In sports, it's usually not a compliment to be called a "system team." From the triple option to the Princeton offense, teams identified by the systems they use often are masking a lack of individual talent.
That's what makes Missouri's open embracement of its "Fastest 40 Minutes of Basketball" mantra so refreshing, even if it doesn't exactly pass truth-in-advertising standards. Missouri actually was only the fourth-fastest team in the Big 12 last season, and at just over 71 possessions a game, wasn't even one of the nation's 50 highest-tempo teams last season, according to kenpom.com.
Those are just small details, though, to coach Mike Anderson, a devoted implementer of the high-octane system cribbed from Nolan Richardson, his former boss at Arkansas, and used to good effect at UAB prior to arriving in Columbia, Mo., in 2006.
"I love uptempo," Anderson said. "Kids enjoy it and I think you get a lot of the energy that you need and you get guys who play with instinct. I like instinctive guys. Guys get a chance to showcase their God-given talent with what we do."
Sounds like a compelling recruiting pitch. So why don't more programs feature the approach?
"There's risk in what we do," Anderson added. "You can't be halfway committed to it, but I think the key is our guys trust one another."
The most easily identifiable trait of the system is its full-court pressure, a prime reason why Missouri annually is among the nation's leaders in forced-turnover percentage. Painting Anderson's system solely with that brush, though, sells it short. Missouri's defense also features a healthy dose of half-court traps and zones that help confound opponents who get the ball across the timeline. In a nutshell, Missouri wants to create all sorts of different levels of discomfort.
"Even if we're not getting a lot of steals or turnovers," said junior guard Kim English, the team's leading scorer last season at 14.0 points per game, "if we're speeding teams up, making guys who aren't used to handling the ball handle it, making guys who are used to shooting drive, making guys who are used to driving shoot, then it's being effective."
Less trumpeted, but equally important, is a complementary offensive approach which emphasizes balanced scoring and extreme ball security. Missouri's surprisingly low turnover rate, when combined with the large number they cause, helps the Tigers carve out five or six "free" possessions a game. That's an enormous advantage against most opponents, especially when some lead to runouts with numbers.
Missouri's is not an easy system to operate well. As English notes, an open shot in Missouri's offense is different than one for most other teams because you may have to take and make a long jumper after multiple full-court sprints, and the team's balanced approach tends to sublimate stars. However, after spending his first two years reshaping the roster to his liking, Anderson has won 59 games in his last two-plus seasons while his Tigers post gaudy efficiency numbers and solid shooting percentages.
Still, as the ninth-ranked Tigers enter their first real test of the season tonight against No. 16 Georgetown in Kansas City, they continue to fight a perception of being a "bully program," one that feasts on overmatched opponents but gets exposed by comparable teams with experienced backcourts and/or size in the frontcourt. There's some merit to the debate. Against teams that finished the season in Ken Pomeroy's top 50, Anderson is just 24-34 at Missouri and only has a winning record against that group in one of his first four years.
The system clearly can win at a high level. Richardson won the 1994 national championship with the Razorbacks and Anderson barely missed a Final Four two seasons ago when Missouri fell by seven in the regional final to top-seeded Connecticut. What it comes down to is the seemingly annual question of whether Missouri has the right pieces to be something more than just paper Tigers.
Missouri's Elite Eight team in 2008-09 was fueled by an athletic, efficient frontcourt tandem of DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons, two big, physical guards in Zaire Taylor and J.T. Tiller, and a dangerous three-point marksman in Matt Lawrence. Last season, the Tigers were breaking in a new frontcourt and three of their highest-frequency shot-takers were very inefficient scorers, so they struggled in comparison, despite finishing with a 23-11 record and a second-round NCAA appearance.
Which version will the 2010-11 Tigers more closely resemble? The best way to evaluate the last two teams' relative strengths is in their play against those comparable opponents. The chart below breaks down some of Missouri's most telling stats in games against teams that finished the season in Ken Pomeroy's top 50.
Last year's issue seems pretty obvious. Despite a markedly higher turnover rate forced, Missouri's relative inability to stop anyone or rebound misses with any competence made it a much worse defensive team. That, in turn, helped compromise the Tigers' offense, which had fewer opportunities to run and create cheap baskets. An eye-opening example came at Kansas last January, where the
If those numbers are telling, then 2010-11's team has a chance to be quite good. There's additional quality depth in the backcourt, including an infusion of speed with highly touted point guard Phil Pressey, but the Tigers' fate likely rests in the evolution of its frontcourt. So far, an extra year's development for Justin Safford and Laurence Bowers has been a plus, but the biggest change may be the arrival of physical forward Ricardo Ratliffe, a juco transfer who is averaging almost 10 rebounds a game in under 23 minutes an outing.
Missouri's system, which emphasizes versatility and quickness over physicality and size, sometimes exposes its bigs and limits the Tigers' effectiveness on the glass, but Anderson knows they have to be able to successfully close out more opponents' possessions, whoever ends up corralling the missed shot.
"When we talk about the rebounding, it's important to what we do," Anderson said. "Even if we can stay even, stay right there in the ballpark [on the glass], that hopefully puts us at an advantage."
Anderson has faith that his system gives his team an advantage. How the Tigers fare against the guard-heavy Hoyas will give us the first idea of just how well this year's pieces may work within it.