Thanks to Jeff Long, we’re mildly reheating the Border War to lukewarm temperatures once again, watching Kansas and Missouri play in a meaningless non-conference game that does little more than remind us of how great this rivalry used to be.
With that out of the way, this is actually a good basketball game, even without the forced narrative of it carrying the same meaning it did a decade ago. Missouri has quietly started the season 9-0. The reason that undefeated record has been so quiet is that the Tigers have only been tested by one even semi-respectable team. Missouri took the approach of loading up their early schedule with cupcakes to give them some momentum headed into the meat of their schedule, which starts this afternoon.
All but one of their opponents have been ranked from 173rd all the way down to 362nd by KenPom. For the most part, they’ve done what a good team should do to that level of competition, which is to say, win a bunch of blowouts. However, their KenPom ranking has actually dropped over the course of their nine wins due to several games that were closer than they should have been. Their best opponent, Wichita State (86th per KenPom), took them to overtime in Wichita, while their most recent opponent, 271st ranked SEMO hung 89 on the Tigers and lost by just seven points in Columbia.
One thing that immediately jumps out when looking at Mizzou’s results so far are their point totals. The fewest they’ve scored in a game were the 82 they scored against Lindenwood, a game they won by 29 points. The next thing that jumps out helps to explain those gaudy numbers, which is the extremely high tempo with which Missouri plays. Every game they’ve played has involved between 70 and 82 possessions, which ranks them 4th nationally in tempo, while ranking 8th in possession length. This is a team that runs the court and looks to very quickly put the ball in the hoop.
Their ability to do exactly that gives them KenPom’s 12th ranked offense nationally, higher than KU’s ranking of 23rd. They’ve hit an incredibly 63.8% of their twos, which ranks second in D1 basketball. Of course, this number is destined to fall as they reach the point in their schedule where they face real teams, but it’s still impressive. A lot of these easy buckets have come in transition, as this Missouri team lives on creating turnovers. They’ve turned opponents over a whopping 27.8% of defensive possessions (4th nationally), and look to score before their opponent can get back.
Of course, there are downsides to living off of stealing the ball from your opponent and constantly starting a fast break. One is fouling, frequently a byproduct of hunting for steals. Despite their lackluster schedule, Missouri is still 320th in free throw rate allowed, meaning that hacking is just what they do, a callback to the Mike Anderson era from their Big 12 days. Another area of the game hurt by their style of play is defensive rebounding. You can’t crash the glass and constantly look to run in transition at the same time. Because of the focus on transition, Missouri ranks just 329th on the defensive glass. They will get after it a bit on the other side though, with a respectable 32.1% offensive rebounding rate. Opponents have shot nearly 36% from three against Missouri, though that doesn’t tell us much. They’ve also made just 47% of their twos on the Tigers, but given the level of competition, it’s also questionable whether we should read into that. KenPom rates their defense 125th nationally overall, so it’s safe to say Missouri will more than likely be looking to win by putting up a ton of points, and likely relying on forced turnovers and transition buckets to get the job done.
Though Missouri’s tendencies are obvious, their schedule, a combination of close calls and huge blowouts against teams that likely won’t even sniff a shot at the NCAA Tournament, really makes it hard to gauge exactly what kind of test this will be. Is Missouri really a top 15 offense, or have they picked on a bunch of teams who couldn’t handle the defensive pressure and fattened up on easy baskets? If it’s the latter, Kansas should be able to take care of business in this one. KU hasn’t been especially turnover prone this year, but they have found themselves lacking in ballhandlers not named Dajuan Harris at times. Bobby Pettiford is expected to be back for this one, and if Missouri is intent on playing their high-pressure ball against Kansas, players like Pettiford, Joseph Yesufu, and Kevin McCullar will need to be on their game, making good decisions with the ball.
With Missouri playing a pesky style of basketball, and playing this one at home, where they’re likely not to be called for quite as many fouls, this game could really test Kansas. One certainty is that Harris must avoid foul trouble. The times Harris has been on the bench have generally been the times this team really struggles to get going. As long as Harris can play a lot of minutes at the point, and as long as the team doesn’t make too many mistakes, which Mizzou will no doubt be looking to capitalize on, I don’t see the Tigers as being the team to hand KU their second loss. Just don’t bet on it looking nearly as easy as it was last year.
Kansas 84, Missouri 76