COLUMBIA — There might be more basketballs thrown into the crowd of Mizzou Arena than usual Saturday afternoon when the Missouri men’s basketball team plays Kansas State.
Wildcats coach Frank Martin said he has developed an unorthodox method to deal with the suffocating traps and presses the Tigers employ. Whenever a player is in an uncomfortable position and about to give up a steal, Martin has advised them to toss the ball as far into the stands as possible. The strategy doesn't seem odd if you consider that last season, Missouri forced Kansas State to turn over the ball 21 times, including 13 steals. The turnovers proved to be the deciding factor in its 94-74-blowout victory at home.
Missouri Tigers (12-3) vs. No. 11 Kansas State (13-1)
WHEN: 1 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
RADIO: KFRU/1400 and KBXR/102.3
Game tickets sold out
“That turnover gives us a chance to defend,” Martin said during a teleconference Thursday morning. “The other turnovers, the one Missouri gets, which are steals, that creates major problems for us.”
Martin has yet to win at Missouri. In his first two seasons as a head coach, his teams are averaging 18 turnovers against the Tigers and have struggled to deal with the press. However, Martin said he thinks his No. 11 Wildcats (13-1) will be better prepared to handle Missouri’s pressure when they open Big 12 Conference play at 1 p.m. Saturday against the Tigers (12-3). Thanks to the experienced backcourt of senior Denis Clemente and junior Jacob Pullen and his unorthodox tactic, Martin said the team has the tools necessary to withstand Missouri’s flurry of defensive pressure.
“You don’t negate what they do with experience,” Martin said. “You’re just better prepared because you understand what you’re walking into.”
Last season Pullen and Clemente struggled against the Missouri pressure. Clemente, who was a transfer from Miami, played at Mizzou Arena for the first time last season. He scored 33 points, but also turned over the ball seven times. Pullen, who was a sophomore, struggled to score, shooting just 2-for-12. The speed and strength of Missouri guards J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor continually bothered the Wildcats guards, forcing them to take bad shots and passes.
“When we played in their building last year, we kept throwing it to them,” Martin said. “We kept putting the ball in the wrong parts in the floor and we kept throwing it to them, and they attack you and they got on a roll a bit.”
However, with an extra year of seasoning, the K-State guards have appeared to find a level of comfort they didn’t have last season. In their second full season playing together they are averaging a combined 34 points a game, nearly 40 percent of the team’s 83.5 points a game.
“They’ve been producing really well for their team,” Missouri guard Marcus Denmon said. “They’re a team that is playing well, and when you got guys like them, that is the head of the team, I’m pretty sure their doing well.”
Clemente has emerged as the steady point guard. He is taking care of the ball, averaging 1.5 turnovers, one better than last season. Clemente is a naturally quick guard and combined with his added poise this year, makes him difficult to trap and force a turnover.
“I think for a lot of teams he gives them trouble,” Anderson said. “He’s got more help now. So that’s going to be a challenge for our basketball team and hopefully we can be a team that can make adjustments.”
Pullen adds an offensive dimension Kansas State didn’t have last season. He is shooting 45 percent from the 3-point line, and has shown he is able to score against anybody. The speedy 6-foot guard has scored in double figures every game, including 28 points against then-No. 24 UNLV. Pullen’s emergence will make it difficult for Missouri to just focus on Clemente when it traps, forcing them to focus on two guards rather than one like last season. Anderson said he has noticed a huge change in Pullen's game from last year.
“I think he has really made a tremendous jump from his sophomore year to his junior year,” Anderson said. “I think he’s showing the experience factor. I think the game has slowed down in his mind, and I think he’s the leader of that basketball team.”
However the one thing Kansas State lacks is depth, something Missouri excels in. Pullen and Clemente both average more than 28 minutes a game, which is nearly six more than any player on the Tigers. Anderson uses six guards a game, which will keep fresh legs on the court and potentially force Kansas State into mental errors. Anderson said he is confident his guards will be able to compete with the Wildcats.
“It’s important,” Anderson said of the team’s guard depth. “If you’re going to start a team, you start it with guards, and that’s the strength of our team.”
Martin knows one thing is for certain. The game will be decided by who has the least turnovers.
“Missouri tries to force you into mistakes, and Bob Knight said it best, ‘the team that forces the most mistakes wins,’” Martin said. “It’s kind of the challenge for us to not make those mistakes.”