Scouting Report: Missouri

Vanderbilt did indeed contain Auburn's offense on Wednesday. Now comes an opportunity for the Commodores, a Saturday afternoon road game at Missouri… one that seemed utterly unwinnable a month ago but which now seems ripe for the taking.


Vanderbilt, through all the trials, cruel teases, and absurdist plot twists of a tough season, has continued to work hard. Effort has not been lacking on this team. Kevin Stallings has been able to keep his players locked into a healthy mindset, to his great credit. Now, Vanderbilt can put that mindset to good use. Missouri is a solid team, but it is an injured one.

Missouri forward Laurence Bowers, the leading scorer on the team, has been dealing with a sprained right knee and has missed four games, including recent tilts this past Saturday against Florida and on Tuesday versus South Carolina. Guard Keion Bell missed the South Carolina game due to ankle problems. Guard Earnest Ross, who played against South Carolina, is dealing with back pain. This is why the Tigers trailed the Gamecocks at home with 2:05 left before rallying for an uneasy – and perhaps unsettling – 71-65 win. In December, Missouri had beaten an Illinois team that seemed to be an up-and-comer. However, Illinois has plummeted even more than Missouri has over the past month. The Tigers' resume doesn't look as impressive as it once did. Moreover, Missouri's loss at UCLA on Dec. 28 showed that the Tigers just aren't a very deep team. If guard Phil Pressey – the main holdover from last year's No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament – doesn't create plays, his teammates aren't adept at stepping into the breach, with Bowers being the only real exception.

The point is plain: Physically and psychologically, this is a noticeably weakened Missouri squad Vanderbilt will be facing. If the Commodores throw a strong defensive effort at the Tigers, they have a 50-50 chance of winning. That's not sunshine pumping, either – South Carolina is not as good as Vanderbilt, yet the Gamecocks were down by only one point on Mizzou's home floor in the final 25 seconds before the Tigers banged in a game-sealing three-pointer. If Vanderbilt produces a top-drawer performance on defense, this game should go down to the wire. Truly.

MISSOURI AT-A-GLANCE

You've been given the immediate read on the Missouri program. In this section, a brief word deserves to be mentioned about the Tigers in a larger long-term context.

Frank Haith received good news this past week with the NCAA's botched investigation of the University of Miami. Haith is going to escape career-crippling stains on his record. In that sense, he'll be able to move forward as a coach. However, it's quite possible that his career might suffer in the near future because of what's happening at Missouri… and at his old stop in Miami.

Haith made one NCAA tournament at Miami in 2008… and watched his program deteriorate after that. Yet, look at what Haith's successor, former George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, has been able to do in South Florida with the Hurricanes. Miami didn't just beat Duke; it dismantled the Blue Devils and looks like a good bet to not merely make the NCAAs (that's almost a given at this point), but play as the higher seed in the round of 64, probably in the area of a 5 or 6 seed. Haith's inability to generate momentum at Miami is precisely what made his arrival at Missouri such a head-scratching development. Missouri fans did not like the hire the Tigers made to replace Mike Anderson, who went to Arkansas to rebuild the empire his close friend and mentor, Nolan Richardson, initially built.

In this, the second season of Haith's tenure, there's good reason to think that Haith's time at Missouri has already met and passed its moment of great opportunity. Haith inherited a stacked team from Anderson last year and, to his great credit, skillfully guided the Tigers to a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance. However, with Kim English and Marcus Denmon on the floor alongside Pressey, Haith needed to make a strong tournament run… the kind of run Anderson engineered in 2009, when Mizzou reached the Elite Eight and lost to Connecticut in the West Regional final.

Tournament runs create buzz and a sense that a program matters. We talked about South Carolina last week, and how the Gamecocks' back-to-back losses as a high seed in the 1997 and 1998 NCAAs set back the Carolina program for many years. Haith and Missouri might have encountered that kind of crushing blow last March against Norfolk State. With fewer resources this season, it's hard to see how Missouri will make the second weekend of the tournament. If Haith can't recruit, it will be apparent that he just can't build good programs on his own. This is the big-picture crisis facing Missouri basketball at the moment.

MISSOURI STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS

Two-point field goal shooting percentage: 49.5. National rank: 88 (out of 345).

Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 32.6. National rank: 223.

Free throw shooting percentage: 73. National rank: 60.

Two-point field goal percentage defense: 42.5. National rank: 35.

Rebounding percentage: 56.6. National rank: 17 (first in the SEC).

Starting Lineup

Forward – Laurence Bowers –
Senior, 6-8, 227 2012-13: 16.8 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game

With Kim English and Marcus Denmon now in the pros, it's up to Bowers and teammate Phil Pressey to carry this team. Pressey holds down the fort in the backcourt, while Bowers is UM's main frontline force. At his best, Bowers is explosively athletic, getting to rebounds because of his motor and his jet-pack jumping ability. He gets off the ground and has a second-jump recovery which eclipses the first jump of many post players in college basketball. With his injury, though, Bowers – expected to play – might not be fully effective.

Forward – Alex Oriakhi – Senior, 6-9, 255; 2012-13: 10.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg

Oriakhi is one of two transfers in Missouri's starting five. You might recall that Oriakhi came alive in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, providing the interior defense and timely offensive rebounding that gave Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb the ability to freelance on the perimeter. Oriakhi was the unsung hero of Connecticut's journey to the 2011 national championship, and now he's trying to make another title run at Missouri. He's extremely powerful, but his offensive skills are not very polished. Standing up to him in the low post won't be easy, but as long as he's sealed out on the glass, Vanderbilt will be happy.

Guard – Jabari Brown – Sophomore, 6-5, 205; 2012-13: 14.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg

Brown is a transfer from Oregon. His stats at Missouri consist of nine games, not the 18 the Tigers have played to date this season. Brown is a 37.9-percent three-point shooter, and he's taken 66 attempts in nine games, for an average of over seven threes per contest. Kenny Boynton of Florida is one of the only other men in the Southeastern Conference who will shoot the three as frequently as Brown does. Locking down on him and crowding his shooting and cannot be seen as negotiable priorities for Vanderbilt's defense. The Dores must run him off the three-point line or at least ensure that he doesn't get clean looks within 25 feet.

Guard – Keion Bell – Senior, 6-4, 200; 2012-13: 8.9 ppg, 4 rpg

One thing you'll notice is that we're not posting the assist totals for either Bell or Jabari Brown, because neither one of the two UM guards makes any appreciable statistical imprint in that category. Bell and Brown average under 1.5 assists per game. This shows that Phil Pressey is asked to do all the playmaking for the Tigers. This is why Missouri is so noticeably imbalanced and limited as an offensive team, especially in halfcourt situations. You need a second distributor of the ball to make an offense flow with seamlessness and regularity, prying open good shots from every spot on the court (within 25 feet, of course). We'll see how well Bell responds to this first game after missing the South Carolina contest with an injury.

Guard – Phil Pressey – Senior, 6-0, 198; 2012-13: 11.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 7.2 assists per game, 1.8 steals per game

Pressey is the soul of this team, but as you've seen, it's partly due to the fact that the non-Bowers players in the lineup don't give him much help. Pressey takes the big shots for the Tigers. He is asked to create. He is asked to play rugged on-ball defense. He is, frankly, asked to do too much. If Vanderbilt can contain Pressey, it stands a very good chance of taking this game to the final minute with victory in its sights.

Bench

Haith gives starter-level minutes to sixth man Earnest Ross. We'll see how Ross deals with back problems in this game. He averages 10.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest. ForwardTony Criswell and guard Negus Webster-Chan are the other primary players in what is generally an eight-man rotation. Criswell averages 6.5 points and five boards per game. Stefan Jankovic gets some spot minutes from time to time.

Keys to the Game

1) Stop Pressey's drive and Brown's long ball.
Missouri teams under Mike Anderson were backcourt-based, and this group is no exception. Containing Pressey as a driver and creator is the number one thing Vanderbilt has to do, with Brown being the second biggest worry for the Dores. However, Pressey's passing sets up Brown's shooting, so these tasks really must be seen as a tandem job. Doing one without the other won't really cut it for VU.

2) Team rebounding. Missouri, at least by the numbers, is an elite rebounding team. The Tigers pound the boards with Bowers and Oriakhi. Vanderbilt has to throw itself at every 50-50 ball and get its fair share of them. Second-chance points are precisely what can help Missouri at a time when the Tigers are unhealthy and in desperate need of a pick-me-up.

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