PowerMizzou - Mizzou looks to tighten up defense before date with Kentucky
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Mizzou looks to tighten up defense before date with Kentucky

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In a normal year in the Southeastern Conference, when the Kentucky basketball team arrives in town, it would mark the biggest game of the season. The talk leading up to the game would be about how to slow down the stable of future first-round draft picks accrued by head coach John Calipari.

But Tuesday, when Missouri assistant coach Marco Harris-Stevens and a couple players addressed the media in advance of the Tigers’ Wednesday night game against the Wildcats, their statements illustrated the extent of Kentucky’s struggles this season. Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith both said Missouri can’t look past the Wildcats just because of their record. Kentucky sits at 5-10 overall and 4-4 in the SEC. At one point, asked about his team’s defense the past couple games, Harris-Stevens admitted that the backcourts for Auburn and TCU represent a tougher defensive matchup than Kentucky’s five-star freshman combo of Brandon Boston and Devin Askew.

“Not taking anything from Kentucky, Auburn and TCU have some pretty good guards,” Harris-Stevens said. “Not saying Kentucky doesn’t have pretty good guards, but I don’t think they have guards that can wiggle like those guards did.”

Dru Smith said Missouri needs to tighten up its ball-screen defense after allowing its past two opponents to average 93 points.
Dru Smith said Missouri needs to tighten up its ball-screen defense after allowing its past two opponents to average 93 points. (Zach Bland/Mizzou Athletics)

Indeed, Kentucky is averaging just 67.5 points per game and shooting 29 percent from three-point range this season. Yet despite Kentucky’s struggles so far this season, especially on the offensive side of the ball, the clear focus for Missouri will be cleaning up its defense. After going 19 consecutive games without allowing an opponent to score 80 points, the Tigers have allowed two straight opponents to reach that number, as Auburn and TCU combined to average 88.5 in regulation and 93 in all.

“We can’t get away with trading baskets or letting a team score almost 100 points,” Pinson said. “So I feel like we just have to get back to what we know, limiting teams to a certain amount of points and not letting them have their way on offense and just making things difficult for the other side.”

The primary action that has given Missouri’s defense trouble the past couple games has been ball screens. Auburn star point guard Sharife Cooper used screens to score 28 points and foul out Missouri’s entire starting backcourt almost single handedly. TCU guards Mike Miles and RJ Nembhard penetrated into the lane at will and combined for 43 points on Saturday.

Missouri found some success countering TCU’s ball screens by trapping the guard with two defenders late in the game, which helped the Tigers overcome a late 12-point lead. On his radio show Monday night, head coach Cuonzo Martin said he was initially hesitant to call for a trap because doing so puts center Jeremiah Tilmon in a position where he’s more likely to get called for a foul, but Tilmon has shown that he can stay on the floor lately, playing at least 30 minutes in five consecutive games. Moving forward, Martin will look to strike the right balance between aggressively hedging screens and protecting his star big man.

“That’s really something that I would like to do, to trap it all the time, but you also don’t want to get him in foul trouble,” Martin said of Tilmon. “But you also want to be aggressive, because how we defend it now, if you’ve got good guards that can get downhill, it can be a long night for you.”

Kentucky hasn’t run nearly as much ball-screen offense this season. Smith said the focus will be more on fighting through screens or chasing cutters away from the ball. But Harris-Stevens noted that Missouri also needs to clean up its one-on-one defense, which Kentucky could test with its athletic guards and wings.

Plus, while Kentucky has not shot the three-pointer well this season, keeping redshirt freshman guard Dontaie Allen from getting hot will be a priority. At 46 percent this season, Allen is far and away Kentucky’s best three-point shooter — no other Wildcat has made even a third of his outside attempts. And when he finds his stroke, he provides an extra dimension to the offense. When Allen has scored more than 10 points this season, Kentucky is 2-1; in all other games, it’s 3-9.

“We have to make sure he don’t get any open looks,” Harris-Stevens said. “That’s what he wants to do. If we can pressure him, get him off the line, we’ll be in good shape. Just no open looks. We have to arrive on the catch, because he’s really shooting at a high clip and that’s what he wants to do. So we have to make him uncomfortable and not give him any open looks, and I think we’ll be okay with that.”

Ultimately, whether Missouri can get back to playing the type of defense it showed for most of the season will determine whether the Tigers can beat Kentucky for just the second time in 15 meetings. The formula for victory hasn’t been a mystery for the offensively-challenged Wildcats this season. In each of their five wins, they’ve scored at least 76 points. In all 10 losses, meanwhile, they’ve failed to top 65.

“We just need to get back to being who we are on the defensive end, playing hard, getting stops, and stringing stops together, really,” Smith said. “Getting two, three, four stops in a row. That’s who we are and that’s who we have to be if we want to get to where we want to get there at the end of the season.”

Pinson looks to continue hot shooting

Pinson’s three-point barrage during the second half and overtime saved Missouri from a second consecutive loss on Saturday. It also represented an anomaly. Pinson shot 8 of 13 from three-point range against TCU. Prior to that performance, he had made just 27.4 percent of his three-pointers this season and had never made more than four shots from behind the arc in a college game. In seven SEC games this year, he’s made just seven total threes.

Asked Monday how he can replicate that performance, Pinson was honest, saying he has a lot of confidence in his shot, but he’s not counting on making eight three-pointers every game.

“You always got to be ready for whether it’s a good game or a bad game,” Pinson said. “It’s just work, being able to catch and shoot the ball and having a lot of confidence and my teammates having a lot of confidence in me.”Harris-Stevens acknowledged that it will be important for Pinson not to fall in love with the three-point shot, to find a balance between shooting from the perimeter and playing to his strengths — namely, running the point, scoring at the basket and creating for his teammates.

“That’s a tough number to do again, 8 for 13,” Harris-Stevens said. “He’s got to take his shots. If they’re falling, good. If not, he’ll find another way to get guys involved, if his shot’s not falling, and run the team.

“But we hope he’ll be 8 for 13 tomorrow. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

Mizzou not concerned by schedule change

The Kentucky matchup was originally scheduled to be played Tuesday at 8 p.m. However, Kentucky had a member of its team test positive for COVID-19, and the Wildcats paused team activities and canceled their game against Texas, scheduled for Saturday, as a result. Monday, the SEC announced that they would travel to Missouri on Wednesday instead.

Martin said Missouri anticipated that, if the game was played, it would be on Wednesday, so he gave the players the day off on Sunday and they returned to practice Monday and Tuesday. Martin said he actually prefers playing mid-week games on Wednesday. Harris-Stevens said the only impact the schedule change had on the Tigers was giving them an extra day to prepare, which is welcome.

Missouri will then host league-leading Alabama at 11 a.m. on Saturday.


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