a drive to the bucket. If fans should ask one thing of Jordan Bone, it’s to hold off on his beloved pull-up 15-footers for just one night and do this on loop instead:

Likewise, Jordan Bowden being a known quantity (yes, in theory, I know) from outside lends to his newfound ability to drive to the paint. He has the build and the skills to finish at the rim; perhaps he draws a foul off of this:

Play Missouri’s guards (and big men) tight at the rim

Tennessee’s had one of the best interior defenses nationally so far, and only Kansas and Second Half Memphis found serious consistency in exploiting it. Considering Missouri’s pedestrian finishing rate and that they prefer to shoot outside anyway, this won’t be as big of a deal, but it’s still worth playing as well as you’ve already played for another 40 minutes. Here’s one of Tennessee’s seven blocks against Georgia:

Here’s another:

Perimeter defense

Has been consistently excellent all season. Tennessee’s last five games, including Memphis’s 10 of 29 outing from three: 29 of 114 (25.4%). Obviously, that’s not sustainable for a full season, and Missouri will hit more than 25% of their threes. Similarly, though, Georgia had hit 38.5% of their threes in their previous five games before playing Tennessee. They made 1 of 20 attempts, and the one didn’t come until 75% of the game was over:

The last team to get more than six unguarded catch-and-shoots against this Tennessee defense was Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on December 2nd, and Missouri ranks right at the national average for unguarded threes. Against the other two top 25 defenses Missouri has played (Iowa State and Kansas State), the Tigers scored 0.941 points per possession despite shooting 18 of 41 (43.9%) from three. They lost these games by 15 and 17 points even with that great shooting because of turnovers (25 against ISU, 14 against KSU) and poor interior defense (a combined 17 of 20 finishing rate at the rim). Folks, they’re just not a good team, which will make the inevitable seven-point win after a 40-minute struggle that much more infuriating.


KEY MATCHUPS

Jordan Bone vs. Jordan Geist. Even with all the bad stuff I said about Geist’s defense and his poor finishing ability, he’s still Missouri’s second-best player and an excellent shooter. Bone will have his hands full defensively.

Tennessee’s defense vs. midrange twos. Missouri’s been awful at these, but only 25.4% of their attempts (around 14 per game) have come from non-rim twos. Tennessee needs to force more of these, like they did against Gonzaga (19 attempts).

Lamonte Turner vs. Xavier Pinson. Weird to highlight Backup PG vs. Backup PG but that’s life. Pinson’s perimeter defense is awful and he turns the ball over lots, but he’s a good passer and a good shooter. Turner’s been an awful finisher to date in college, but he can be exceptional in half-court defense and, obviously, brings a lot from outside. If Turner is at 90% or better, Tennessee wins this battle running away.


PREDICTION

Tennessee 72, Missouri 65.

Give us your Take...
Vols

Will Warren is a contributor to FOX Sports Knoxville. He loves Popeyes, computers, the Nashville Predators, and melatonin.

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