Cuonzo Martin figured the Missouri defense wouldn’t be as good as he wanted through 14 games, and that’s because the defensive-minded coach had another fixation: emphasizing three-pointers.
Basketball players are becoming position-less, and three-pointers, the game’s most efficient shot, are in vogue. So Martin is evolving as a coach.
“The game has changed,” he said after the Tigers’ 79-68 win over South Carolina on Wednesday, when Missouri made 14 threes in a game for the third time this season. “This is the most time I’ve spent offensively in my career, from the start of a season until now. … It’s me as a coach changing and understanding where you have to go, how to improve, putting guys in a position to be successful.
“I think it’s more exciting to be able to score the ball, shoot the ball — especially when they go in.”
Check out these stats from the KenPom.com, which only considers games against Division I opponents: The Tigers are shooting 41.2 percent from deep, which ranks 16th in the country, and 46.1 percent of their field-goal attempts have come from beyond the arc, which makes them as the 30th-most three-point happy team in the nation.
These numbers are starkly different than the ones from other Martin-coached teams. During his previous nine seasons as a head coach, none of his teams made more than 37.6 percent of its three-point attempts. He has only coached one other team that had three-pointers make up more than 35 percent of its field-goal attempts. That was his very first team, the 2008-09 Missouri State Bears, who shot 38.6 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc.
“It’s not like we’re out there jacking up contested threes,” senior Jordan Barnett said. “We normally get them off of good offense and moving the ball, a little more passing.”
Twelve of Mizzou’s 14 three-pointers against the Gamecocks came off assists, including all four of Barnett’s. Guards drove near the free throw line before kicking the ball to the senior forward, and center Reed Nikko caught the ball near the low post before quickly passing to Barnett in the corner, where he hit a three despite South Carolina fouling him.
Barnett has made 40.7 percent of his three-pointers this season. Jordan Geist has made 47.1 percent of his threes. These numbers might decline as the season wears on, but even if they do, both men should finish with much better percentages than they did a season ago, when neither made more than 30 percent of his attempts from three. As a team last season, Mizzou made just 30.1 percent of its three-point attempts.
Both Geist and Barnett have said they didn’t tweak their shooting strokes. So what changed?
Missouri has other shooters around them.
Kassius Robertson — who is shooting 41.2 percent from three — transferred to Missouri with a reputation as a strong shooter. Freshman Jontay Porter is an inconsistent scorer, but on Wednesday he set picks before popping to the perimeter for open threes. He made five of them.
“That’s the greatest thing about our team,” Porter said. “We have so many shooters. The defense focuses on one dude. We have four other dudes who can shoot it.”
Porter scored 19 points against South Carolina, which led to him doing an on-camera interview outside of Missouri’s locker room.
“Jontay got the microphone!” Barnett yelled, just down the hallway. “OK, Jontay!”
The freshman said setting a scoring career high was “pretty cool,” but he prefers to think of himself as a passer, which is another reason this team gets so many open threes. Although he wasn’t able to show off the ability on Wednesday because he was called for charges, the 6-foot-11 Porter has a knack for driving to the hoop and finding open teammates. Center Jeremiah Tilmon has shown the ability to whip the basketball outside, too.
They can suck defenses in and let teammates punish opponents.
Tilmon ended up in foul trouble for most of Mizzou’s win over South Carolina and played just 11 minutes, but that didn’t matter. Little will when Missouri shoots as well as it did on Wednesday.
If the Tigers’ fail to hit from outside — as they did against Illinois on Dec. 23, when they made 5 of 27 three-point attempts — games will be hard to win. But when they find their stroke, the results can be almost unbelievable.
After the game, Barnett cut off a reporter who began a question by saying he has converted 29 of his past 59 three-point attempts.
“Damn,” he said, “that’s almost 50 percent.”