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Basketball Q&A with Missouri's Rock M Nation

We had a chance to discuss this week's game with our sister blog Rock M Nation, asking them what our most pertinent questions were for this week's opening round game in the NCAA Tourney, heres what they had to say:

What is Mizzou's offensive philosophy, run the court and score in transition or try to run a typical half-court set? Do you run motion?

Ideally, Missouri's intent is to run the court and grab as many easy transition buckets as possible, and it's a great philosophy considering how poorly Missouri has shot the ball otherwise this season. This team has been built in Mike Anderson's image, and they'll run the floor all day if you'll let them. If you force Missouri into the half-court, they become dependent on the motion offense to try to generate open looks, particularly from the perimeter. Last year, the Tigers could work the motion and eventually force the ball inside to Leo Lyons or DeMarre Carroll, but there's a serious lack of low post offense (excluding putbacks) this season. You can really do one of two things: 1) Defend the drive and kick and force the ball inside, or 2) let Mizzou have the outside shot and hope they keep shooting like they did in about 80 percent of Big 12 conference games.

What have opposing defenses done to shut you down? Pressing teams don't always like to be pressed, so have you faced another pressing team in Big XII play?

I think you'd be very hard pressed to come up with another Big 12 team whose pressure is anywhere near that of Clemson's or Missouri's, especially for a full 40 minutes. The biggest issue for Missouri has usually just been missed shots. More often than not, Mizzou finds itself with open looks from 3 that their supposed snipers simply haven't been able to hit. Therein lies the major source of Mizzou's variability.

More after the jump....

However, that's not to say that opposing defenses haven't had a hand in this. Several teams opted to pack the paint against the Tigers, minimizing Mizzou's bigs already minimal offensive output and keeping the Tigers guards from driving the lane. Force Mizzou into taking quick, ill-advised 15-footers. Put the pressure on them to hit the 3 at the end of the shot clock because they can't get into the lane early in the possession. Simply put, make Missouri continue to be the struggling shooting team they've been for the last few months.

Can you explain your style of Press from an X's and O's standpoint? I know you're very good at forcing turnovers and steals, but whats your weakness?

You know, I might be able to give you the schematic advantages of running four verticals out of a shotgun spread against a Cover 3, but as far as basketball X's and O's are concerned, I'm a little bit out of my element (what can I say -- I'm originally a Texan). The primary thing of note about Missouri's pressure is the activity of the big men. Missouri's 5 will pretty much always guard the inbound after a basket and will generally hang around to try to prevent an outlet pass from the guards and trap if the opportunity presents itself.

In the half-court, Missouri's bigs (with exception of Steve Moore) don't really have a problem switching on screens and stepping out on the perimeter. Keith Ramsey and Laurence Bowers move well laterally and don't seem anywhere near as overmatched away from the paint as most forwards in college basketball. Of course, the paint is where they're generally overmatched, and that's where the Tigers can really get hurt. Mizzou has been plauged by a lot of second chance points by teams that generally don't rebound the ball well offensively. Mizzou has showed up surprisingly well on the glass against strong rebounding teams but will then have a weak showing against lesser-respected rebounding teams. Mizzou's defense is built to get teams to force a bad shot or turn the ball over. If the other team misses the shot but comes up with the rebound and easy putback, it's incredibly demoralizing.

Did you have higher expectations of this season after winning the Big XII Tournament last year? Would Mizzou fans have a meltdown if Clemson were to win?

Absolutely not. This was a rebuilding year from Day 1. The goal for this season was to simply avoid regression. Missouri is one of three teams (Mizzou, Marquette and Syracuse) to lose three 1,000-point scorers from last year and still earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament. And, remember, Missouri is not all that far removed from total irrelevancy. This program was in complete SHAMBLES as recently as 24 months ago. The bleedover of the Quin Snyder era into Mike Anderson's first two seasons was unmistakable and undeniable. Last year was a breath of fresh air and one hell of a ride. This season, Anderson just needed to keep the ship steady until next year's Top-15 recruiting class gets in town.

There will obviously be a vocal part of the Missouri fanbase that will lose its collective mind if Mizzou loses. But that same group freaks out about only winning non-conference football games by 35 points. In all, I'd classify it this way: Missouri fans are pleased with the draw because they think MU certainly has a chance against Clemson, and you'll find many picking Mizzou to win. But they're also certainly aware of the problems that are plaguing this team right now. I don't think either a win OR a loss would surprise the fan base, and I think (or at least I hope) that they'll be able to maintain perspective going forward. Presuming fans use that perspective to remind themselves it's a rebuilding year, I can't imagine a meltdown would be in the works.

Teams that have real success against Clemson usually do it because of Guard play. Slashers and true scorers are aggressive against the Press and tend to give us fits. Do you think you've got a good slasher like that? Who?

Are we talking slashers who can finish at the rim? I don't know that Missouri has any one particular player who you can count on to put up points at the hoop on every possession. Senior forward J.T. Tiller is probably the top slasher on the team and one of the best "hustle" guys in the country (so much so that I invite Clemson fans to join in the Tiller Drinking Game: Drink once when Tiller hits the floor, drink twice when Tiller causes someone else to hit the floor). Tiller's production at the rim has been maddeningly inconsistent, though, so we'll be able to gauge what that's going to be worth after about five minutes of play. Senior Zaire Taylor is a heady player and arguably the most clutch player in school history, but his burst to the basket is not his best quality. Marcus Denmon is a sniper and a shifty ball handler, but his propensity isn't for the drive. Kim English has gotten better at getting inside and trying to draw contact, but he can be careless with the ball on occasion and appear to try too hard. But, usually, if Missouri's going to beat you, they're going to be turning turnovers into points and hitting from the perimeter.
I noticed Marcus Denmon is a real shooter from the arc, why doesn't he get more than 20 minutes per game?

Most of Marcus' effectiveness is tied to the fact that he really lets the game come to him. Unlike some of his colleagues, it's hard to classify nearly any of his shots as "bad shots." For that same reason, Marcus' effectiveness is minimized when he doesn't get those open looks, so Anderson then opts for someone more willing to try to drag the offense along. In addition, Denmon can fall victim to streakiness. He'll go 5-of-7 from 3 on one night and then drop an 0-for-5 on you the next night. He's one of Mizzou's toughest players, so he still has a role on the floor when he isn't rolling up points, but some nights you just get the feeling that he's a hair off. I think his minutes reflect that.

I'm wondering whether Mizzou is suffering more from the loss of Safford than has been let on. Has it affected the psyche of the entire team since you lost him against Colorado, or have good opponents just capitalized on the weakness in the paint?

Many words and much debate have been committed to this question. Justin Safford was an early punching bag for Missouri fans because he's a guard trapped in a big man's body. He has a pretty decent jumper, but he would frequently get outmuscled in the paint. Arguably his best quality was his willingness to try to jumpstart the Mizzou offense when no one else would in the early portion of games. As I mentioned in Sunday's podcast, it seems like he'd end up with 9 points every game, with six of them in the first five possessions. As soon as Safford went out, people really started to see his value, especially as it pertains to minutes for the big men; Mizzou is down to a three-man rotation at forward, not particularly encouraging in a system that taxing. Missouri fans are starting to appreciate the little things he did in filling out the stat sheet. He'd be maddening at times as he'd revert to his old guard mentality, but he was a generally consistent, solid contributor.

But, here's the thing. I think Safford's absence and Missouri's struggles are only loosely related. Safford managed to go out at a time when A) Missouri's schedule got much tougher and, more importantly, B) Missouri's "shooters" disappeared. Here's what my colleague Bill C. had to say about it:

"The running theme now is that the loss of Justin Safford has crippled the Missouri offense.  I have two responses to that: 1) I have no evidence that it hasn't crippled the offense -- in fact, four of Mizzou's worst offensive performances of the season have come in Safford's absence -- but 2) Mizzou's offense has stunk because Zaire Taylor, Marcus Denmon and Kim English have stunk, and can we really pin that on Safford? ... The three have shot 19.6% from long range over the last four games, which is quite reminiscent to their three-game span in January (from OU to Kansas), when they shot 18.2%."

Losing Safford hurts, but everyone else disappearing hurts even more.