Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Missouri (#1)


Cuonzo’s offense has made a few changes, but still a 4-in, 1-out base

I know, I know: it’s tempting. Tempting to say this is the same old Cuonzo team you remember from his days at Tennessee and California. It’s easy to say that it might look good now, but what about in two months when everyone’s sick of playing slow as sludge and even the wins don’t feel very fun? All fine reservations to have based on past history, of course. Just one Cuonzo offense after departing Missouri State in 2011 has finished the season ranked higher than 53rd on KenPom – his final offense at Tennessee, which was almost entirely driven by a ton of offensive rebounds.

I promise you that this isn’t the case with Cuonzo at Missouri, though his teams remain good at crashing the boards. When Martin was the head coach at Missouri State from 2008-2011, his teams took and made a lot of threes, but they retained the same post-first system we remember from his Tennessee days:

At Tennessee, this turned into “we have two good shooters, so please don’t shoot even that many threes.” CuonzoBall, as we all remember, was heavily reliant on Jordan McRae creating something out of a ball screen or Jarnell Stokes creating something out of a post-up. We’ll go with the first here:

Cuonzo left for California and got the best athlete of his career in Jaylen Brown; here, you can see Cuonzo gradually leaving his post-first system behind and moving towards an offense with better spacing:

Now, finally, this brings us to today. Cuonzo’s gone from the double-post system Tennessee fans remember to a 4-out, 1-in motion offense with just enough post presence to keep defenses honest. It’s based on a lot of ball screens, off-ball movement, and trying to make difficult things a bit simpler. As far as I can personally tell, it seems to be working.

Missouri still doesn’t shoot the ball well as a roster, of course. They’re only posting a 50.3% eFG%, good enough for 148th nationally, and they’re making just 28.4% of these threes. Still, you can tell it’s quite a bit more fun than any other Cuonzo offense you remember. A key part of this: getting out in transition way more often.

Per Hoop-Math, 32.9% of Missouri’s shots so far have come in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, easily the highest ratio in Cuonzo’s personal history and Missouri’s fastest offensive pace since Mike Anderson was their head coach. It’s forcing defenses to get back more quickly than they’re used to, and it’s earning Missouri a lot of attempts at the free throw line:

That’s how you go from 37-36 to dropping 81 on Illinois and 83 on Oregon.

The backcourt runs the show

Cuonzo’s offense primarily runs through his three key backcourt guys: Xavier Pinson (14.3 PPG), Mark Smith (14 PPG), and Dru Smith (13 PPG). Pinson is the point guard that drives the offense initially and is Missouri’s go-to guy in any clutch situation; he uses a ton of possessions, nearly 33.4% when he’s on the court. Pinson has never been terribly efficient at Missouri and has yet to crack even a 100 Offensive Rating over a full season, but he still represents a threat in a pair of very specific ways. He’s happy to either get to the rim or pull up for a short two off of a ball screen:

And he loves, loves, loves to find open shooters based on the attention he attracts on the court:

Mark Smith (not the deceased Fall singer) is Missouri’s main option at the 3, a slightly-undersized small forward that is the most efficient scorer of the main three. Smith is a career 37.7% three-point shooter on 350 attempts, and Cuonzo will get him the ball in a few different ways:

Smith is a threat inside the perimeter, too, but nearly 60% of his shots come from beyond the arc and over 70% did the last two seasons. We’ll leave our primary focus there.

Lastly, the final key guy, and still my personal favorite player on the roster, is Dru Smith. This particular Smith transferred from Evansville and was a piece I really wanted Rick Barnes to pursue in the summer of 2018. He chose Missouri and poses a big-time threat all over the court as the main 2-guard. Smith is the team’s best defender, which we’ll explore in the next section, but his status allows him to lead a lot of Missouri’s primary breaks:

Smith is also a pretty good passer and seems to involve the roll man more often than any other Missouri guard in Cuonzo’s ball screen sets:

As you might expect, the guy who’s a career 36.1% three-point shooter is going to take a few threes. He doesn’t take them at the rate Pinson or Mark Smith do, but he’s a legitimate threat from downtown and is happy to pull up off a dribble at any time.

All three of these guys are going to be important pieces for Tennessee to limit in various ways. It’s hard to shut down all three or even two of the three for a full game, but limiting their impact and forcing Missouri’s less-prominent offensive pieces to step up is always the best strategy. In particular, finding a way to force them into no-man’s land (11-20 footers or a 25+ foot three) is the most efficient route to a victory.

Here’s a quick scout of Missouri’s rotation. As a reminder, a player must get at least 10 minutes per game to receive coverage. Starters’ positions in parentheses is from Bart Torvik’s algorithm.

  • #1 Xavier Pinson (scoring PG). Junior, best passer on the team. Pinson draws 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes, a pretty absurd rate for a point guard. Tennessee needs to force Pinson to stay out of the paint; he’s 72-for-221 on everything that’s not an attempt at a rim the last two seasons.
  • #12 Dru Smith (combo G). Senior, transfer from Evansville. Best two-way player on the roster. Smith draws and commits about four fouls per 40 minutes both ways, but he’s probably the best pull-up shooter on the team and can score at all three levels.
  • #13 Mark Smith (wing G). Senior. Not the guy who wrote “Leave the Capitol”. Takes more threes than twos, but like Pinson and Smith, pretty good at getting to the free throw line. Likes to work his way to the wings in transition for open threes.
  • #24 Kobe Brown (PF/C). Sophomore, elite rebounder that ranks in the top 100 nationally of both OREB% and DREB%. Luckily for Tennessee, Brown is a mediocre offensive player: 25.3% on 91 career 3PT attempts, turns it over a lot.
  • #23 Jeremiah Tilmon (center). The 1-in on the 4-out, 1-in motion front. Tilmon’s main skill is getting to shoot free throws more often than just about anyone else in the SEC. New Chris Silva, but not quite as efficient on his post-ups. By the way, the main post-up guy.
  • #5 Mitchell Smith. Gets the most minutes of any frontcourt player not named Tilmon, but doesn’t start. Splits his time at 4 and 5; Cuonzo brings him in for the double-big lineups. Easily the funniest player on the team in terms of how photogenic he is.
  • #4 Javon Pickett. Wing that is a bafflingly poor shooter (29.7% from three on 165 attempts, 60.7% FTs on 89 attempts) but never turns it over.
  • #2 Drew Buggs. Very inefficient wing that is named Drew Buggs. 2-for-13 from the field this year, career 27% 3PT shooter in three seasons at Hawaii. Went from Long Beach to Hawaii to Columbia, MO, which is truly depressing.

NEXT PAGE: Get in the zone – the Cuooooooooonzone

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