Missouri has been an enigmatic team this year showing some excellent performances despite key injuries while also struggling against lesser competition. Inconsistency with the roster has a lot to do with the poor luck with injuries as well as potential chemistry issues, but whatever the case may be the Gators can’t be totally sure what kind of team they’ll be facing Saturday.
To help sort through it I went and talked to Sam Snelling of Rock M Nation. He knows Tigers basketball more than anyone and I knew he’d be the guy to help preview the game. You can follow him on Twitter at @SamTSnelling.
EF: So far Missouri’s season has seen them get a great win on a neutral against Illinois but also suffer a home loss to Charleston Southern. What has made for this team’s inconsistency?
SS: Like a lot of college basketball these days, Missouri is really inconsistent offensively. Their inconsistency on that end of the floor allows for the fluctuation of a good three point shooting night for their opponent to put them behind. If you look at all of their losses vs their wins, Mizzou is far more likely to take a loss through another team’s hot outside shooting than a win with their own. Even against Illinois they played suffocating defense, and the Illini only made 2/14 from behind the line. Meanwhile Missouri’s efforts from deep have been mostly down. Players who shot good percentages last year have been cold, and even Mark Smith hasn’t shot the way we expected he would.
Couple inconsistent to poor outside shooting, a higher unforced turnover rate, and the lack of a post presence with Jeremiah Tilmon being out with an injury, and you have the recipe for a team that struggles to score enough points to give their stellar defense a break.
EF: Under Cuonzo Martin the Tigers have been a defense-focused squad. Can you talk about what some of the defensive philosophies are, and what has been your assessment of the defense so far?
SS: Before arriving at Missouri Martin was known for being a tough hard-nosed, high pressure, defensive coach. They rarely extended pressure, but made you work for everything. He’s carried most of those principles over, but instead of playing higher up the line and into passing lanes, Missouri defaults to a more gapped based scheme. The Tigers tend to allow ball reversals, preferring to prevent drives and protect the rim. This philosophy is even more prevalent when Tilmon is off the floor. His backup Reed Nikko can provide a bit of rim protection, but he doesn’t have the mobility or athleticism that Tilmon does. They tend to ice side ball screens, and can surprise on a blitz in the middle of the floor, but default to a hard hedge. They don’t play zone, despite Martin’s constant threats to try it out.
My assessment is that they’ve been mostly good defensively, but I struggle to understand how much their good defense is caused by effort and discipline, versus the overall state of poor offenses throughout College Basketball. I think Missouri is a good defensive team, but I don’t think they’re elite enough to be able to win without their offense improving.
EF: While defense has been the focus the offense hasn’t always been great…what do you think are the strengths of this team and what have been the weaknesses? As well, do you think the poor three-point shooting is just poor luck or do think this team really is just poor from behind the arc?
SS: The strengths offensively? That’s loaded. If they had strengths there would be some thing or things they would routinely go to when they need offense. As it is, they seem to have a sound offensive scheme but are still figuring out the purpose of said scheme. They turn the ball over a lot, mostly on unforced errors like errant passes and offensive fouls. The shooting is something which is a little of both categories. Some of their guys, like Xavier Pinson and Javon Pickett, weren’t expected to shoot as well as they did a year ago so their regression isn’t surprising. But Torrence Watson and Mark Smith were expected to shoot well and they largely haven’t. So I think they’re a team capable of shooting better than they have, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them turn the corner in the next few weeks and become that team. That said, I’m not betting on it.
EF: I’m a big fan of Jeremiah Tilmon who was only able to barely get in against Kentucky and then didn’t play against Tennessee which was particularly unfortunate considering the Tigers stayed in the game without him. Do you have an update on his status and when he is playing, what impact does he have for the team?
SS: Tilmon has a stress fracture and looks to be out indefinitely. I’d expect him to be out for at least 6 weeks. Losing Tilmon causes a bit of a chain reaction for the Missouri offense. He hasn’t been the Tilmon we expected for much of the year and it might’ve been somewhat because of this foot issue. But he’s a guy who can get you double digit points and rebounds from the block and if you single cover him, he’s gonna score. He’s prone to turnovers against a double team, but just having that presence on the block forces the defense to consider him. The Tigers just don’t have that guy without him. I mentioned Nikko above, he’s good on putbacks and will dunk on you if you aren’t careful, but he’s not particularly skilled. Mitchell Smith gets a few touches at the block but he’s better on the baseline in a catch and shoot.
EF: Who would you say has been Missouri’s MVP so far this season?
SS: Dru Smith, for sure. Smith is a transfer from Evansville who just does everything well. He’s a little more of a combo guard than a true point, but plays really well in the Pick-and-Roll, and is a capable scorer around the rim. He’s a strong body with broad shoulders so he’s able to finish around the basket, despite not being supremely athletic. Down the stretch against Tennessee, Smith was called for his 5th foul and Missouri was forced to run offense without him for about 6 minutes, it didn’t go well.
EF: Kerry Blackshear has been the focus of a few team’s scouting reports of Florida but he has also gotten into foul trouble regularly and Missouri has a lot of big bodies in the front court to roll out against him. From a Missouri standpoint is Blackshear the most concerning matchup or is there another Gator you think the team should be most scared of?
SS: Honestly I’m probably more worried about Noah Locke or Keyontae Johnson going like 4-of-6 or something like that from deep than I am about Blackshear. Like you said, Blackshear is a skilled guy, but Missouri has enough bodies to roll at him to make him work for his points. Without Tilmon, I’d be more worried about him on the offensive glass than defending on the block or elbow.
EF: Finish the sentence. Missouri wins the game if __________
SS: One of Torrence Watson or Mark Smith hits for 15 points or more. I expect Dru Smith to handle his business, but Mark and Torrence are guys who need to make shots for this team to improve. Missouri largely lost to Tennessee because their good players didn’t show up, and the Vols good players did. They also need Florida to NOT decide to become a good outside shooting team. If Florida hits for around 35% or better from deep, I wonder if Missouri has enough offense to make up the difference.
EF: Thanks Sam! Enjoy the game Saturday.