From ball-handling to rim finishing, the struggles of a retooled roster point to issues that go might go beyond tweaks to the rotation or scheme.
When Liberty embarrassed Missouri on Thursday, nearly holding the Tigers to single digits in the first half, it wasn’t hard to isolate examples of a roster and system ill-suited for each other.
Eight games into the season, the roster refresh executed this spring by coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff is already careening toward calamity. After the 21-point shellacking, the Tigers slid all the way No. 142 in KenPom, while its adjusted efficiency against Division I foes landed at minus-6.84.
There were plenty of unsightly possessions Thursday, but my mind thinks back to a sequence from almost a week ago against Wichita State.
Early in the second half, Jarron Coleman dribbled toward the MU bench and Javon Pickett. Just above the break, he handed the ball off and sealed Pickett’s defender. Instead of sprinting into the exchange, the senior opted for a leisurely pace, allowing Dexter Dennis to glide around Coleman and cut off a narrow gap.
As for the other Tigers, they just stood observing. Ronnie DeGray III hung out in the dunker spot. DaJuan was slightly bent over in the opposite corner. And Kobe Brown floated on the balls of his feet around the lane-line, extended.
They only sprang to action after Dennis cut Pickett off. Brown signaled Gordon to cut toward the top of the arc for a ball reversal – one made impossible by Dennis hedging out. Forced almost out to half-court, Gordon took a bounce pass and waited for DeGray to amble up from the block to set a ball screen.
Once DeGray arrived, the UMass transfer angled his torso at the right hip of Tyson Etienne. Yet Gordon’s angle of attack isn’t tight enough to shed his defender. With that, the loop begins again.
Gordon runs a handoff with Coleman, but no seam opens up before him. On the weak side, no one is shot-ready. All Coleman can do is swing the ball to DeGray for a catch-and-shoot 3-ball that hits off the front rim.
The next time down, the Tigers rerun the same action. This time Pickett chugs into the lane but gets cut off. And after a kickout and reversal, Coleman tries his hand at navigating traffic – only to drag his foot while splitting two defenders.
Still, MU is undeterred.
They try the same action for a third consecutive possession. But, again, Pickett can’t get in the lane or quickly reverse the ball. Ultimately, MU runs a stationary handoff for Brown, who airballs a pull-up from the elbow. The only saving grace: it lands in DeGray’s hands for a stickback.
That narrative – all 321 words of it – is a tedious homage to a roster without enough ball-handling, shooting, or reliable rim finishing to power the same attack that helped MU reach the NCAA tournament last season.
Coming into his fifth season, Martin touted this group as one that blurred positional boundaries, exploited mismatches, and was switchable enough defensively to get out in transition. Suffice it to say, the build has not matched the blueprint.
During the preseason, we held off any discussion about the brand of basketball this team might offer. Yet after eight games, it’s worth taking stock about what Martin has on his hands.
Where’s the dynamism in pick-and-rolls?
Let’s go back to Thursday in Lynchburg, where a sideline reporter asked Martin what adjustments needed to be made against the Flames’ and their pack line.
“We have to do a better job attacking the ball screens,” Martin told her. “We have to slip the ball screens, but it’s also behind us. You have to hesitate that one last second and hit that big at the rim. He’s open.”
The Flames’ approach to ball-screen defense ran slightly counter to conventional pack line principles during the first half. They showed a bit more and tried jamming at the mesh point when the Tigers ran handoffs. But by now, those assertive coverages have become a common tactic in the scouting report.
The calculus is easy to understand: Mizzou lacks a bonafide lead guard orchestrating the action.
It’s not uncommon for some rosters to lack an elite on-ball creator. Modern offenses now deploy multiple ballhandlers, having a combo guard who’s competent enough with the rock to play on the second side of the floor. Or they have multiple point guards with complementary skillsets, which is what MU had a season ago.
When Xavier Pinson piloted the offense, he brought more of a slashing element to high pick-and-rolls, while Dru Smith spaced to a wing. But in a base action called gut, the senior’s pace, deft footwork, and ball fakes paired well with a rolling Jeremiah Tilmon. And if Pinson’s game, which ate up substantial usage, didn’t get going, Hawaii transfer Drew Buggs checked in to help Smith keep trains on time.
The by-committee approach averaged 0.967 points per pick-and-roll pass, close to the Division I average. It also makes sense why Martin wants such flexibility again as he refashioned the roster.
Except the program didn’t pull it off.
Freshman Anton Brookshire’s a scoring point guard. Amari Davis relies on ball-screens to hunt for mid-range pull-ups. And Jarron Coleman can facilitate in pick-and-rolls but might be better suited to a secondary creator role. But there’s not a point guard on this roster with hundreds of PNR reps under their belt.
What do the early returns look like? For starters, the Tigers run the same volume of pick-and-rolls per game, but those touches are spread among six guards. That’s a far cry from last season when Smith, Pinson, and Buggs accounted for 91 percent of the possessions.
More alarming is that none of the current Tigers has emerged as a reliable facilitator. Through eight games, including a rout of an NAIA opponent, MU’s averaging 0.692 PPP, per Synergy Sports tracking data. That’s 28.7 percent below the Division I average.
Coleman’s led the way in terms of usage, but he’s only producing 0.833 PPP. Meanwhile, Anton Brookshire’s turnover and defensive issues have capped his floor time. The Kickapoo product has only doled out five passes this season. In the last week, Martin made it known that Davis moved into the nominal point guard role, and it only took him two games for his efficiency (0.895 PPP) to pace the roster.
And that brings us back to the start of this piece.
Pickett and Gordon often find themselves on the ball in the initial action of a possession. For Pickett, it might be those dribble-handoffs. In Gordon’s case, it’s using a down screen to cut vertically from a block for the top of the key and have the same screener pivot to initiate a high pick-and-roll.
Yes, the ball might get to Coleman on a secondary action. Sure, Davis does get a handoff in the slot. And there are times when Brown pops out from an elbow to attack and facilitate. However, possessions don’t start with those actions.
The result is also predictable: a kickout to a shooter. So far, almost two-thirds of PNR passes ended with a spot-up jumper – attempts yielding 0.558 PPP. The results are obviously putrid. But how those shots happen is notable, too.
Opponents have quickly figured out they can easily disrupt the rhythm of a set by simply having defenders go under screens and try to hard-hedge on handoffs. They can do that because an MU ballhandler rarely rejects a screen, or splits a trap, or snakes their dribble. Off the ball, the rest of the Tigers frequently stand flat-footed.
Too often, MU plods through ill-fated two-man games in the middle of the floor. And if a teammate does shake loose rolling or cutting, the dribbler’s timing and vision are disrupted. Think of an offense like software. It only works when the hardware is compatible. When it’s not, you see outcomes like we witnessed Thursday.
An Old Problem Is Back: Poor Shooting
Of course, it doesn’t help that those same ballhandlers frequently play in tight quarters.
Once again, woeful jump-shooting makes it easy, especially in Liberty’s case, for foes to shrink the floor, clog up driving lanes, and send ample to the paint. Mizzou’s averaging 0.762 PPP on catch-and-shoot opportunities, well below the averages for their Division I (1.053 PPP) and SEC (1.001) peers this season.
As it stands, the ideal outcome is a wide-open catch-and-shoot by Gordon, but his performance against Paul Quinn College skews that. Yet when teams do close down an MU shooter, the Tigers only connect at a 20.5 percent clip.
A month ago, Martin expressed confidence that this roster had plenty of shooting stored up. However, it wasn’t hard to find potential caveats. For example, what did a bounce-back season look for Gordon, who shot 21.7 percent from long range at K-State last season? How much stock did we need to take in Coleman’s final eight games for Ball State, a stretch where he canned 46.7 percent of his 3-pointers? And just how quickly could Brookshire’s shooting stroke translate from Kickapoo High?
The answers appear grim. The trio is shooting 22.2 percent (12 of 54) on catch-and-shoots, including a 0 for 11 start to Brookshire’s career. Ironically, the best floor-spacing options appear to be Brown (6 of 17) and Pickett (4 of 12), but their respective efficiency begins to wane as their shot tally ticks upward.
What exactly constitutes a good shot is a long-running debate in evaluating Martin’s offenses. Sure, it’s produced open shots, but are they quality attempts. As we documented last month, the answer is often no.
Using quantified shot quality, which weighs variables like location, shooter movement, and the closing angle of a defender, a catch-and-shoot 3 for MU is worth 0.91 PPP, per Shot Quality. That’s 338th nationally. Yet MU attempts roughly 16 per game.
Shot Quality data also reveal this relationship: the more unguarded 3s you attempt, the worse your spacing tends to be. MU illustrates this moderate relationship perfectly. The program ranks 77th for open-3 rate and 351st – sixth-worst in Division I – for spacing.
What we have on our hands is a skill problem. Tweak the rotation? If there’s a dead-eye shooter on the bench, they haven’t seen the floor. As for the scheme, opponents weigh tradeoffs and give Missouri those shots and live with the outcome.
Even point-blank plays are tough
All that congestion naturally makes the act of finishing a play more difficult when MU does reach the rim.
Like many teams, MU’s system prioritizes rim attacks and corner 3s because their value (about 1.1 PPP) is almost equal on a per-possession basis. So, if you’re erecting walls with missed jumpers, perhaps you can offset it by playing downhill. Even better, those shots draw fouls that earn you high-value freebies and can put a key player on the opponent’s bench.
And yet Missouri also struggles with the very act of finish around the cup. The Tigers are almost 14.3 percent less efficient than the rest of Division I and only convert 47.3 percent of the time.
Alarmingly, it’s Gordon (0.526 PPP) and Pickett (0.533 PPP) — a duo whose supposed strength was applying pressure on the rim — who have struggled the most. Davis launches floaters from various release points, but he wants to exploit defenses conceding mid-range jumpers. As for Gordon, he’s managed to maximize rare chances to attack out of drag pick-and-rolls and 1-4 flat ball-screens. But collectively, Martin’s most-used guards post a paltry 0.691 PPP, per Synergy.
Unfortunately, MU doesn’t have the kind of insurance it did a year ago.
Remember that roller Martin was talking about earlier? Finding him was among the best touches in the SEC last season. Per Shot Quality, Jeremiah Tilmon diving to the rim was worth almost 1.62 sqPPP, and dumping the ball off to him in the short corner earned 1.37 sqPPP.
It also so happens the rest of the frontcourt excelled at completing tough finishes. According to Synergy, the remaining quartet averaged a 1.324 PPP and shot 67 percent. You have enough of a buffer to offset shooting 32.5 percent from 3-point range as a team when you do that.
Merging MU’s catch-and-shoot efforts with its rim finishing is also helpful, telling us how well the Tigers maximizes two of the best scoring plays in the sport. Unfortunately, the result is again problematic, with the program posting 0.877 PPP – well below the 1.095 PPP for the rest of D1.
While Brown and DeGray approach something close to normal, four other stalwarts — Pickett, Davis, Coleman, and Gordon — struggle to pull their weight. Individually, Wilmore’s performance (1.0 PPP) on modest touches might inspire some tiny bit of optimism. Yet Wilmore’s presence adds another body – and defender – around the rim. When he’s on the floor, MU’s offensive efficiency plummets by 19 points per 100 possessions, according to HoopLens’ lineup data.
What’s the remedy?
This past week saw Martin make early attempts to salvage a season quickly going to pot. The experiment with Wilmore as a starter appears to be over as DeGray filled his spot as a small-ball five. As for Davis taking over at lead guard, it might be an effort to put the ball in the hands of a viable scorer earlier in possessions.
Leaning into offensive lineups is the logical place to start. Before the debacle at Liberty, a quintet of Coleman, Davis, Gordon, Brown and DeGray might allow almost one point per possession against Division I opponents. That’s certainly a tad leaky. But that group also averages 1.18 PPP offensively, per HoopsLens.
Before Martin and the staff get under the hood and start tinkering with the offense, they need to figure out which pieces they can rely on.
Unlike two years ago, though, there’s not a skillset waiting to be leveraged. When the Tigers pivoted to the Barcelona sub package, it embraced the reality that MU lacked a slew of elite shooters. Yet anyone could see they did have dynamic lead guards and a mobile big – the building blocks of a PNR-based scheme.
When we watch this team, though, what do we see? What can this staff lean into?
For the moment, no answer springs quickly to mind – and that might be the most ominous sign of what’s to come.