Top 25 Countdown: No. 5 Missouri Tigers

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 30-4, 14-4 Big 12 (2nd); Lost in the Opening Round to Norfolk State

Head Coach: Frank Haith

Key Losses: Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe, Steve Moore

Newcomers: Alex Oriakhi, Jabari Brown*, Keion Bell, Earnest Ross, Dominique Bull, Negus Webster-Chan, Stefan Jankovic, Ryan Rosburg

Projected Lineup:

G: Phil Pressey, Jr.
G: Michael Dixon, Sr.
F: Jabari Brown, So.
F: Laurence Bowers, Sr.
C: Alex Oriakhi, Sr.
Bench: Keion Bell, Sr.; Earnest Ross, Sr.; Negus Webster-Chan, Fr.; Dominique Bull, Fr.

Outlook: Missouri is going to be a very different team this season. Playing without Laurence Bowers last season, the Tigers were forced to go small. They surrounded Phil Pressey, arguably the nation’s premiere with a trio of knock-down shooters — Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Mike Dixon — capable of going for 25 on a given night. They were lucky because English, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, was tough enough to defend and rebound in the paint, giving them a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor that they were able to consistently exploit.

The problem, however, was that while the Tigers thrived offensively — the were the most efficient offensive team in the country a year ago, they simply survived on the defensive end. They struggled to force their opponents into tough shots, they weren’t great on the glass and they didn’t have a shot blocker to protect the rim.

This year’s team should be much improved on the defensive end of the floor. It starts with Pressey and Dixon, when he gets back from his suspension, who are both terrific on-ball defenders that can get out and pressure, man-to-man, in the half-court. Transfers Jabari Brown, who will get eligible in December, and Keion Bell are both big, extremely athletic wings while Earnest Ross is versatile enough to guard either forward position.

But the real difference makers defensively are Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi. Bowers, before he tore his ACL, was considered by many to be the best player on last year’s Missouri team. He certainly was considered the best defender, as he’s an athletic and lanky, 6-foot-8 power forward that can defend any position on the floor. He’s a defensive playmaker as well, the kind of guy that can block shots around the rim and jump a passing lane. Oriakhi is the tie that binds for this group. While he struggled last year with UConn, Oriakhi was an overwhelming dominant interior presence during UConn’s run to the 2011 national title. He can block shots, he rebounds the ball on both ends of the floor, and he’s a better scorer in the post than he gets credit for. Don’t be surprised to see him average 12 points, 10 boards and 2.5 blocks this season.

While Missouri may flourish defensively this year, they will undoubtedly be taking a step back on the offensive end. That’s what happens when three of the most efficient scorers in the country graduate. But Missouri isn’t exactly without weapons this year. Dixon may end up averaging 16 or 17 points this year. Brown was a top 30 recruit known for his ability to score on the wing, while Bell averaged nearly 20 per game while at Pepperdine. Ross, Bowers and Oriakhi are all players that can get double-figures on given night.

But perhaps more importantly, there’s Pressey. As we mentioned, Flip is one of the best creators in the country, and there are few point guards that are as adept at making their teammates better as him. It’s pretty easy for Oriakhi to score, for example, when the ball is dropped off to him in front of the rim. The other point that needs to be made is that while neither Ross nor Bowers are the kind of shooter than English was, both are skilled and perimeter-oriented enough to play the same role — as a stretch-four, so to speak — offensively.

In other words, while the people playing to positions are different this season, the Tigers will be running essentially the same attack. With a new-and-improved defense and Pressey running the show, there’s legitimacy to the argument that Missouri can contend for the SEC title.

Predictions?: The key for the Tigers are going to be how all of the transfers come together. Only three players projected to be in the Tiger rotation have played for Missouri before, and one of those three — Bowers — sat out the only season that Haith has been in Columbia with a knee injury. Those are a lot of new faces to try and turn into a cohesive unit, but that’s precisely what Haith did last year with the Tigers. He took a team that was admittedly coming apart at the seams and turned them into a group that won 30 games and the Big 12 tournament. My money is on the Tigers repeating that success

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.