Before the season, Missouri stressed a desire to be a team built on defense.
Players talked about forging a defensive identity and creating easy transition points off a nasty, passing-lane clogging defense.
For the most part, the Tigers have been rock solid.
Missouri, 14-3 overall and 2-2 in the SEC, boasts the conference’s top field-goal percentage defense — opponents shoot only 38.4 percent from the field — and ranks fourth in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 65.2 points per game.
The Tigers also have the third-best average rebounding margin at plus-7.8 per game and rank second in defensive rebounding percentage (.709).
Of course, Missouri’s zone also got shredded last Thursday by Vanderbilt, which threw in 12 three-pointers in a 78-75 upset.
The truth is, the Tigers’ defense — and its team identity — remains a work in progress.
Missouri has relied more heavily on its zone this season, especially in conference play, and it’s a different type of zone than coach Frank Haith’s squad has deployed in the past.
“(First-year assistant) coach (Mark) Phelps has done a good job putting it in,” sophomore forward Ryan Rosburg said. “We have all these kinds of rules and stuff, but we’ve definitely done more of that this year.”
Against Vanderbilt, the Tigers often looked lost and were slow to close out on the Commodores’ shooters, most notably senior Rod Odom.
Junior Jordan Clarkson blamed poor communication, but Missouri got its act together before battling Alabama and the SEC’s active scoring leader, Trevor Releford.
The Tigers pestered Releford into a season-low 10 points on four-of-16 shooting and limited the Crimson Tide to 17 second-half points on four-of-23 shooting.
“We did a better job of communicating and pressuring the ball,” Clarkson said.
Effort also played a critical role.
“We want our guys to understand, ‘Hey, zone doesn’t mean relax,’ ” Haith said. “You’ve got to play with the same type of intensity you do man-to-man. But it’s been really good to us. It’s been really good when we are able to mix and match and people don’t get into a rhythm, playing just one of the defenses.”
Despite logging only 27 minutes, Clarkson came up with five steals — more than he’d had in the previous eight games combined — against the Crimson Tide.
It’s unrealistic to expect Missouri to dominate every opponent the way it did Alabama in the second half, but Haith wants to see more consistency from the defense, particularly in the paint.
“We’re not looking for them (our bigs) to score,” Haith said. “They have to be great screeners, great rebounders, great defenders. We need that out of them every night, because that’s something they can give us.”
That is especially important for the Tigers’ frontcourt at 6 Tuesday night against LSU’s talented forwards Johnny O’Bryant and Jordan Mickey.
“Being a really good defender is doing your work early, not allowing people to get two feet in the paint and establishing post position,” Haith said. “If we do that with some physicality — with our chest, with our backs — we will have success with our post guys being defenders.”