LEXINGTON, Ky. — Missouri’s first Southeastern Conference game didn’t go to plan in a 71-59 road loss to Kentucky.
The biggest change for the Tigers in the game was with the absence for most of the game of Jeremiah Tilmon, with Reed Nikko starting in his place for the second straight contest.
That switch didn’t matter against Chicago State, which MU defeated 91-33 four days prior, as Tilmon missed that game with a foot injury.
While Nikko’s contributions aren’t solely defined by only having four points and three rebounds against the Wildcats, Tilmon’s presence increased its already steep value over the last week.
Kentucky didn’t put the same care into defending Nikko or fellow frontcourt starter Mitchell Smith as it did Tilmon.
Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin and multiple players have said in the past that the team’s offense should always go through Tilmon if working properly.
So, what Missouri fans saw in Lexington was, at best, Plan B from previous assessments. That could be seen as a positive, as the Tigers were leading or within striking distance of the Wildcats for most of the contest.
Tilmon didn’t miss a shot or free throw while on Rupp Arena’s floor to score seven points along with three rebounds.
“He’s fighting through it,” Nikko said of Tilmon’s discomfort on the court four days after missing the win over Chicago State. “I know he’s in pain.”
“He’s fine, he was on the floor. He’s fine,” Martin added of Tilmon.
Based on Martin’s statement, MU fans should expect to see more of Tilmon for the home conference opener against Tennessee on Tuesday night.
Tilmon also picked up four fouls in eight minutes of play against Kentucky, but he also drew four fouls – more than any other Tiger on Saturday.
His presence helped derail the momentum Wildcats’ forward Nick Richards had going in the game. Among the fouls Tilmon drew, three were committed by Richards, including matching technical fouls called on the duo while battling in the low post.
Richards scored 17 points in the first half, but only had four points in the second half and committed all five fouls in his last 17 minutes in the game.
“Well, here’s the problem: Why would you get in a back and forth with another player when you’re playing that well?” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said of the physical play between Richards and Tilmon. “Like you have to really look at it and say, why would I go on a back and forth? I’m playing out of my mind — rebounding every ball, making shots, making jump shots, making free-throws, making jump hooks.
″... So if I’m watching our game and I’m a coach of another team, would you stick in a bad player and say grab his shorts, push him a little bit? Wouldn’t you? You’d put in a bad player and push him and shove him, and he pushes back and double technicals, and all of a sudden, he’ll get out of the game.”
Missouri and Kentucky will not meet again in regular-season SEC play.
OKONGO DEBUTS: For the first time, junior-college transfer Axel Okongo played for Missouri.
He was only on the floor for 59 seconds of the first half, but the Saacy-sur-Marne, France, native has officially entered the Tiger record books.
Martin said October that Okongo probably wouldn’t play until January to get used to the speed of the Division I-level. In the Tigers’ first game of 2020, Okongo came off the bench.
“Just energy, toughness, and obviously foul trouble,” Martin said of the timing of Okongo’s debut. “That’s one thing he doesn’t lack is energy and toughness, but you never want to put him in that situation in this type of environment. But I just figured, why not? He puts so much work in, so, he earned the right to be on the floor. So, I think hopefully moving forward he will continue to get more minutes.”
PILLARS OF SCHEDULING: Missouri’s strength of schedule is ranked 120th out of 353 Division I teams according to KenPom.
Also, the Tigers have one loss this season to a team currently not projected to be selected to the 2020 NCAA Tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi: Charleston Southern.
Butler is a No. 2 seed in Lunardi’s latest projection released on Friday. Kentucky is a 6-seed, while Xavier is a No. 8 seed.
Oklahoma is listed as one of Lunardi’s “Last Four In” and is a No. 12 seed. Missouri was not among the teams considered for the projection.