Is it luck or is it skill? Three-point defense edition, thanks to Missouri
On the surface level, this looks like an excellent defense. Missouri sits at 25th on KenPom and an impressive 13th on Bart Torvik’s site by way of a fantastic 15th-best eFG% allowed. Only three opponents all season have topped a 47% eFG% on the Tigers: Illinois, Tennessee, and Mississippi State. (Not coincidentally, that includes their only two losses.) If you’ve had the opportunity to turn in for a Mizzou game this winter, you’ve probably seen opponents miss a lot of threes (27.4% 3PT% allowed, 14th-best):
As well as a lot of non-rim twos (32.5%, 62nd):
If you’ll indulge me, here’s what I said about CuonzoBall last time: “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. . . . Missouri has not been that way.” Two of those three are still mostly true, and I think some extraordinary regression is coming on the third. Let me explain in order.
First, let’s talk threes. Again, at surface level, Missouri appears to be fantastic at this. The only opponents to top 30% from three against them this season both took barely any threes at all (7 by Tennessee, 6 by Mississippi State). That sounds fantastic. However, a quick reminder from our friend Ken Pomeroy: “with the exception of free-throw accuracy, [the three-pointer] is the box-score event least influenced by the defense.” Missouri makes for a great case study in this regard, because they appear to have alarmingly low influence on the actual three-point attempts themselves.
The Tigers sit at a 48/52 Guarded/Unguarded catch-and-shoot rate on Synergy, the worst of any Tennessee opponent so far this season and third-worst in the SEC. As we’ve explored in the past, Synergy’s categorizing is actually very helpful. Unguarded threes went in at a 36.6% hit rate in 2019-20 and 38.2% in 2018-19 before the three-point line moved back; guarded threes were at 31.7% and 33%, respectively. This year, the gap is even wider in a smaller sample: 37.5% vs. 31.6%. The point is clear: you want to guard as many catch-and-shoot threes as possible. Missouri does not do this.
Unquestionably, the Tigers have been remarkably lucky to only give up a 27.4% hit rate from downtown so far. I talked to Simon Gerszberg, the webmaster of Shot Quality, before writing this preview. He sent over a couple of stats that helped contextualize what I feel like I’ve been seeing. Approximately 24% of Missouri defensive possessions end in a catch-and-shoot three. The expected Shot Quality PPP of these attempts, per Simon: 1.08, or a 36% hit rate. Little bit bigger than the 27.1% they’re allowing now. I mean, attempts like these are going to go down at some point:
And even guarded attempts are going to go down. Missouri’s sitting at 25% there, a full 6.6% below the national average despite our demonstration that they aren’t really doing much to affect the actual shot. Even when you add in the off-the-dribble threes Missouri forces (which is roughly four per game), Missouri’s expected 3PT% allowed by their opponent’s shot quality sits at about 34.7%, well above the 27.4% mark they’re currently allowing. Regression is coming; the only question is when.
They better hope regression doesn’t come, because they don’t protect the rim well at all
In terms of protecting the rim as well as possible, this is not a banner Cuonzo team. The Tigers sit at 227th nationally in FG% allowed at the rim (60.7%) and only block 5.5% of attempts at the rim, the 29th-lowest rate in the nation. Going from playing a Florida team ranking 6th nationally in Block Percentage to playing Missouri honestly feels like a relief:
When Tennessee played Missouri three weeks back, the Tigers’ main gameplan was to force Tennessee to score off the dribble and one-on-one at all costs. I do believe that Cuonzo’s still hoping to force as many tough and ugly shots as possible. It just didn’t really work all that well against the Vols:
Tennessee attempted 47 twos in this game, and while only 14 were defined as “at the rim,” they converted 10. I think we’d all like to see Tennessee take fewer mid-range twos at this point; hopefully, this is the game they take advantage of an opponent that doesn’t appear to be terribly good at contesting shots once you get to the rim. Considering Missouri actually blocks more non-rim twos than rim twos, this seems like the ideal game to stop taking 12-footers. But I digress.
Unusually for Cuonzo, his team is really struggling on the defensive boards
Lastly: rebounds. Any Tennessee team worth their salt under Cuonzo was a rebounding machine, and the tag-team of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon very nearly delivered Knoxville an Elite Eight run on the back of phenomenal work on the boards. On the right night, the way to enjoy Cuonzo’s system was to watch how hard the team would work on both ends of the court. Again…not really the case here. I’ll offer two stats, and you can figure out which one you’d prefer to cite when reading this.
- Traditional rebounding margin: Missouri +3.1, 115th-best
- Offensive vs. defensive rebounding percentage: 30.1% OREB% (105th), 30.3% DREB% (250th)
I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds here, but here’s my case for two things: rebounding margin being an outdated, weak stat, and Missouri actually being a below-the-national-average rebounding team. By margin alone, it appears that Mizzou is at least okay and above water. And yet: they’re giving up almost 2.5 more offensive rebounds per game than they’re getting. Once opponents’ FG% begins to regress to what their Shot Quality expects it will be, this rebounding margin will be erased. This does not look like an above-average rebounding team to me:
On a per-possession basis, Missouri is getting out-rebounded. Simply by the fact Missouri’s opponents have the equivalent of 48 more shot attempts this season, Missouri has 32 more rebounds than their opponents. Pay attention to percentages, not margins; this is my soapbox, this is my song. Tennessee badly needs to get back on track from an offensive rebounding perspective, and this is the only game for two weeks where I can see it happening without squinting.
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