After Wednesday night's win vs. Oklahoma State I'm starting to question my prognostication skills when it comes to this Longhorn squad. And actually, that's a good thing. If you would have told me that Dogus Balbay would be an MVP of the OSU game while J'Covan Brown was relegated to the pine after a virtuoso performance against Kansas, I would have laughed at you.
That's what has made this season so fun as opposed to last season—this team can't be pigeon-holed. The hallmark of a great team is finding different ways to win and Texas is doing just that. From stifling defense to a diversified offense, the Horns are a virtual Rubik's Cube if you're trying to scout them. So how are we going to beat the Missouri Tigers? Who will be the MVP this game? Well I've got some ideas on that so let's see how wrong I am this time. First, let's start with the Tiger personnel.
Mizzou has guards. In fact they have a fuck-load of them. With all of the full court pressure Mike Anderson implements you have to have a quiver full of lightning quick defenders who can get up and down the floor without fear of fatigue. Dr. Tom Davis had Brad Lohaus which is the equivalent of a fuck-load of guards.
But for Mizzou, in the backcourt it all starts with Marcus Denmon. The 6-3 junior is shooting a ridiculous 49% from deep but he's still more than capable of putting the ball on the deck and getting into the lane to create havoc. The one saving grace for Texas is that Denmon hasn't shot nearly as well on the road from deep going 4-14 in his last four road games. But still, Cory Joseph must tag Denmon around the arc and get to the Tiger guard's jumper or it could be a long night. Don't be surprised to see Balbay draw Denmon for stretches.
Michael Dixon and freshman Phil Pressey are the two Mizzou distributors. Dixon is a credible shooter but he makes his hay with penetration and dimes. Pressey is a streaky freshman point guard who had a coming out party against the Aggies. He's sneaky quick, but more importantly he's a deadly accurate shooter if he gets going. He's got an NBA scoring-mentality pedigree, so you can't let him get hot. I'd sit on his shooting hand and take my chances with him off the dribble, because at 5-10 he's a below average finisher and he's susceptible to the turnover averaging 2 TO's a contest in 20 minutes of action.
Due to their size, both Dixon and Pressey are prime targets for our newfound guard post-up game. So don't be surprised to see Texas focus on punishing these two on the blocks if the matchup is right or if they get caught in a switch as Mizzou is prone to do.
Matt Pressey is another guard, and he's coming in to defend on one end and slash on the other. You can play the elder Pressey with substantial cushion since he's not much of a shooter.
The only thing resembling a true small forward on this squad is Kim English who goes about 6-6. Unfortunately for Mizzou he's a shooting specialist who does little else. I expect Jordan Hamilton to go right at English all game long. More on that in a moment.
Mike Anderson always seems to have a couple of athletic face up forwards to make matchups miserable for opposing teams and this season is no different. Unlike most seasons, however, the Tigers have some beef on the blocks in Ricardo Ratliffe who goes 6-8 240. He'll be a tough matchup for both Gary Johnson or Tristan Thompson so I expect we'll see significant minutes for Alexis Wangmene and Matt Hill. Wangmene should give Ratliffe fits with his combo of size and strength.
The Wangmene vs. Ratliffe matchup is key because Ratliffe has killed teams on the offensive glass and with Mizzou focused on spreading you out, Ratliffe has found lots of room to operate on the weakside glass. Alexis and company have to play sound positional defense for this reason. Ratliffe also shoots a mediocre 57% from the foul line so keep an eye on that.
The other Mizzou posts worth noting are Laurence Bowers and Justin Safford. Bowers is a slippery 6-8 athlete than can slash and board. He's actually the perfect cover for Gary Johnson because Johnson has the quickness/strength combo to limit what Bowers wants to do.
Safford is more of a big body on defense for the Tigers. He'll help rebound and defend but he's not much of threat as a back to the basket guy. If you're thinking that's the perfect cover for Tristan Thompson, you get a tote bag.
Keys To the Game
Tempo When you face a press and run team like the Tigers, controlling tempo and staying in your comfort zone is everything. If you play too fast you're going to turn the ball over and give up easy buckets. Play too methodical and cautious to avoid the turnover, then you're giving the Tigers a free attempt at forcing a bad play because you're not punishing them with buckets on the back end. It's a decision making dance that Texas players 1 through 4 have to be prepared to play.
In a nut shell, Texas' goal here is to break the press at a comfortable pace, identify if there are the correct numbers in transition, and then decide to attack the bucket or pull out and run offense.
Jordan Hamilton. He's likely your key in both phases of the offensive game—transition or halfcourt offense. In transition I suspect Jordan's going to find himself with the ball in his hands in a lot of 2 on 1 situations after the press is broken. His decision making here as well as his floor game is going to be key.
In a halfcourt setting, Jordan should absolutely abuse whoever Mizzou puts in front of him. The Aggies Khris Middleton, a similarly skilled 3 lit the Tigers up because English was too slow to stay in front or tag Middleton on the arc, and every third guard Mizzou rolled out was too small to keep Middleton out of the paint. Sound familiar? It's in the cards for Hamilton to be the MVP of this game, I just hope he's ready.
Matching Up With Mizzou's Bigs. With the way the Horns have defended on the perimeter the Tigers are going to need some production out of Bowers and Ratliffe to have a chance in this game so it's very important Rick pushes the right substitution buttons in the frontcourt.
Barnes can steal minutes with Wangmene on Ratliffe in a strength vs. strength battle to allow Tristan Thompson to roam the lane guarding a lesser offensive player, and Gary Johnson is perfectly capable of creating matchup issues for Bowers on both ends of the floor. I don't think Bowers can keep Gary out of the lane, and I think Gary is perfectly capable of checking Bowers on the Mizzou end.
Look for Thompson to have free reign over the paint when either Ratliffe or Bowers hit the pine because he doesn't have to worry about credible scorers when one of those two is out of the game. It's important that Barnes keep Tristan out of harms way with respect to foul trouble whenever he can, and he'll have plenty of opportunities to do that Saturday.
Considering the Horns have a decided advantage in the halfcourt and a disadvantage in depth, I'd expect the Horns to err on the side of pulling the ball out and running offense once the Mizzou press is broken. Sure, if there's an obvious two on one or transition 3 to be had, we'll take it, but our flex-cut ball reversal stuff to Thompson in the post as well, our guard post up sets, and iso's should be there much of the night.
On defense, we have answers for Denmon, Bowers, and Ratliffe in the halfcourt, which means if we take care of the basketball, then Mizzou will probably struggle to score without the aid of easy buckets. It's also pretty reassuring that Barnes can roll out a ballhandling lineup of Thompson, Johnson, Hamilton, Brown/Balbay, and Joseph to eat up the press if need be.
For those reasons I like the Horns 80 to 74. Your thoughts? Keys?