COLUMBIA, Mo. – Defensive-minded coaches like Missouri’s Cuonzo Martin believe if their team executes its game plan correctly without the ball, the first side to score 60 points should win.
Martin’s reliance on defense has been a cornerstone of his three-season tenure at the helm of the Tigers.
Through two Southeastern Conference games this season, however, Missouri men’s basketball has fallen short of reaching that pivotal scoring threshold as it prepares to host Florida at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
Missouri scored 59 in a loss to open league play Saturday at Kentucky and duplicated that output in a 69-59 loss to Tennessee on Tuesday night inside Mizzou Arena.
League-wide expectations are down on a national level without multiple teams viewed as elite. Combined with Missouri’s expected improvements from last season and glimpses of greatness shown throughout the non-conference slate, the Tigers headed into 2020 with reason to think they could prove skeptics wrong.
But the loss of junior Jeremiah Tilmon dampens things, as a team spokesperson said Tuesday he’s out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his left foot.
Without Tilmon, a vital part of the offense, Martin said he’ll make “subtle changes” in how the team attacks opposing defenses.
“You don’t have a consistent presence where you know you can at least throw the ball down into a big body,” Martin said of how his team changes without Tilmon. “Regardless of stats on the floor, he comes with a reputation. And even though the foul situation, he’s struggled with that, you still have to identify him on the floor. He’s a guy that’s a presence and there’s a scouting report, there’s a game plan of how to go against it.
“So now there’s 10-plus points and other things when they double the post that you don’t get.”
Reed Nikko started in place of Tilmon for the third straight game against the Volunteers, but several players will have to pick up the pieces left by Tilmon, the pillar Missouri hoped to build its offense around.
“I think our frontcourt is extremely talented,” Missouri junior forward Mitchell Smith said. ”(Missouri assistant) coach (Chris) Hollender says it all the time, ‘We’re the energy of the team,’ the frontcourt, especially Tray (Jackson) and Reed. They come in and give all they’ve got. Especially Reed. People are hard on Reed, but he continues to play hard and do his thing.
“I think we’re going to be a big part of this team, and we’ve got to continue to show up in each game.”
While the frontcourt’s approach changes with Tilmon’s absence, the backcourt’s depth is Missouri’s key to success. And it didn’t pay off against Tennessee.
Starting point guard Dru Smith fouled out with more than five minutes left against the Volunteers, and Xavier Pinson had to take over the primary ball-handling role.
“It’s a big deal because he makes a lot of things go,” Martin said of Dru Smith’s absence. “He can attack the rim, he can make plays, he can make shots. And he’s a difference maker on the defensive side of the ball. We just have to get to where he’s not fouling, because he knows how to push the ball, he knows how to find guys, probe the defense.”
Mitchell Smith said nothing changes when Pinson plays point guard for the team instead of Dru Smith.
“I think we kind of got out of whack for a minute before we really settled back in,” Mitchell Smith said.
On a night when Missouri allowed Tennessee to shoot 53% from the field and 45% from 3-point range, it didn’t have the offense to keep up when its defense faltered.
That allowed the Volunteers to get away with mistakes. Tennessee committed 21 turnovers, the first time Missouri has lost a game in which its opponent turned the ball over more than 20 times since a March 2011 loss to Kansas.
Missouri has a chance to correct its sluggish offense Saturday night against Florida, but it will be another tall task.
The Gators come to Columbia with a 2-0 SEC record after wins over Alabama and South Carolina.
“I mean it’s big, we’ve got a good team coming in in Florida,” Mitchell Smith said. “This would be a great bounce-back win for us coming up. ... Guys really gotta settle in.”