Night Line: Four Guard Attack is Working Wonders for MissouriPosted by EJacoby on November 23rd, 2011
Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist. You can find him @evanJacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
When forward Laurence Bowers suffered a season-ending ACL injury in an early practice this season, the preseason buzz surrounding Missouri was quieted a bit. Anytime a team loses its second-leading scorer, it’s a big blow, but Bowers was especially important because of his role as one of the few inside scoring threats on the team. He was also their leading returning rebounder and shot-blocker. But Frank Haith’s Tigers have adapted well to his injury, deciding to go with a four-guard starting lineup in order to get their most effective players on the court regardless of size. The result? Mizzou, under its new and somewhat embattled head coach, is now 5-0 while thrashing Notre Dame and California at the CBE Classic to the tune of 29- and 39-point wins, respectively.
Saying that Missouri has been impressive through five games is a massive understatement. They just stomped on unbeaten No. 18 California, perhaps the best team in the Pac-12, by 39 points. No, that’s not a typo; thirty-nine points. How’d it happen? For this team, when it rains, it pours, and the Tigers have been liquid from the perimeter all year. Coming into tonight’s game, Mizzou had already been one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation, averaging 84 points per game while shooting 50% from the field. Those numbers will improve even more after the 92-53 beatdown they just gave to Cal. During the ESPN2 telecast, Dick Vitale noted that the Tigers truly love sharing the ball. There’s nothing that makes a guard-heavy attack run smoother than such a trait. If selfishness could slow the Missouri offense down, unselfish passing makes it go. And Missouri is in full ‘go’ mode early on this season.
The Tigers start Phil Pressey, Matt Pressey, Marcus Denmon, and Kim English, all traditional guards who thrive on the perimeter, alongside their terrific low-post man Ricardo Ratliffe. While Denmon and the Pressey brothers are 6’3” or shorter, English has good size at 6’6” and the corresponding ability to guard forwards. Denmon is also about as tough and strong of a shooting guard as there is in the Big 12, and he too can hold his own when matched up against small forwards. The Tigers’ small lineup allows for constant high-pressure defense, a Mizzou staple under Mike Anderson, which forces turnovers and allows for more offensive possessions. The team is then able to use its superior quickness, athleticism, and shooting to pour in buckets on the offensive end. Denmon, English, Phil Pressey, and reserve guard Michael Dixon all came in averaging at least 10 points and one steal per game, while Denmon (20 PPG) and English (15 PPG) are emerging as true stars, each shooting over 55% and grabbing at least five rebounds per contest. Teams getting that kind of significant production from their guards will always be tough to beat.
This Missouri team feels a lot like the 2005-06 Villanova team that rode four great starting guards to an Elite Eight appearance. That year, ‘Nova also lost its top low-post scoring threat, Curtis Sumpter, to an ACL injury in preseason. So spawned the ‘Guard U’ mentality under Jay Wright, and this year’s Missouri team presents a similar look. Interestingly enough, Missouri plays VU in two weeks on December 6 in Madison Square Garden, where there will be plenty of excellent guard play to go around. Still, Mizzou will certainly run into its share of frontcourt mismatches throughout the Big 12 conference slate. For example, Baylor’s big men could feast on the Tigers in the paint. But the thing is, conversely, Missouri is now a guaranteed mismatch for its opponents too. How will this same Baylor team, with its unproven guard play and propensity to turn it over, fare against Missouri’s full-court press for 40 minutes?
Additionally, Ricardo Ratliffe has been a stud down low (12 PPG, seven RPG), and reserve forward Steve Moore had 10 points today and continues to get more comfortable with an increased role. All of Missouri’s games should be interesting to watch this season because of its unique look. There are very few teams in the country that can actually claim to be complete in all phases of the game — North Carolina? Ohio State? — and having one dominant facet on a roster is often times enough to ensure a strong season. Missouri, ranked No. 21 this week and surely looking at a big move up in next week’s polls, will live and die by the play of their guards, and right now it’s looking like quite the healthy lifestyle.