Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee basketball’s loss at Vanderbilt was its lowest possession game of the season. The Vols are preparing for a radically different style of play as Missouri comes to Thompson-Boling Arena Saturday night.
“This might be the highest possession game and it’s where guys have to make those adjustments,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said Friday.
Not only is that style a major change from the Vols’ last game but also a significant change from the Cuonzo Martin teams’ in years past in Columbia.
Dennis Gates’ first team at Missouri plays with the 40th fastest pace in the country after the Tigers’ played at the 260th fastest pace a season ago.
“They are definitely a fast team, fast-paced,” freshman forward Tobe Awaka said. “They are also one of the older teams in the country as well. We definitely have to guard the 3-point line. Also just transition defense. They like to shoot early in the shot clock, so being able to calm that down and force them to play in the halfcourt. That is something we have to work on.”
The change in tempo has led to a major change in strength and weaknesses. Martin’s Tigers excelled on the defensive end and were putrid offensively.
Gates’ Tigers have been one of the nation’s best offenses this season while their defense has been one of the worst.
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Missouri ranks ninth nationally in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency while ranking 187th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Martin’s last team in Columbia ranked 153rd in adjusted offensive efficiency while ranking 138th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
“Offensively, they’re going to run and shoot it,” Barnes said. Got to take care of the ball. But I just talked about it, got to take care of the ball whether you’re in a high-possession game or a low-possession game. They’re going to be very aggressive.”
While Missouri’s defense isn’t a strength, its built to make its offense elite. The Tigers press, trap in the halfcourt and mix multiple defenses to try and confuse opponents and force turnovers— something they do better than all teams except six.
“They’re going to change defenses,” Barnes said. “They’re going to pick you up 94 feet. Very active with their hands and they’ll change their defenses. They’ll do a little different zone pressure on the side and under the basket. They can go back and play some zone. Mainly playing with like-size players. They’re going to switch everything, not afraid to do it. Ball goes inside, if you try to get the ball in there with a guard, they’re going to front and try to get some help from somewhere. A lot of digging. A lot of very active hands.”
There’s no doubt the change in strategy has worked. Missouri is having its best seasons in ages, rolling into Knoxville with a 18-6 (6-5 SEC) record and wins over Illinois, Iowa State, Kentucky and Arkansas.
Missouri is firmly entrenched in the NCAA Tournament and it would take a major collapse for the Tigers not to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2018. Gates has worked wonders on Missouri’s program and has a real case to win SEC Coach of the Year.
“I think Dennis has done a really good job in his short time, going in,” Barnes said. “He’s done a great job. I think he’s done a great job getting the Missouri fanbase back where everybody knows that it is and what it should be. But really a great job by him and his staff.”
Tip-off between Tennessee and Missouri is at 6 p.m. ET at Thompson-Boling Arena. Kevin Fitzgerald and Perry Clark are on the call for the SEC Network.