The Missouri offense might have met its match.
The 2-3 zone defense, nemesis of free-flowing offenses, has given the Tigers fits this season.
Iowa State used the defensive strategy for 40 minutes and earned a 70-65 home victory against the Tigers on Wednesday. A week earlier, Belmont had used the scheme effectively to upset the Tigers, and Illinois used it at times in its victory against Missouri on Dec. 23.
The secret is out. Use a zone against the Tigers (5-5, 0-1 Big 12 Conference) and watch their offense fall into disarray. Despite continually facing it in practice, they still have not found a way to solve it consistently.
Fortunately for the Tigers, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and his No. 17 Orangemen, who a national championship last year with the help of the 2-3 zone, do not visit Columbia until Monday.
The Tigers have one more chance to improve before Syracuse arrives. They host Texas A&M at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at Hearnes Center.
Even if the Aggies (7-4, 0-0 Big 12) do not use the zone, the Tigers will have a few more days to practice their offense against it. If they continue to struggle as they did against the Cyclones, the Tigers are in for a long, frustrating season.
“I thought we were almost tentative tonight, a little unsure of ourselves working against the zone,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said after the loss. “We’re not making plays against the zone like I think we can.”
The Tigers were able to break through the zone occasionally, often placing center Arthur Johnson in the middle of the defense and allowing him to pass to the basket for a layup or outside for a 3-point attempt. Missouri was unable to do that consistently, though, allowing the Cyclones to battle back for a late win.
The zone, along with Missouri’s recent early-game struggles, were too much to overcome at Iowa State.
“We come out flat,” guard Josh Kroenke said. “We’re just not doing what we need to do. Coach Snyder stressed (starting strong) to us in the first half and it ended up costing us in the end.”
After previous losses, Snyder lamented his team’s tendency to practice hard but not show that intensity in games. He mentioned the problem again after the Iowa State loss, but chose to move beyond excuses and onto ultimatums.
“We’re starting the game and talking about intensity … but at some point you have to come out and put it on the line,” Snyder said. “That’s where it is. Our guys know that.”
Snyder also said he expects his four seniors to step up their play. While this Tigers team is one of the most talented in years, after the starting five, it is relatively inexperienced. If the seniors improve their play,
as they did in a 76-56 win against Iowa on Saturday, Snyder said he thinks the rest of the team will fall into line.
“We need our seniors to give an effort consistently across 40 minutes,” Snyder said. “That’s what we had against Iowa, and when we have that — there’s still things we need to improve on — but it starts there.”
Texas A&M will open its sixth conference season under coach Melvin Watkins against Missouri. Antoine Wright, a 6-foot-7 sophomore swingman who was last year’s conference Freshman of the Year, leads the Aggies. He has not experienced a second-year slump, averaging 15.3 points and 4.2 rebounds a game.
Senior forward Jesse King, a high school teammate of Missouri center Arthur Johnson, is also having a strong season, averaging 13.1 points, almost tripling his 4.7 average of last season.
The Aggies have won four of their past five games, including an 89-63 home win against Long Island on Tuesday. Texas A&M lost 90-58 at Oakland on Dec. 6; Missouri defeated the Golden Grizzlies 90-85 on Nov. 29.
A loss to the Aggies would drop Missouri to 0-2 in conference play, a hole that would be difficult to escape. If Missouri loses to Texas A&M, do not expect the team to hit the panic button, forward Travon Bryant said.
“The panic button was pushed a long time ago,” Bryant said.