And-One: Mizzou pulls away from Morehead State
The morning after each Mizzou basketball game this season, we will highlight a few notable takeaways from the performance in the ‘And-One.’
Mizzou returns to rebounding dominance
Cuonzo Martin values rebounding above almost all else, so it didn’t come as a surprise to learn that the Missouri head coach wasn’t thrilled that the Tigers got out-rebounded by Wofford on Monday. Players said Martin including rebounding on his checklist of objectives on the locker room whiteboard before Wednesday’s game.
“That was one of the things that I had on the board as far as keys to the games,” Martin said. “We got out-rebounded last game. That shouldn’t happen.”
The Tigers delivered. Missouri out-rebounded Morehead State 45 to 28.
The Tigers should have dominated the Eagles on the glass. Morehead State ranks No. 300 nationally in average height, according to KenPom. But perhaps more impressive was how those boards were distributed throughout the Tiger roster. The starting backcourt of Dru Smith and Mark Smith led the team with nine and eight rebounds, respectively. Starting small forward Javon Pickett had five boards, and Xavier Pinson chipped in three. On a night when center Jeremiah Tilmon struggled to get going, that illustrates how the roster has bought in to Martin’s system.
“The other night, we lost the rebound battle and coach put it on the board that we need to go out here and kind of redeem ourself,” Mark Smith said. “So that was a big emphasis. .. We did a great job on that tonight.”
Freshman forwards provide a spark
The power forward position gave Missouri the most trouble of any spot in the lineup a season ago. This year, Martin has been somewhat creative with how he has filled the position. At times, Martin has opted to play a second 6-foot-10 or taller player, such as Parker Braun or Mitchell Smith, alongside Jeremiah Tilmon. Other times, he’s gone small, sliding Pickett into the four spot alongside three guards. But more often than not, Martin has relied on two true freshmen, Kobe Brown and Tray Jackson, to fill the void.
Brown and Jackson have experienced customary newcomer struggles at times this season, but both played key roles in the first half against Morehead State. After not playing at all Monday, Jackson was the first player off the bench Wednesday, entering the game before the first media timeout. He quickly drew a pass from Pickett for an open dunk. The following possession, he drove from the three-point line and drew a foul, then sunk both free throws. Later in the half, he drew more contact at the rim and once again went two-for-two from the line.
Jackson played sparingly in the second half, but his teammates took notice of his seven points in seven minutes.
“I think Tray definitely came in and gave us some good minutes tonight,” Dru Smith said. “I think he played hard, and as long as he keeps doing that, he keeps making smart plays and locking in defensively, then I think he can definitely help us.”
Morehead State managed to keep the score close for most of the half, but when Missouri eventually pulled away with a 9-0 run in the final two minutes, Brown was a catalyst. Brown showed his athleticism by running the floor on a fast break, and he eventually got a dish from Pickett, scored and drew a foul. On Morehead State’s final possession of the half, he grabbed a loose ball, drove the length of the floor and scored just before the buzzer.
Brown finished with six points and three rebounds in 10 minutes. Both he and Jackson likely need to show a bit more consistency to see their roles continue to expand, but on a night when Missouri’s offense struggled, they provided an important spark. Martin said Jackson, specifically, needs to tighten up his defense to get more time.
“I thought Tray did a good job offensively trying to score the ball,” he said. “He still has to improve assignments defensively. He’s athletically strong, he has to showcase that defensively. I think defensively he plays cautious, ‘I don’t want to make mistakes,’ and you have to be able to play, because he’s one of our better athletes.”
Tigers continue second-half surges
One of the more bizarre early-season trends that Missouri has shown in this young season is significantly improved performance in the second halves of games. The difference was actually less pronounced than usual Wednesday, Missouri outscored Morehead State by seven points in the first half and 11 in the second half, but the Tigers certainly looked more sharp in the second 20 minutes.
On the season, the Tigers have outscored opponents by 31 total points in the first half of games and by 59 points in the second half (and a few of those second halves, Martin has called off the dogs in the final few minutes). Add in the exhibition game against Central Missouri, and the team is plus-30 in first halves and plus-84 in the final 20 minutes.
When asked after the game, Martin and his players didn’t have an explanation for the strong finishes other than to say the team feels more “settled in.” Martin theorized that, at least for Tilmon, he’s gained a sense of how opponents plan to defend him and figured out how to attack it. Dru Smith said the Tigers need to keep doing what they’ve been doing in the second halves but find a way to start better.
“I think we’re just kind of settled in, we’re just locking in a little bit more defensively, but that doesn’t need to be the case,” Dru Smith said. “We need to make sure we’re coming out ready. We can’t dig ourself into holes to start off the game.”
Game at a Glance
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM: Mizzou won a game, and never appeared seriously in jeopardy of losing, in which Tilmon didn’t play well, it turned the ball over 17 times and the three-pointers weren’t falling. Usually those three areas are the biggest keys for the Tigers. Yes, it’s just Morehead State, and it’s fair to wonder how the team will fare if it plays similarly sloppy next week against Power Five competition, but those areas are a lot more fun to work on after a win. As the rest of the SEC is showing during non-conference play, you take every win you can get.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN: The turnovers. Missouri simply has to take better care of the ball. Nine of the Tigers’ 17 giveaways were unforced, meaning they weren’t the result of a Morehead State steal. Those errors kept the Eagles in the game during the first half, as Morehead State scored 13 of its 29 points off turnovers. While Missouri eventually pulled away thanks to its sheer physical advantage, it won’t have that luxury against better competition. Ball security has been a consistent issue under Martin, and it’s fair to worry that will be the case again this season.
STOCK UP: Tray Jackson. After not playing at all on Monday, the true freshman was the first man off the bench against Morehead State. Jackson provided a spark in his seven minutes on the floor, taking the ball to the rim and drawing two fouls. Martin wasn’t shy about saying Jackson’s defense needs to improve in order to see more consistent playing time, but it’s at least nice to see a flash from the former top-100 recruit.
STOCK DOWN: Torrence Watson. Watson didn’t score Wednesday, missing on all six of his shots. A couple didn’t even appear close to going in, including one air ball. Martin and his players all voiced confidence that Watson will find his shot, but it’s hard to justify keeping him on the floor when the ball isn’t going in. Watson only contributed one other stat aside from his missed field goals Wednesday: a single rebound.
UP NEXT: Missouri (4-1) will head to Kansas City for the Hall of Fame Classic next Monday and Tuesday. The Tigers’ first opponent will be Butler (4-0). Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. on ESPNU.