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.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.