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


Lots of threes allowed, but not many threes made

Again, pretty easy to fall into the “Cuonzo has never changed” trap here. Missouri ostensibly remains a defense-first program, just like California was, just like Tennessee was. Cuonzo doesn’t use the Tougher Breed mantra anymore – it’s now “To the Finish Line” – but the song remains the same. Or at least you’d think so before taking a peek under the proverbial hood.

As you’ll recall, a Cuonzo defense at Tennessee was built on three things: allowing as few threes as possible per game, protecting the rim as well as possible, and owning the boards both ways. This does create Tougher Breed Basketball in a way, though it was always up to the viewer to note if it was watchable or not:

This stayed the same at California and got even more pronounced: they allowed very few threes, got a ton of defensive rebounds, and largely stayed out of trouble. Missouri has…not been that way. The Tigers have allowed an above-average amount of threes in two of Martin’s three seasons and look to be on a similar path this year:

Missouri doesn’t close out super hard on them; they generally try and stay inside the perimeter now. Synergy has Mizzou’s Guarded/Unguarded split barely above water at 52/48, and they’ve been incredibly lucky that opponents are shooting just 21.2% on their catch-and-shoot attempts. Their overall 3PT% allowed is just 24.1%, which is far below the expected opponent hit rate of 34.6%. Now, to their credit, Missouri has forced a pretty high amount of 25+ foot threes:

But it still doesn’t explain this giant gap. The open threes appear to be there, largely above the break; teams just aren’t hitting them. It’s a potential area of opportunity for Tennessee if they play it right.

They don’t allow a ton of attempts at the rim…

Something notable about Missouri’s lack of hyper-extending on defense the way Tennessee used to: it’s led to them being able to force a lot of 4-15 foot shots, just like Tennessee has. CBB Analytics has Mizzou forcing opponents to take about 36.4% of their total shots in this range while allowing a below-average amount of takes at the rim:

…but their rim protection is quite shaky

This is useful to know, because Missouri doesn’t really have much in the way of a true rim protector. All three members of their main frontcourt rotation average at least 4.7 fouls per 40 minutes, and even the fouls aren’t exactly helping them force more tough misses at the rim:

Bart Torvik’s site has Missouri allowing an astoundingly bad 65.1% hit rate at the rim. While this represents just 29.2% of all attempts, it’s still pretty gross. Let me lay it out this way:

  • Tennessee, through six games: 47.3% FG% allowed at the rim; 57.3% opponent average (+10%)
  • Missouri, through six games: 65.1% FG% allowed at the rim; 62.2% opponent average (-2.9%)

Has Tennessee faced significantly weaker competition than Missouri? Obviously! If you remove the first Oral Roberts game for Missouri out of the equation entirely, they’re actually doing a better than average job at stopping opponent attempts. But even if you do that, this rises to a barely-above-average rim protecting defense. There’s just not a true frontcourt stopper on this team the way Tennessee has Yves Pons and John Fulkerson. 

Missouri doesn’t force turnovers (280th nationally) and they aren’t quite as elite at defensive rebounding anymore (though still good), so I can’t really point to either of those as huge positives. Through six games, the only two pieces of the Missouri defense that rank in the top 100 nationally are their opponent 3PT% (15th) and a very low Assist Rate (28th). That’s fine and good, but considering what we know about three-point defense (unless you have a super-long team with a very specific defensive system, it’s largely beyond your control), how much can this defense be trusted?

This could end up being yet another Tougher Breed-type defense for Cuonzo, but six games of data suggest there’s some serious holes they need to patch up to make a serious run in March. Illinois exposed the rim protection issues (61.9% FG% on twos) and Liberty used Mizzou’s fouling issues to stay in the game (four different players with 3+ fouls), but no team has truly burned Missouri from deep yet. Could Tennessee be the first?

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