By Luke Winn
December 07, 2011

NEW YORK -- Once Jay Wright started studying film of No. 10 Missouri in preparation for Tuesday's Jimmy V Classic, he couldn't stop. He was hooked. Normally, the Villanova head coach reviews an opponent's previous three games; when it came to the Tigers, he said, "I watched every game, every second. I wanted to see, would they relax at any time? I just love their energy."

At practice this week, Wright turned into a Tiger evangelist, telling two of his former guards, Scottie Reynolds and Mike Nardi, that they needed to tune in to see the new (now 8-0) Mizzou. Wright insisted it would be an enjoyable experience, and for Nardi, déjà vu: His 2006 'Nova team was the four-guard flagship of college basketball, and Frank Haith's Tigers are the present-day practitioners of scintillating small-ball.

Because of this -- and the fact that his Wildcats are in a transitional year -- Wright did not seem overly bothered about losing 81-71 to Mizzou at Madison Square Garden, or being burned by Marcus Denmon, the best high-usage, high-effiency guard in the country, for 28 points. As a coach who knows what makes a four-guard attack click, Wright said, "They've got all the right ingredients."

No one argued with that assessment. But two months ago? The consensus was that Mizzou had the wrong ingredients. Few pundits (myself included) had faith in Haith, considering the ex-Miami coach a slight downgrade from Mike Anderson, who left the Tigers for Arkansas. And when forward Laurence Bowers, their top rebounder and second-leading scorer from last season, tore his ACL on Oct. 4, leaving their frontcourt woefully thin, there appeared to be little chance of them winning the Big 12. Yet they've been the league's best team thus far, and the most surprisingly dominant offense in the country, ranking fifth in adjusted efficiency. Improbably, everything has changed for the better.

As a Then-versus-Now experiment, I had video of Mizzou's final game from last season, a 78-63 loss to Cincinnati in the NCAA tournament's Round of 64, queued up on my laptop at the Garden. I watched various offensive clips during breaks in Tuesday's game. It was not the kind of tape that would get anyone hooked on Tigerball. Anderson's overall body of work at Mizzou was a success, but his final team (which finished 23-11) was somewhat of a mess, running-and-gunning with a free-flowing, suboptimal motion offense. In that loss to Cincy, their two best shooters, Denmon and Kim English, were forced to do too much dribbling to create shots, rather than having looks created for them. Phil Pressey, who's now a breakout star at point guard, was relegated to an auxiliary role, often playing off the ball, and Michael Dixon -- who inexplicably used more possessions in '10-11 than Denmon -- started at the point. With two 6-8 forwards (Bowers and Ricardo Ratliffe) coexisting on the interior, driving guards frequently ran into traffic in the paint.

What played out on the floor of the Garden, in real time, was balletic by comparison. The differences were distinct. The best player (Denmon) was finally taking the most shots, and someone new (Pressey) was running the show. Pressey led a four- (and sometimes five-) out offense, breaking down 'Nova using high ballscreens from Ratliffe or dribble-drives in isolation, and then either serving kick-outs to Denmon or English, or finding a rolling Ratliffe for point-blank scores. The small lineup leaves the lane clear for penetration, and Haith trusts his 5-foot-10 floor general in a way that Anderson did not. Said Pressey, who finished with 12 assists against just three turnovers, "[Haith] lets me dictate the game the way I want to dictate it."

Haith's more structured half-court sets also put Pressey's passing targets in consistent spots ("Now," he said, "I know where my shooters are"), such as having Denmon in the near corner/wing on pick-and-rolls, with English on the backside, in order to stretch defenses as much as possible. As a result, Mizzou's efficiency in half-court situations has skyrocketed, from 0.893 points per possession last season to 1.105 PPP this year, according to Synergy Sports Technology. One can only imagine what will happen once the Tigers' point guards cut down on their ill-advised shots (Pressey was 1-for-8 against 'Nova, and Dixon was 2-for-13).

The next step in unlocking the Tigers' offensive firepower was to turn Denmon and English into heavily dribble-free operators. Last season, 42.1 percent of Denmon's possessions were catch-and-shoot, and he averaged 1.271 PPP overall; this season, 53.4 percent of Denmon's offense is catch-and-shoot, and he's averaging 1.489 PPP, which is a massive improvement. (He also has only turned the ball over four times all season in this adjusted role.) English's catch-and-shoot percentage has jumped from 50 percent as a junior to 62.5 percent as a senior, and his efficiency has exploded even more than Denmon's, from 0.958 PPP to 1.277 PPP. English has to guard power forwards on D, but on offense, he's a perimeter sniper.

That means the lane is left entirely for Ratliffe, when he's not pulling the opposing center out to the top of the key on ballscreens. The 6-8 senior, a former juco transfer, has revamped his post game to the degree that he's almost automatic: In Mizzou's past four games, he is an absurd 30-of-32 from the field. (English, the team's social media star, added this to a postgame tweet about Ratliffe's accuracy: "In the words of my grandfather #GoodGoogaMooga!")

Haith attributes Ratliffe's breakout to better fundamentals: "Ricardo is getting great position. He understands how to get in the paint and do his work early, and he understands angles. Last year, he was always jumping away from the basket; now you see him squaring his shoulders and doing his work early."

You also see Ratliffe getting buckets on a platter from Pressey, whom the big man says has eyes "not only in the back of his head but in the side of his head. ... as soon as he drives, I get my hands ready." And as he's helping his guards out by finishing their assists, they're helping him on the offensive glass, chipping in with nine offensive rebounds to push the Tigers' Tuesday total to 14 -- one more than the bigger Wildcats recorded. Denmon's putback with one second left in the first half was a gut-punch for 'Nova, which had to go into the break down by 13.

Mizzou is a solid defensive team, even though its D is bound to lag slightly behind its offense due to size-and-bulk issues. Ratliffe and English picked up four fouls each trying to guard 'Nova's Mouphtaou Yarou and Jayvaughn Pinkston, yet the Tigers limited that frontcourt duo to a reasonable 21 points and 15 rebounds. And when momentum was starting to swing toward the Wildcats midway through the second half, Pressey came up with a huge steal and dunk with 9:01 left that put the Tigers back up by 10.

Their lone cringe-worthy moment came when backup center Steve Moore tried to guard Pinkston on the perimeter; Pinkston crossed him over and Moore went from defender to dead fish in a millisecond, flopping to the right while Pinkston went left, en route to a layup. As ESPN2 replayed it in slow motion, I imagined that somewhere out in the universe, Gary McGhee was watching and saying, "I feel your pain." But when you're undefeated, and your reserve five-man's cement shoes are your biggest liability, you can laugh about it on the flight home. Mizzou has defied expectations, gained admirers and emerged as an offensive powerhouse that's already in peak form by December.

"I don't think they have much room for improvement," Wright said, "but I don't think they need it."

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)