How Missouri exploited Utah State's vulnerabilities to beat them in NCAA Tourney

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SACRAMENTO β€” The predictive metrics and betting lines favored 10th-seeded Utah State in its first-round matchup of the NCAA Tournament against seventh-seeded Missouri on Thursday, but the Aggies fell to Missouri 76-65 and are out of the Big Dance.

How did a team that created such a ruckus in the preceding days lose by double digits?

Credit Missouri head coach Dennis Gates for his game plan, and his players for executing it, because Missouri beat Utah State by exploiting each of its weaknesses. Here's how three season-long trends that plagued the Aggies reared their head at the Golden 1 Center.


As prolific as Utah State's offense has been this season, it has struggled to take care of the basketball consistently.

Despite finishing the year 12th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom, the Aggies' 17.6% turnover percentage was 134th nationally; its conference turnovers percentage of 18.1% was eighth in the Mountain West. Facing a talented Missouri side that forced turnovers on 24.3% of it's defensive possessions β€” fifth nationally β€” it was a mismatch of concern going into the game.

Early in the game, the Tigers took full advantage and turned the Aggies over six times in the first six minutes. Utah State finished the game with 15 turnovers, which resulted in 20 points for Missouri. Taylor Funk and Max Shulga both finished with four turnovers apiece, and Sean Bairstow had three.

Even when they weren't turning the ball over, the pressure the Tigers brought ultimately affected the Aggies. Utah State was uncomfortable throughout the game, rushed its shots and shot just 17% from 3-point range.

"Our approach was to pressure full court," Missouri guard D'Moi Hodge said. "We know what they wanted; they wanted jump shots. We tried to force them to the basket to make two, make the big man score."

For stretches, there was some ball security, which bolstered the Aggies β€” from the 16-minute mark to the 10-minute mark β€” as they outscored Missouri by 5 points. The Aggies turned the ball over 5 times in the final 10 minutes and were outscored 27-14.

3-point defense

Utah State deserves credit for its defensive improvement as the season progressed. In early season games, defending the basketball sometimes felt optional; the Aggies gave up 80+ plus points to three straight nonconference opponents, including San Diego and Utah Tech.

As conference play progressed, though, Utah State buckled down, played better on-ball defense, and prevented second-chance opportunities. The change lead to Utah State being the fourth best team in adjusted defensive efficiency in the Mountain West.

Despite the improvement, the Aggies struggled to guard the perimeter and finished the season 221st in 3-point defense. Opponents hitting 34.6% from 3-point range and several shot above its season average against the Aggies.

Missouri was no exception and shot 40% from 3-point range β€” 4% above its average.

After working the ball in the paint most of the game β€” where the Aggies dropped into a double team β€” Missouri started to let it fly from deep in the final 10 minutes, and Utah State's inconsistent perimeter defense failed to stop it. The Aggies could not properly defend the post or run Missouri's guards off the line. The result was the Tigers hitting six 3-pointers, three of which were wide-open, in its end-of-game run.

Surrendering individual player runs

Whether it was Eric Williams Jr. of San Diego, Adam Seiko of San Diego State, or Will Baker of Nevada, a number of individuals have single-handedly gone on big runs to burn the Aggies; and oftentimes, Utah State waited too late to adjust.

The most physically imposing athlete Utah State has faced this season was, arguably, 6-foot-8 guard Kobe Brown, who had his moment in the second half. After going a quiet 3 of 3 for 6 points in the first half when guarded by Bairstow, it didn't take much for Brown to put his stamp on the game in the second half.

With Dan Akin guarding him, a matchup that favored the Aggies down low but the Tigers on the perimeter, Brown went to work and created his own shot to hit three 3-pointers, and beat Akin off the dribble for another bucket. Brown scored 12 straight points for the Tigers and turned Utah State's 2-point lead into a 6-point deficit.

"I mean, he's a load," Utah State head coach Ryan Odom said.

Whether switching Bairstow onto Brown, going to a zone, or trying to run him off the line, the Aggies needed to do something to slow him down, but it failed to do so.


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