Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Previewing Missouri-Kansas, With the Help of Long Beach State

Tuesday night was a real treat for me, as my two pet teams of this season, Missouri and Long Beach State, each played nationally-televised games in opposing time slots. Missouri cruised to a relatively easy win over Villanova at Madison Square Garden, while the Beach got into a big hole early against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse and couldn't quite climb out of it.

Watching the two games, I couldn't help but notice the similarities between the Tigers and the 49ers. Both teams start four perimeter players, both like to get up and down the court, and both are only about seven players deep. And since Missouri and Kansas are likely to challenge for the Big 12 crown and meet twice this year in the regular season, I thought that we might be able to learn something about Missouri's probability of success against Kansas by seeing how the Beach played the Jayhawks.

Having pointed out the similarities between Mizzou and LBSU, let's next tackle the differences. First and foremost, Missouri is undoubtedly better than Long Beach State at nearly every position and in nearly every aspect of the game. Long Beach is really Missouri Lite. Secondly, while both teams are perimeter-oriented, Missouri starts four guards: Phil Pressey (listed at 5'10"), Matt Pressey (6'2"), Marcus Denmon (6'3") and Kim English (6'6"). Long Beach is a bit bigger: Small forwards James Ennis (6'7") and T.J. Robinson (6'8") join guards Casper Ware (5'10") and Larry Anderson (6'5") in the starting lineup.

Both of those lineups face matchup problems against Kansas' frontline of 6'9" Thomas Robinson, a Big 12 player of the year candidate, and seven-footer Jeff Withey, who has been something of a revelation in his junior season. Those problems reared their ugly heads on several of Kansas' early possessions, during which KU jumped out to a 16-4 lead.

Long Beach opened in a man-to-man, with Robinson guarding Withey and Eugene Phelps, who is undersized at 6'6" but is the only real banger in the starting lineup. I think Missouri will take a similar tack, putting 6'8" Ricardo Ratliffe on Robinson and English on Withey. It's obviously problematic to have someone a half-foot shorter guarding a seven-footer, but Kansas doesn't always go to Withey when he has a mismatch (they do when Robinson does), and Withey is too passive to exploit the advantage consistently.

On Kansas' first offensive possession against Long Beach, Robinson posted up on the left block with the ball on the left win, and Withey stood over on the weak-side block. T.J. Robinson edged over towards Thomas Robinson before any pass was thrown, and the Kansas ballhandler, recognizing what was happening, threw a lob to Withey that would have resulted in an easy basket had Withey been able to corral the pass.

On the third time down the court, Kansas went high-low with its bigs, giving Robinson the ball at the top of the key while Withey set up shop in the post. Phelps backed several feet off of Robinson, trying to discourage the entry pass to Withey. Robinson calmly drilled a 17-footer, one of several mid-range jumpers he hit on the day.

Clearly, over-compensating for the size mismatches that Robinson and Withey pose in this fashion isn't going to work. Here are some alternatives that Missouri might try:

Play a zone. Connor Teahan is really the only zone-buster on Kansas' roster, and so Mizzou coach Frank Haith might be tempted to play a zone. If he does, I'd suggest something more straightforward than the trapping 1-2-2 that Long Beach State employed at times in the first half -- the aggressiveness of that zone led to some awfully long close-outs for the 49ers, and Kansas does a nice job screening the weak side of the zone as the ball reverses.

However, I don't like the zone for a few reasons. First, rebounding out of a zone is harder than rebounding out of a man-to-man. Despite their lack of size, the Tigers actually rebound very well, but they certainly don't need the additional handicap of being out of position and not being able to match up quickly when the shot goes up. Second, part of what has made Missouri so good during the early season has been its ball pressure, and the zone takes that away. Third, the Tigers would like to play at a faster pace than Kansas, and zones tend to slow the pace way down.

I think a zone is a last resort, or an option to use if someone gets into foul trouble.

Be smart in double-teaming. On Kansas' fourth offensive possession, the ball went into Robinson on the left block, and T.J. Robinson came over from the right block to double team. Robinson hit Withey with a quick pass that would have resulted in a layup had Withey not hesitated just long enough to allow Anderson to come down and block the shot.

I understand the desire to double a size mismatch with your tallest player, and T.J. Robinson was the closest player to Thomas Robinson on this play, but a cardinal rule of double-teaming is to not leave the man closest to the basket to double, particularly if said man also represents the easiest pass for the ballhandler to make. The double team needs to come from the perimeter, probably from the man guarding the entry passer, so that the post player has to kick it back out. This gives the rest of the defense time to rotate, and the eventual open player is all the way in the weak-side corner, three passes away, which hopefully gives the doubler enough time to run across the court and challenge the shot. Long Beach State got better at this as the game went on.

As an aside, when Withey was off the floor, doubling Robinson proved more effective. Kevin Young and Justin Wesley aren't as dangerous as Withey, and often did not get into the proper position to score when their men left them to double.

Pressure the ball and front the post. Kansas' guards are shaky with the ball. Tyshawn Taylor is a pretty good player, but he's turnover-prone -- he has 29 in his last five games, including eleven in a loss to Duke. He'll cough up the ball if pressured, and even if he can drive past his man, he has a tendency to take wild shots and commit offensive fouls once he gets into the lane. That's a desirable alternative for a Kansas opponent to Robinson and Withey operating in the post against much shorter defenders.

On one play late in the second half, Elijah Johnson had the ball a few feet beyond the top of the key, with Robinson posting up. Long Beach put heavy pressure on the ball, and backup forward Edis Dervisevic (Missouri's equivalent is Steve Moore) fronted Robinson. Rather than make a strong move to the wing with the ball in order to gain a better angle for the entry pass to the post, Johnson tried to lob the ball over Dervisevic while leaning backwards, a very difficult pass. Dervisevic tipped it away, leading to a transition opportunity for the Beach and ultimately resulting in Johnson's fifth and disqualifying foul. This kind of thing will happen a lot if you pressure Kansas' guards.

Be very selective when switching. Rather inexplicably, Kansas by and large went away from the Robinson-high, Withey-low set that worked so well in the early-going. However, on one second half possession, they got the ball to Robinson at the top of the key. He began to dribble left, along the three-point line, while Withey came up to set a screen. T.J. Robinson and Phelps switched, and Thomas Robinson handed the ball off to a guard coming up from the left corner. The ball was quickly reversed as Robinson ran to the opposite side block, and Robinson got good position, received an entry pass, and was fouled by T.J. Robinson.

The screening action between Robinson and Withey was designed specifically to create a mismatch, to get T.J. Robinson to switch to Thomas Robinson. The ball was far enough away from the basket to be out of Thomas Robinson's range, and Robinson was dribbling away from the basket, not looking to drive. Phelps should've gone under the screen and recovered to Robinson, instead of switching.

Withey also occasionally goes block-to-block to screen for Robinson while the ball is lazily passed around the perimeter. While it is important to do the early work and prevent Robinson from getting deep post position, a severely under-sized team like Missouri or Long Beach State would be better off fighting through that screen than switching. The Jayhawks are clever in that they tend to run this action early in the possession and away from the ball, when the situation doesn't appear dangerous and the defense is on its toes. Missouri will need to be disciplined and aware at all times of the consequences of every switch they make.

Pressure fullcourt. Long Beach nearly came back on Tuesday night with a flurry of late points and opportunities sparked by their press. Kansas committed 22 turnovers in the game, with a handful of them coming against the pressure in the final few minutes. Missouri might want to force the issue early and put the pressure on Kansas' shaky ballhandlers.

Thus far, the focus has been on the size mismatches that Robinson and Withey pose against teams like Long Beach State and Missouri. Of course, when there's a size mismatch on one end, there's a quickness mismatch on the other. What can Missouri do differently to be more effective than LBSU was?

First of all, the Tigers might be better equipped to score against Kansas than the 49ers are, and not just because their guys are more talented. Both Ware and Phil Pressey are excellent point guards who can penetrate and pass, but the difference between them is that Ware is also a great scorer, while Pressey is not. (Look at Pressey's game log: He didn't take a shot in 28 minutes against Binghamton and is just 2-for-17 in the three games immediately surrounding that one). Ware is Long Beach State's biggest offensive weapon, and therefore Kansas' defense could be comfortable focusing its efforts on him, aggressively double-teaming him on high screen-and-rolls. Getting the ball out of Ware's hands is a major coup, and his teammates aren't good enough to beat quality opponents consistently if he's not scoring. Pressey is a less dangerous scorer, so Kansas will probably be a bit more comfortable allowing him to keep the ball in his hands -- which, paradoxically, might make him more difficult to guard.

Secondly, Missouri should look to use Ratliffe as the screener in high ball screens. Despite the matchups on the other end, Kansas had Thomas Robinson on T.J. Robinson and Withey on Phelps. I suspect they'll do something similar against Missouri, relying on Robinson's athleticism to cover English while Withey bangs with Ratliffe.

On LBSU's first possession of the game Tuesday, Ware had the ball on the top of the key, shaded to the right side of the floor. Anderson and Ennis were in the right corner, with T.J. Robinson low and Phelps on the opposite Wing. Robinson came up and set a screen for Ware moving left, and rolled to the basket. Withey hung out in the lane, covering Robinson, leaving Phelps wide-open.

The play resulted in a turnover and an easy transition basket for Kansas, mainly because the Jayhawks hedged the screen hard. With Withey lingering around to stop Anderson's roll, Ware's only pass was to Phelps, who is a non-threat 17 feet from the basket. Rather than make that pass, Ware tried to split the double team -- really the only way to get a shot out of this play at this stage -- and was stripped, leading to the layup.

I actually don't know if Ratliffe has the range to make the shot that Phelps was spotting up for; if he does, a set like this might be more effective. If he doesn't, then Missouri should use Ratliffe as the screener and put a shooter on the wing. If they put English on the wing and use Ratliffe as the screener, with two other shooters on the other wing, then there's no off-ball defender to sag into the paint without giving up an open look to a good three-point shooter. LBSU doesn't have quite enough shooters to pull this off, but Mizzou does.

Third, Missouri needs to use its speed mismatch on Withey. Withey had nine blocked shots against Long Beach State, and the majority of them did not come when Withey was on help defense. Rather, they resulted from guys like T.J. Robinson thinking they could score over Withey, and getting their jumper blocked. Given that Missouri's players are a bit shorter than Long Beach's, it's less likely that they'll be this bold, but if they end up with Withey guarding one of the perimeter players, option one should be a drive past him, while option two should be a three-pointer if Withey sags off to stop penetration.

Finally, when a small team faces a talented bigger one, they've gotta do the little things to win. Long Beach State committed 14 turnovers and missed nine free throws. They took some bad shots early in the shot clock and missed some open looks. Down five with under three minutes to go, they gave up an offensive rebound on a missed free throw, then gave up another offensive rebound on the ensuing possession. Taylor got a three-point play as a result. Ennis took a tough three on the other end that was partially blocked, and Withey got a three-point play on the next KU possession to push the lead to ten. The 49ers had opportunities to win this game despite their early struggles, but they didn't pay attention to the details and therefore lost the game.

So, there you have it: A long post previewing a game that is two months away (Kansas and Missouri first meet on February 4 in Columbia, with the return date in Lawrence coming February 25). A lot could change between now and then, but I'll be interested to see what Missouri learned from Long Beach, and what they'll do differently.

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