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November 22, 2012
Mizzou's New Look
Tigers Change to Stay the Same

by John Gasaway

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Missouri was a team that inspired a good deal of consensus last season, but what's interesting is there was more than one consensus. On the eve of the NCAA tournament many observers were very sure that the Tigers deserved a No. 1 seed. After all, this is a team that compiled a 30-4 record in head coach Frank Haith's first season, an impressive mark that included a Big 12 tournament title.

To those of us who look at other measures in addition to wins and losses, however, Haith's team wasn't quite what it was cracked up to be. Mizzou was self-evidently magnificent on offense, but their defense was average (or even, speaking more precisely, a little worse than the Big 12 average in conference play).

As often happens in these disputes, neither side turned out to be entirely right. The Tigers didn't march to the Final Four like the first group of observers expected, but then again no one in "my" group stepped forward before the fact and said, "I fully expect Missouri to lose to a No. 15 seed from the MEAC." I may have had my reservations regarding this team's ability to defend, but those reservations emphatically did not encompass the possibility of losing to Norfolk State in the round of 64.

Arguably the most surprising outcome in the entire 2012 NCAA tournament, that loss ended the Missouri careers of Marcus Denmon, Ricardo Ratliffe, Kim English, and Matt Pressey. That's a lot to lose. But on the plus side Laurence Bowers has returned from the injury that sidelined him all of last season, and the Tigers have also added transfers Alex Oriakhi (Connecticut), Earnest Ross (Auburn), and Keion Bell (Pepperdine). Lastly, Haith of course has 5-11 point guard Phil Pressey, the SEC's preseason player of the year.

That's a pretty fair nucleus right there, and that doesn't even include Michael Dixon. In the offseason I named the 6-1 senior as one of the nation's five most underrated players, but we haven't had a chance thus far to see if that assessment is correct. In October Haith announced that Dixon would be suspended indefinitely for unspecified violations, and the senior is yet to see the court this season. Perhaps we'll see Dixon in action this week as Missouri participates in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas -- he has reportedly traveled to the venue with the team.

Missouri hasn't needed Dixon to this point (scoring three wins by an average of 23 points against opponents in the bottom fifth of Division I), but that will change in the Bahamas. Whether by design or chance, the organizers at the Battle 4 Atlantis have assembled an exceptionally strong eight-team field, one headlined by Louisville, Duke, Minnesota, VCU, and Memphis.

That's why this event will be so illuminating for all the participants, but particularly for Missouri. Many of these teams are carrying heavy expectations, but only the Tigers are doing so with this much roster turnover. We're about to find out what the reconstituted version of Missouri can do against elite competition.

Emphasis on "about to find out." The lopsided nature of the Tigers' wins so far means there's not a lot to be learned from their performance as a team -- or perhaps it's that we don't know yet whether there's anything to be learned. For instance, should we be concerned that Haith's team, oddly, has made just 42 percent of its 2s while cruising to three easy wins? Not necessarily, no, but it's certainly worth tracking. Likewise, I'm hardly going to fault a Missouri defense that has forced turnovers on "just" 18 percent of opponents' possessions -- it would be tantamount to saying, "You should be winning by 29 instead of 23."

But what can be instructive, even at this early stage, are the simplest and most easily accessible stats: minutes and shot attempts. The players who are getting minutes and shot attempts in November are likely to be doing so later in the season (again, with the obvious and necessary exception of Dixon).

Thus far on the young season the minutes have been going not only to Pressey, but also to 6-7 freshman Negus Webster-Chan. Maybe that's a nod to defense, but on offense Bowers has been making up for lost time and taking a healthy share (26 percent) of the team's shots while he's on the floor.

Haith has said that he's going to stick with the same basic system on offense this season, and given the success this team enjoyed on that side of the ball in 2011-12 the coach would be foolhardy to say otherwise. Still, with the 6-8 Bowers and the 6-9 Oriakhi on the floor at the same time (both are starters), this offense can't help but have a different emphasis than what we saw last season. If nothing else, Missouri was a perimeter-oriented team in 2011-12 (39 percent of their shot attempts in Big 12 play came from beyond the arc). With more of the scoring coming in the paint this season, watch to see if a likely increase in turnovers can be offset by a likely increase in offensive rebounding.

This week I had the opportunity to speak briefly by phone with Missouri assistant coach Dave Leitao right after the Tigers had touched down in the Bahamas. Leitao told me Haith and his staff are fully aware that the Tigers are going to be hard pressed to repeat the outstanding performance this team recorded on offense last season. But Leitao also said the coaching staff would be perfectly happy with an improved defense compensating for any drop-off in scoring.

Actually Missouri wasn't all that bad on D last season, with one glaring exception. Big 12 opponents killed this defense with their three-point shooting. The good news for fans in Columbia is that it's highly unlikely conference opponents (meaning SEC opponents, this season) will again make 42 percent of their threes. In fact perimeter shooting that's merely normal could make this defense look a lot better in a hurry.

Last season the Tigers rode a magnificent offense to a 14-4 conference record, as Haith's team outscored Big 12 opponents by 0.11 points per possession. A win or three in the Bahamas will suggest to me that this season the scoring margin could stay more or less the same, but it may be achieved by a team combining a less amazing offense with a defense that's a little more stingy.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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