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Monday, January 30, 2012
Saddle Up: Missouri's best offense

By Eamonn Brennan


Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.

No. 4 Missouri at Texas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: The 2011-12 Missouri Tigers are not known for their defense. That's not because the Tigers' defense is particularly bad; it's more like average, or slightly above. But beyond that, the main reason the Tigers aren't known for their defense is their offense. We think about Missouri as an offensive team not only because the Tigers were an offensive, fast-break style team throughout former coach Mike Anderson's tenure, but because this current group of Missouri Tigers happens to be really, really awesome at scoring the ball.

Most of the time, anyway. Last week, we caught two glimpses of a rather pedestrian Mizzou attack, the first of which came in a loss at Oklahoma State, the second of which came in a rather ugly home win against hapless Texas Tech. In the former, Missouri scored just 1.03 points per possession. In the second, the Tigers scored just 1.05. Neither is terrible, but compared to its usual figure -- Missouri scores about 1.22 adjusted points per possession, per Ken Pomeroy, the second-highest figure in the country to date -- both games marked sudden and surprising declines.

This week, despite the loss at Oklahoma State, the voters in the coaches poll dropped Mizzou a mere two spots, to No. 4. In other words, no one's freaking out. The Tigers have had a couple of so-so offensive performances in conference play, one of which came in a tough loss on the road. It happens. Oh well. Nothing to see here, move right along, etc.

Still, it will be interesting to see how Missouri responds tonight. The Tigers are again on the road in conference play, this time against a Texas team that spent the past few weeks playing five of its six games against ranked opponents, most on the road. The Longhorns pushed Kansas to the brink in Austin; they nearly upset Baylor at Baylor on Saturday. J'Covan Brown is one of the nation's most prolific scorers, despite some occasional inefficiency. (In the three games that preceded Saturday's, Brown shot 8-of-28, 7-of-26, and 3-of-16, respectively. He was better Saturday, but still.) In general, Texas has been one of the more underrated teams in the country this season; despite all those losses and that 13-8 record, the Longhorns' per-possession numbers rank them among the top 20 teams in the country. That's generous, but you get the idea. Texas is better than you think, and it can present a real challenge to Missouri, especially on its home floor.

The good news about Missouri, and the reason this bit opened with a discussion of defense, is one of the better-kept secrets of the Tigers' season to date: Even when the half-court offense breaks down, even when the shots aren't falling, even when Ricardo Ratliffe isn't making every shot he takes (and it often feels like he is), the Tigers have at least one really good way of scoring the basketball: by stealing it.

Basketball Prospectus's Corey Schmidt revealed as much with a fantastic study today. Schmidt set out to break down which teams score the most points directly from steals their defense creates. Missouri's defense, while pedestrian in many regards, averages the sixth-highest steal percentage in the country to date, and as Schmidt uncovered, the Tigers score .37 points for every steal they generate. (Schmidt even invented a helpful, "pick-six"-esque term for this sort of play: the take and make. I believe a polite golf clap is warranted.) Missouri does so thanks to the ball pressure it applies on opposing backcourts. Some teams that generate lots of steals might eventually convert them into points, but only after a few passes. Instead, Missouri's defense allows the Tigers to rip and run, using all that backcourt speed and fast-break ability to get easy buckets in the open floor.

This is, perhaps more than any other, the real reason Missouri should be regarded as real. Even when things get tough, even when that offense isn't clicking -- and thus far such times are rare -- the Tigers still have at least one very good way to put points on the board in a hurry. As they trudge through the challenges of the Big 12 schedule, including the one that awaits them tonight, Frank Haith's team might learn to lean on that valuable defensive trait more than ever before.

Everywhere else: Pittsburgh is playing better with a healthy Travon Woodall, but is it playing well enough to take down West Virginia in Morgantown? Will it rise to the occasion of a rivalry game on the road? Or will West Virginia, still smarting from a missed goaltending call that arguably robbed it of its own upset win against Syracuse on Saturday, be too focused, motivated and Bob Huggins-level angry to let that happen? Intrigue! ... And, well, that's pretty much it. Enjoy Big Monday, y'all.