COLUMBIA – Even the ancient philosopher Aristotle was baffled by the causality dilemma, or in normal person terminology, the case of the chicken or the egg.
So you can hardly blame Zaire Taylor, a deep thinker in his own right, for having trouble explaining the Missouri men’s basketball team’s inability to find its offense without having its defense. Or maybe the Tigers can’t find their defense without their offense. Or maybe…
“They feed off each other,” Taylor said. “It’s hard to put the pressure defense on when the shots aren’t going in. We get a lot of shots off our defense. So it’s kinda like what comes first, the chicken or the egg or something.”
Right now, it doesn’t even matter which one comes first. Missouri can't find its chicken (scoring) or egg (defensive pressure).
Since the start of Big 12 play Jan. 9, the Tigers have been the conference’s worst shooting team at under 36 percent. And while Missouri ranks first in forcing turnovers, most of them have resulted in the ball going out of bounds. Less of them have been steals, coach Mike Anderson’s greatly preferred type of turnover, that lead directly to high-percentage shots.
“Getting fast-break layups. That’s all it is,” Kim English said. “Once we get easier shots, shots are going to fall.”
Lately, Missouri has been stuck in methodical, plodding halfcourt games, a set of words that isn’t in Anderson’s vocabulary.
“We’re trying to score against a halfcourt defense every time, and that’s tough to do,” English said. “Once we start getting easier baskets, it won’t look like we’re shooting as bad.”
On Monday against No. 2 Kansas, those baskets were as rare as a Missouri win over its powerhouse rival. English shot an abysmal 3 for 13, forcing difficult shots with Jayhawks defenders in his face. No one else did much better, and the Tigers shot a season-worst 27.9 percent.
Sure, Missouri’s struggles were magnified playing in one of the nation’s most hostile arenas against the superstar-laden Jayhawks. But the game underscored the Tigers’ chicken-or-egg predicament.
“Eventually the defense is going to go away if you don’t score points,” Anderson said.
And if the defense disappears, or at least fails to force more steals that create easy baskets, Missouri will continue to find itself stuck in those snail-paced games.
The Tigers’ guards, the group Anderson has called the strength of his team, have suffered the most from Missouri’s inability to control the pace of games against Big 12 teams. Three key guards – J.T. Tiller, Michael Dixon Jr. and English – have seen their shooting percentages plummet to below 30 percent in conference play.
“Just get the ball moving,” Taylor said. “We got to run. We got to be that uptempo team we were and that we are, that we’re known to be. We’re playing at other teams’ pace recently.”
Taylor said nobody is playing exceptionally right now, but Missouri’s forwards have fared better. Justin Safford, Keith Ramsey and Laurence Bowers – a trio that earlier in the season seemed to be holding the Tigers back – have become the team’s strength. And Anderson thinks they will help get Missouri’s guards out of their funk.
“We’ve got to make sure our forwards are a big part of what we do,” he said. “And that comes to attacking the basket, whether it be in transition or in a halfcourt setting. I think when we establish that inside (presence) or attack the basket, it makes it easier for you to spot up and knock down shots.”
The Tigers prefer to score off fast breaks, but English maintains they can generate points in the halfcourt.
“We just have to trust each other. We have a great halfcourt offense,” he said. “We just have to stick to it and not shy away from it when the shot clock starts getting down. Something good’s going to happen if we just stick to our motion principles.”
Which they didn’t do at all against Kansas. When nothing developed at the start of a possession, four Tigers froze and left it up to one player to create his own shot, a nearly impossible task against a stout defense like the Jayhawks’.
“Sometimes it takes a free throw or layup to get you going, a midrange shot to get you going,” Anderson said. “I don’t think we’re as bad a shooting team as the Big 12 stats show right now. I think we’re due.”
Figuring out which comes first, the chicken or the egg – the scoring or the steals – would be easier if one would just show up. But if neither appear, Missouri will stay stuck in a philosophical quandary.