The Missouri men’s basketball team hardly resembled the Missouri men’s basketball team Saturday night.
Excuse Florida coach Mike White — and perhaps the rest of us, too — for not seeing this one coming.
Fifteen games into the season, the Tigers’ offense made its first full appearance.
After being held to 59 points in its first two Southeastern Conference contests, Missouri netted 51 against Florida at Mizzou Arena — in the first half. The runaway spree resulted in the highest scoring total for MU in a single half of a conference game since joining the league.
Eight different Tigers made at least one 3-pointer as Missouri shot 12 of 19 (63%) from beyond the arc on the night. Missouri scored 40 points in the paint despite the absence of center Jeremiah Tilmon, who remains sidelined with a foot stress fracture. The not-so-gracious hosts netted 17 points off turnovers and led by as many as 24 in the second half.
“They were in a great rhythm for 40 minutes,” White said of Missouri. “As a staff, we felt helpless. We couldn’t find a way to get stops.”
In the midst of a winter storm outside, Missouri poured down a perfect storm inside, pouncing and trouncing to a 91-75 victory.
Attacking the basket consistently and confidently, the reinvigorated Tigers improved to 9-6 overall and 1-2 in the SEC in front of a sparse crowd that apparently handles snow better than the Gators.
“This is what we’ve been working for, what we’ve been preparing ourselves for,” said Javon Pickett, who came off the bench to score 14 points on 6 of 8 shooting, including a pair of makes from deep range. “Today we just went out there being confident in everybody. We just wanted to play our type of game, making sure that we do the right things … and stick to the game plan.”
For a Missouri team centered around defense and turning games into a race to 60 points, the up-tempo assault led by Dru Smith was a sight to behold for coach Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers.
Smith paced Missouri with 22 points. Four nights after fouling out with five minutes remaining in a loss to Tennessee, the Evansville transfer played his most complete game as a Tiger, making 8 of 12 attempts from the field to go along with six assists and five steals.
“Dru Smith was fantastic,” White said, lavishing praise on the junior. “One of the better performances from anyone we’ve played against this year. I thought he played like an all-league guard. I thought he dominated both ends. He’s got tremendous toughness.”
Smith made a pair of 3s and established himself as a threat from anywhere on the court. Six of his eight field goals were in the paint, epitomizing Martin’s plan of attack against Florida.
Without Tilmon as a presence to toss the ball to down low, Missouri’s guards now carry much more responsibility to create scoring opportunities. They have to execute some of the dirty work themselves. Sitting back and waiting for something to happen simply cannot happen.
“We wish we could have him (Tilmon) out there, but the roles probably change a little bit more,” Pickett said of what’s different with the big man out of the lineup. “As the guards you’ve got to be able to throw the ball in but also be able to make a play for yourself or make a play for one of your teammates. Just going in there jump-stopping, being strong with the ball, and if you can score it, score it.”
Maybe, just maybe, losing Tilmon actually helped unlock the Tigers’ offense, eliminating the passivity that plagued them — most infuriatingly in the clunker against Charleston Southern.
If they develop this mojo and get the junior center back, watch out.
“We’ve spent a lot of time on driving the ball,” Martin said. “You have to make a conscious effort and a commitment to doing it. … You have to take advantage. You can’t defend at the level we defend at, get steals and turnovers, and not capitalize on them. We have to be aggressive. We have to be assertive. You have to put pressure on the defense.
“Everybody did a good job of getting to the rim. We didn’t get to the line as much as we would like, but the effort was there.”
Some big moments, too. Seven minutes in, Xavier Pinson delivered an emphatic, one-handed, transition slam contested by Florida’s Omar Payne, a skyscraper who stands eight inches taller. The atrocity of the night may have been that the dunk failed to make SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays.
Mark Smith drained a deep ball 12 seconds into the contest and another with 17 ticks before halftime to put the Tigers ahead 51-36.
Torrence Watson scored six points, including a 3, during a rapid 10-0 run for Missouri that gave the Tigers their biggest lead of the night with 5 minutes, 39 seconds remaining.
“When you go 12 of 19 from three, you’re going to have a good chance, especially the way this program defends,” White said. “We just couldn’t find a way to slow them down. My goodness.
“Too many possessions in the second half we played hope-they-miss defense, and they didn’t.”
One night is a small sample size, and there’s no way Missouri can count on shooting over 60% overall with a dozen makes from deep as it navigates the final 15 games of its SEC slate. True to his form, Martin will prioritize defense for this very reason.
Discipline is also a concern, as four Tigers finished with four fouls, allowing Florida the luxury of the bonus over the final 13 minutes that could prove costly on a different night.
But with road trips to Mississippi State and Alabama this coming week, Missouri has established a blueprint to success.
The Tigers have breathed new life into their season.
“When there were chances to make plays, everybody made plays — got paint touches, got in the lane and got other guys open,” Dru Smith said. “It just worked really well for us with everybody being aggressive.
“On every catch, I felt like everyone was a threat.”