For all the talk of computers vs. humans in terms of various college basketball rankings, the amazing thing to me is how often the two different types of ratings actually agree. For instance right now you'll find teams like Duke, Kansas, and Ohio State holding down the top of any ratings, whether the ranking was done by coaches, writers, or a piece of software.
There are however exceptions to this rule. Sometimes the computers and the humans do indeed disagree. And right now no team is occasioning more disagreement than the 8-1 Missouri Tigers. Mike Anderson's team is ranked No. 12 in the latest ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, but through games of December 15 the rating system created by my colleague Ken Pomeroy had Mizzou pegged as merely the 40th best team in the country. Who's right? At the moment I'd say Ken's laptop is.
Granted I can see where my fellow humans are coming from. After all, Missouri's only loss came in OT to Georgetown on a (mostly) neutral floor (the Sprint Center in Kansas City). No shame there -- the Hoyas are a top-15 team whether it's computers or people doing the ranking. Moreover the Tigers have already beaten two-major conference opponents, Oregon and Vanderbilt, and the win against the Ducks was achieved in a true road game.
All true enough. But part of what makes Missouri so difficult to evaluate in mid-December is that their schedule has been so Jekyll-and-Hyde. Four of Missouri's nine opponents -- Western Illinois, North Florida, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and Presbyterian -- can be classified with some confidence as belonging to Division I's bottom 25 percent.
The challenge for any computer ranking system is to try to make some sense of a game played between two unevenly matched opponents. Which is why I'm glad I'm not a computer: I'm just going to throw those four games out. Instead I'm going to look at what the Tigers have been able to accomplish against five more or less quality opponents: Wyoming, La Salle, Georgetown, Oregon, and Vanderbilt. If we focus on just the games where Missouri was picking on someone their own size, what do we learn about the Tigers' performance?
Say this for Anderson's team: they put points on the board.
In five games against quality opponents Missouri's scored 425 points in 382 possessions. That averages out to 1.11 points per trip, which if it keeps up is definitely good news for Tiger fans. Last year in Big 12 play Mizzou recorded just 1.03 points per possession. This season Anderson's team is getting the job done on offense simply by getting more bites at the apple. While Marcus Denmon has obviously been on fire from the perimeter (to the tune of 51 percent accuracy on his threes), as a team Missouri's shooting from both sides of the arc has been close to average. What's made the difference has been the sheer number of shots the Tigers have been able to generate by taking very good care of the rock and by crashing the offensive glass. In the five games I'm looking at here Anderson's team has committed a turnover on less than 18 percent of their possessions, and they've rebounded over 38 percent of their own misses. They just get more chances to score.
Unfortunately opponents are scoring almost as many points.
Now the bad news. In those same five games and over those same 382 possessions opponents have scored 406 points, good for 1.05 points per trip. When Missouri plays a good team, that opponent usually lights it up from the field. Taken together, the Tigers' five quality opponents have made 53 percent of their twos and 40 percent of their threes. Georgetown drained a remarkable 47 percent of their threes against this D. Vanderbilt made an even more amazing 65 percent of their twos in their three-point overtime loss in Columbia. Teams have had no trouble at all getting the ball in the basket against Missouri. If you're Anderson you have to be at least a little worried by the prospect of this defense facing an offense like Kansas' in the near future.
Missouri fits the feast-or-famine stereotype for a pressing D.
One of the most common misperceptions regarding defenses that force a lot of turnovers is that they have to force a lot of turnovers to be effective. Obviously forcing a turnover does indeed help your defense -- the other team can't score if they don't get to shoot -- but that doesn't mean all pressure defenses are limited to just one weapon. Take Duke. The Blue Devils force opponents into a lot of turnovers, but Mike Krzyzewski's defense is great because the other team struggles to score even when they get a shot off.
Not so Missouri. You know a Mike Anderson team will force a lot of turnovers and, sure enough, against five quality opponents the Tigers have taken the ball away on 23 percent of their defensive possessions. That's very good forced TO rate -- and Missouri needs those turnovers. Badly. I call a possession that doesn't end in a turnover an "effective" possession. In five games against good teams the Tigers have allowed opponents to score 1.39 points per effective possession. Conversely the average major-conference team scores 1.28 points per effective trip in league play. Basically Anderson's team either forces a turnover or they allow points. There's not much in between.
Mind you, there's a lot for Tiger fans to like here. Clearly Denmon's having an outstanding season, not only making shots from outside but also from in close while taking excellent care of the ball. By the same token junior college transfer Ricardo Ratliffe has provided his team with a big lift, clearing the glass at both ends of the floor and making 58 percent of his twos. But if Missouri wants to persuade the computers and, much more importantly, earn that lofty top-15 ranking, they need to improve on defense. If that happens, look out Big 12.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider . John can speak more freely of the shortcomings of laptops on Twitter because he uses his iPhone there: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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