The difference in Missouri’s team this year: they are a team

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NEW YORK – The Missouri Tigers had a reputation under Mike Anderson, one that only four words were needed to describe.

“40 Minutes of Hell.”

Using the defense taught to him by Nolan Richardson, the legendary Arkansas head coach, the Tiger’s would press for the entirety of the game, trapping in the back court and looking to wear down their opponents. But the plan backfired; instead of wearing down their opponents, the style that Anderson wanted to play began wearing on his team.

“Last year was miserable,” Kim English said in the bowels of Madison Square Garden as he hobnobbed with famous faces like ESPN’s John Anderson and Michael Kim and former player Zaire Taylor after the Tiger’s 81-71 win over Villanova. “This year, we’re just college buddies playing basketball. Just like five dudes at the rec, we just happen to be on a big stage every night.”

It looked like it. Between the smiles that were flashed on the court and the way that this team shares the ball and picks each other up, its quite obvious that this group genuinely enjoys competing together. They are, undoubtedly, a team.

And that right there is the biggest difference between this season and last season.

Its no secret that this group did not enjoy their final year under the tutelage of Mike Anderson. The combination of a short leash, a deep bench and unacceptability of making a mistake made it difficult for the players on this team to get into a rhythm. When a player is getting yanked for missing a shot, it doesn’t exactly allow anyone to a) get into a rhythm or b) focus on making the shot instead of being concerned whether they are headed for the bench if they miss.

Basketball is a difficult sport when you spend the game looking over your shoulder.

“The style of play we have is fun,” Marcus Denmon, Missouri’s leading scorer who put on a show as he hit six threes en route to a game-high 28 points against Villanova, told reporters after the game. “The guys we have on this team, we all get along on the floor and off the floor.”

Where last season this group played for themselves, this team plays for each other.

“Its the most unselfish team I’ve played on, or seen on TV,” Ricardo Ratliffe said after the game. Ratliffe finished with 17 points and 11 boards and was 8-8 from the field. If you think that 8-8 shooting is impressive, try this stat on for size: Ratliffe has made 30 of his last 32 field goal attempts. And while it would be easy to commend him for being one of the most efficient big men in the country, a lot of the credit for those shooting numbers has to fall in the lap of this team’s playmakers, Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey. Its easy to shoot that well when the ball is given to you in front of the rim.

“Its just a blessing to play with this many selfless guys,” Ratliffe added.

Pressey and Dixon are the guys that make this team go, and its not because of their ability to score. Those two dominated this game. They controlled the pace, pushing in transition when the opportunity presented itself and pulling back and executing the Tiger’s half court offense when the numbers weren’t there. How often can you say that a back court dominated the game when they shoot 3-21 from the floor?

Because that’s exactly what Dixon and Pressey did. And while this was an off game for them scoring wise — neither is anywhere near that poor of a scorer — the selflessness this team exhibits is a direct result of those two accepting the fact that their role is to create. Combined, they finished with 19 assists and just four turnovers.

“I just want to get my shooters the ball where they need to be,” Pressey said. “Get my big men the ball, keep everyone happy. If they’re happy, they’re going to play defense.”

To be perfectly honest, the way that this Missouri team plays isn’t all that different from the way last year’s team played. They don’t run a full court press anymore, but they still play a ball-hawking style of defense. With guys like the Presseys — both Phil and his older brother, Matt — Dixon and Marcus Denmon, Frank Haith as a quarter of terrific perimeter defenders They pick up at half court and immediately get into their man. They make it difficult to run sets by forcing the offense to play so far out. That ball pressure makes it difficult for their opponents to get the ball into the post, helping to nullify the size disadvantage Missouri faces when they play English, a natural two-guard that stands just 6’6″, at the power forward spot.

And, if you can believe it, this team actually plays more in transition than they did a year ago. According to Synergy, they’ve upped their number of possessions in transition from 17.7% a year ago to 20.8% heading into Tuesday night’s game.

The difference lies in what happens in the half court. When the quick shot isn’t there, the Tigers aren’t afraid to pull the ball out and run their half court sets. That’s where the true change has been made. Missouri is still plays one of the faster paces in the country, but the number of possessions they have is down from 72 per game last year (14th most in the country) to 70 per game (43rd in the country). With their point guards buying into Haith’s offensive system, the Tigers are capable of being a surgical team in the half court. Last year’s 0.893 PPP in half court sets has been bumped to 1.105 PPP heading into Tuesday’s game.

They run to offense, but they aren’t afraid to run their offense when they don’t get a layup.

“We know that if we keep moving the ball as a team we will get good shots,” Denmon said.

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