Basketball Scouting Report: Missouri

The Vanderbilt Commodores know that just about every game over the next two months will be an endurance test. The Missouri Tigers would like to be able to expose Vanderbilt's lack of depth, but their bench might not be seasoned enough to wear down the Dores. An intriguing chess match awaits tonight.


Legs.

The human body is able to run up and down a court because of them, but in basketball, the presence or absence of legs is manifested not just in running. When you have two firm legs that don't turn to jelly, you can also thrive in terms of shooting and jumping. Vanderbilt actually maintained its shooting legs against Kentucky this past Saturday, hitting 50 percent of its shots. The Commodores played through 40 minutes with admirable persistence, knowing that they had only seven players available against the Wildcats' young bucks. However, while shooting didn't betray Vanderbilt, leaping and fighting did.

The Dores lacked the muscle and springboard-off-the-floor power to outmaneuver Kentucky on the boards. The Wildcats destroyed VU on the offensive glass, 18-5, and 41-28 overall. Kentucky clearly outclassed Vanderbilt in the realms of rebounds and steals (7-3 in that latter category), but nowhere else on the stat sheet. Yet, those two advantages were enough to give Kevin Stallings the kind of loss that's likely to crop up again this season. Many aspects of a gameday performance will be solid and respectable, but the ability to make "effort plays" will be limited by a lack of depth, and as a result, the Dores will concede a dozen or more extra possessions to the opposition

It's never fun to take the court knowing that you – as an individual and a member of a team – have a small margin for error combined with an outsized physical workload. Vanderbilt has to find a way to make this season-long challenge fun, even while being resourceful and efficient in ways that might not feel naturally exciting. Slowing the game down, limiting the number of possessions, being cautious in the pursuit of fast-break opportunities – these and other inclinations have to enter the picture in order for VU to have a better chance of winning.

MISSOURI AT-A-GLANCE

The Tigers had their big chance in 2012.

Head coach Frank Haith took over the Mizzou program and led the Big 12 refugee to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Missouri, which has somehow never reached the Final Four in its history – making it one of the best programs to have never attained that goal – was poised to finally break through.

Then Norfolk State happened.

The shattering loss has torn through this program, such that it has lost its heartbeat as a collective whole. Missouri didn't even show up for last year's round-of-64 blowout loss to Colorado State in an 8-9 game (with Missouri being the ninth seed), and now – in 2014 – the Tigers have a resume that screams "bubble team." Missouri lost at home to Georgia last week and then scraped by Auburn, 70-68, with help from wayward officials in the final minute of regulation on two separate calls. This team is a mess, and it's a mess in part because Tony Criswell has been repeatedly suspended, eroding this team's level of depth. The Tigers are not that different from Vanderbilt in terms of lacking a deep bench, but as you'll see, Mizzou is trying to lengthen its bench in response to a crisis.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Johnathan Williams III –
Junior, 6-9, 208 2013-14: 6.8 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game, 1.5 blocked shots per game

Four Tigers log the vast majority of minutes for this team, all averaging at least 26 minutes per game. The three starting guards all clock in with at least 31 minutes. Williams leads the forwards with 26.6. He's an active rebounder and interior defender, but he's not bulky. Vanderbilt will have a chance to back him down on low-post entries and force him to play physical defense near the rim.

Forward – Ryan Rosburg – Sophomore, 6-10, 252; 2013-14: 4.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg

Rosburg is in many ways a spot starter who has rotated in and out of games in tandem with Criswell. He played just 11 minutes in the Auburn game this past Saturday. He is a decent rebounder, though, and that's where Vanderbilt must pay attention to him.

Guard – Earnest Ross – Senior, 6-5, 228; 2013-14: 14.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.5 assists per game, 1.5 steals per game

Missouri depends on its three starting guards for most of its production, and Ross puts his stamp on this team by helping out on the glass. He throws his body into the fray and helps out Mizzou's undersized forwards. He doesn't involve himself as much as a passer, but that's for a reason. His work on the boards gives this team a measure of desperately-needed toughness.

Guard – Jabari Brown – Junior, 6-5, 214; 2013-14: 18.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.3 apg

This is the three-point shooter Vanderbilt has to contain. Ross is a 34-percent three-point shooter, and the team's leading scorer, Jordan Clarkson (you'll read about him in a bit…), hits 30 percent of his threes. Brown, though, hits 41 percent of his triples. He has to be closed down when the ball finds his hands in a shooting position behind the arc.

Guard – Jordan Clarkson – Junior, 6-5, 193; 2013-14: 18.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.7 apg

Clarkson is long, at 6-5, and you'll notice that all three of Missouri's starting guards are 6-5, which enables this team to compensate for its lack of size in the paint. However, Clarkson separates himself from Ross and Jordan in that he has a lighter, thinner build, which translates into better quickness and a superior ability to get into the paint on the dribble. Clarkson is the facilitator-creator for this team in addition to being its leading scorer. The priority for Vanderbilt would seem to be to allow him to score, but to prevent him from setting up his teammates for high-percentage shots.

Bench

The big story regarding Missouri's bench is that it is expanding, not shrinking. Periodic suspensions to senior forward Tony Criswell have limited the Tigers in terms of depth, so with the season at its midpoint and the long grind of the SEC season staring at the Tigers, Haith has decided to give young pups more of a look. Torren Jones and Keanau Post figure to get a reasonable amount of minutes against Vanderbilt, especially if Criswell is out (which is probable but not yet certain at this point).

Here's a brief snippet from a story by Tod Palmer of the Kansas City Star, published yesterday:

"(Torren) Jones played a season-high 13 minutes and (Keanau) Post logged a season-most 14 minutes in helping Missouri escape with a 70-68 victory. Tigers coach Frank Haith said it's a trend that probably will continue, including today at Vanderbilt.

"I've got to get them out there," Haith said. "I want them getting court time. We're going to sacrifice it, getting them in there early and just letting them play through it. They're going to make some mistakes. We're not going to be fluid, but I think it helps us in the long run."

For much of the season, Missouri, 13-2, operated with basically a two-man bench, Criswell in the frontcourt and freshman Wes Clark (boldface added) in the backcourt, but Haith signaled that is changing.

It's definitely worth noting that as Vanderbilt's roster size shrinks, Missouri is facing some attrition but is making an attempt to deal with it by giving more minutes to untested players. A lot of unexpected and hard-to-scout individual battles could emerge when each head coach dips into his bench.

Keys to the Game

1) Rebound.
Against Kentucky, Damian Jones was the only Commodore who plucked more than four rebounds. That simply has to change against Missouri. Team rebounding requires a lot of energy, but what this team needs to realize is that if it has to play 35 seconds of additional defense on 10 to 15 extra possessions, it will get tired even more quickly. Making the extra effort to block out on the defensive glass will go a long way toward winning this game against Missouri's big guards.

2) Play Clarkson and Brown properly. Taking the drive away from Clarkson and the three from Brown will give Vanderbilt a chance to severely limit Missouri's offensive production, providing a path to victory for the Dores.

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