You’re all familiar with the story. Fourth ranked Mizzou faced an eighth ranked Kansas team led by player of the year candidate, Thomas Robinson, in what could very well be the final installment of the border war in Columbia. Many fans knew going into the game that The Jayhawks had dominated the series, going 171-94 all-time and winning ten of the last eleven. Kansas had only suffered one conference loss, against a surprisingly good Iowa State team on the road, and held a one game lead over Mizzou in conference play. The Tigers, on the other hand, had been struggling recently, losing to Oklahoma State, and needing a last second Michael Dixon layup to beat Texas. However, this time something was different. The Tigers entered the game as two and a half point favorites and fans honestly believed that Mizzou not only could, but would defeat Kansas.
They talked all week about how this team was the real deal. They even started camping out on Wednesday night, 75 hours before the game was scheduled to start. 73 and a half hours later, when the doors to Mizzou Arena finally opened, they turned into what can only be described as a mob on a mission. And why not? After a fantastic 14-0 start to the season and a tough win on the road at Baylor, this Mizzou team led by first year coach, Frank Haith, was starting to get the attention it deserved. Despite a new head coach and the loss of stud big man Laurence Bowers before the season even started, The Tigers had not only succeeded, but excelled. Somehow an unconventional starting line-up consisting of four guards and a bench that only went two deep had taken Mizzou from “borderline top 25 team” to “serious threat to grab a number one seed come March.” One of the main reasons fans had so much reason to believe a victory was in store was because they hadn’t seen anything out of this team that suggested otherwise. Coming into Saturday’s game, Mizzou was 12-0 at home with an average margin of victory of 25.66 points per game. That confidence and energy never faded during the game. As Kim English put it, “That was the loudest I’ve ever heard them, I was just so proud and excited.”
Not only are you familiar with the story, but you’re also familiar with the outcome. Both teams battled back and forth and Mizzou took a 39-34 lead into halftime. But Kansas stormed back and took the lead with 16:37 left to play. The Tigers kept it close until, with 5:05 remaining, the Jayhawks went on a 7-0 run to take a 71-63 lead. After Marcus Denmon missed a three with 2:46 to play, fans waited in silence, anxiously hoping for something to get excited about. And then the run began. It started with a turnover by Thomas Robinson, followed by an and one by Denmon to cut the lead to five. Denmon followed that up with a three to make it a two point game after Steve Moore forced another Robinson turnover, this time in the form of a charge. As the crowd grew louder, Tyshawn Taylor turned the ball over and Denmon hit his sixth three of the night to give Mizzou the lead, sending every fan in attendance into state of euphoria. Taylor then missed two free throws on the other end, which presumably had something to do with the fact that the floor was literally shaking. Phil Pressey missed the front end of a one and one that would have practically sealed the deal, but Taylor turned it over yet again on the other end. After Dixon hit both of his free throws, Kansas failed to get a good look to tie it up, and the 11-0 run was complete, the game over, and the hated Jayhawks had been felled.
Even though you know the story and the outcome, you don’t know the “why.” And that’s what I’m here to explain. Let’s start with the opponent. Everyone preparing to play Kansas knows one thing for certain. Thomas Robinson is easily their best player. Naturally this means Kansas tries to get him the ball as often as possible. According to statsheet.com, Robinson has a possession percentage (defined as individual FGA – ORs + TOs + (0.475 x FTA) – team FGA – ORs + TOs + (0.475 x FTA)) of 28.1 for the year, the highest of any non-point guard in the conference. The goal of this statistic is simply to measure how frequently an individual ends their team’s possession compared to other players on the floor. 28.1 is high, especially for a player who plays predominantly in the paint. By comparison, Ricardo Ratliffe’s possession percentage for the season is only 22. Another important statistic to analyze is shot percentage (which is defined as FGA / (MIN% x Team FGA), MIN% is simply what percentage of a team’s minutes an individual player plays). Robinson has a shot percentage of 29.2, good for third in the conference. So Clearly Robinson plays a crucial role in KU’s offense, but is he effective?
The answer is yes. Robinson is shooting 54.8% from the floor, and averaging 18 points a game. He’s also second in the nation in rebounds per game, and despite the fact that he’s faced constant double teams most of the season, he’s only averaging 2.5 turnovers per game. Robinson’s true strength however, lies in his outstanding ability to position himself on the blocks. He has an uncanny ability to post up practically anyone deep in the paint and can position himself so well that once he gets the ball, he’s almost unstoppable. This skill is Missouri’s biggest fear, as it allows him to exploit the Tiger’s greatest weakness, their lack of size. However, despite this knowledge, Frank Haith and the Tigers spent most of the game in man to man, with either Ricardo Ratliffe or Steve Moore matched up on Robinson. Robinson recognized the mismatch and took advantage, especially against Ratliffe. Time after time, Robinson backed Ratliffe all the way down to the block, and after he got the ball would do one of two things: either face Ratliffe up, or take one dribble and turn toward the basket. Ratliffe looked helpless against both moves. When Robinson faced him up, Ratliffe would either play him tight, and Robinson would use his speed to blow by him for an easy layup, or Ratliffe would sag off and Robinson would hit an uncontested ten footer, something he does better than any other player in the country. When Robinson didn’t face up Ratliffe, he would simply overpower him and either draw a foul, or force his way to the rim for a layup. After a while, Ratliffe started trying to front Robinson and deny everything. Unfortunately, because Robinson is so athletic, Kansas just started lobbing passes over Ratliffe, who was horribly out of position on a number of occasions. But with 13:55 to go in the first half, Haith gave Moore his first chance to guard Robinson one on one, and that’s when things started to change.
Moore gave every future Kansas opponent a blueprint for how to guard Robinson without needing to double team him. Moore used his size and strength to force Robinson away from the basket, and when Robinson did get the ball inside, Moore was all over him. The one glaring weakness in Robinson’s game is his inability to get to the rim against a physical defender, and Moore was able to exploit that weakness all night. Time after time, Moore forced Robinson to kick it back out or take contested fall away jump shots. On the rare occasion when Robinson got close to the basket, Moore was clearly the more physical player. He made sure that Robinson wasn’t going to get any easy looks, and that if he did get to the hoop, he was going to the line. A place Robinson has struggled this year, shooting only 67.2%. For 13 minutes and 23 seconds, Moore, who unlike Ratliffe, had no major responsibilities on the offensive end, pressured Robinson into making bad decisions and forcing up bad shots. By the time Haith took Moore out with 32 seconds to play in the first, Missouri had outscored Kansas by eight points.
Haith recognized this and made a brilliant adjustment at halftime, proving, once again, that he would be a deserving recipient of the coach of the year award. Haith recognized that Moore was virtually shutting down Kansas’ best offensive weapon, but he also knew that because Kansas was playing man to man, their offensive needed Ratliffe in the game to facilitate and create open looks on offense. So Haith alternated between his two big men, keeping both as fresh as possible. He substituted Ratliffe in when they needed a basket and Moore when they needed a stop on defense. After Robinson scored seven points against Ratliffe to start the second half and Kansas took the lead yet again, Haith put Moore in. Robinson was rendered ineffective so Bill Self took him out for some much needed rest. Haith responded by putting Ratliffe back in, and Mizzou went on a small run to tie the game back up. This back and forth continued until, with 4:20 left to play, Haith decided to go all in. Haith began subbing Ratliffe in for every offensive possession and Moore in for every defensive possession, even if he had to call a timeout to do so. It was this strategy that sparked Mizzou’s ferocious comeback. Denmon was able to get to the hoop, make a layup and draw the foul because Robinson was late getting over to help and was hesitant to leave the player with the best shooting percentage in the country unguarded. Then Steve Moore came in and drew the charge against Robinson on defense. Ratliffe then came back in the game and helped set up Denmon’s incredible three to cut the lead to two. Moore came in and did an excellent job of denying Robinson the ball, leading to Taylor’s turnover. Moore stayed in the game for the fast break, and Denmon hit a three from the corner to give Mizzou the lead. Then after Taylor and Pressey missed their free throws and Dixon hit both of his to give the Tigers a three point lead, Moore came back in for the final possession. Moore’s job was to make sure Robinson didn’t get an offensive rebound to give Kansas multiple attempts to tie it up, and even though the shot was taken so late it didn’t matter, Moore had Robinson boxed out at the three point line, making it an easy rebound for Denmon.
Looking at the numbers, you would think that Robinson had a big game (11-17, 25 points and 13 rebounds), and that he played great in the second half in particular (19 of his 25 points came in the second half). However, 19 of those 25 points were scored against Ratliffe (on 9-11 shooting), and even though he had five turnovers, Ratliffe was only responsible for forcing one of them. Robinson also managed to grab two offensive rebounds, which led to five second chance points, against Ratliffe. Moore on the other hand, held Robinson to 6 points (on 2-6 shooting), forced four turnovers and, most importantly, shut down Kansas’ best player down the stretch. What’s even more impressive is that Moore was matched up one on one on Robinson for 41 of Kansas’ 67 possessions.
Everyone is going to remember Marcus Denmon’s outstanding performance, the fact that Mizzou beat a top ten ranked Kansas team and how loud Mizzou Arena was Saturday night, but Steve Moore’s defensive performance, and Frank Haith second half game plan are the real reasons The Tigers atop the Big 12 standings. Moore’s performance will go over looked by many, but neutralizing one the best players in the nation without much help on defensive is an impressive feat. A feat that was the main contributor for a Tigers win that will be remembered fondly for years.