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Five questions facing Mizzou men's basketball after restart

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri guards Xavier Pinson (1) and Mark Smith (13) chase down a loose ball against Tennessee guard Keon Johnson (45) during a game Dec. 30 at Mizzou Arena.

Missouri men's basketball hasn't played in a week because of a pause in all team activities due to multiple positive coronavirus tests and subsequent contact tracing.

The Tigers are holding out hope – in the fluid pandemic world of collegiate athletics – to resume practices Wednesday, with their next Southeastern Conference game scheduled for noon Saturday on the road against Texas A&M. 

No. 17 Missouri is 7-2 overall and 1-2 in league play, with a win over Arkansas and losses to Tennessee and Mississippi State. The recent health concerns within the program transcend the game of basketball, but we take a look at some things to watch for once the Tigers resume their season.

Here are five questions Missouri must answer when it continues play:

1. How do the Tigers avoid letdowns?

The unfortunate lasting image of Missouri's last game before the pause: The Tigers were outscored by 27 points in the second half of a 78-63 defeat to the Bulldogs.

After playing perhaps its best half of the season, Missouri played its worst in Starkville, squandering a double-digit halftime lead.

How do the Tigers prevent a similar collapse from happening again?

The players can talk all they want about studying film and practicing bad habits away. But another half like the most recent one Missouri played would signify the frustrating lulls are part of the team's DNA. What's most shocking about Missouri's last outing was how the ideals Martin and his program stand for – chiefly great defensive play – clashed with that performance.

Maybe it was the wake-up call the Tigers needed.

2. Is the pause a blessing in disguise?

It's fair to say Missouri hasn't looked its best on the court since its thrilling Braggin' Rights win over Illinois on Dec. 12. 

Yet the Tigers remain solidly ranked in the top 20 of the country and are a No. 5 seed in ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi's latest NCAA Tournament projections, which indicate there are two dozen teams separating Missouri from falling out of the field. 

After a 1-2 start to SEC play, it's certainly possible that a break was what Missouri needed. But without official practice, how have Missouri's players stayed in shape and bettered themselves for the resumption of their season? And will the COVID-19 concerns have lingering effects?

Missouri forward Mitchell Smith (5) battles for the ball with Mississippi State forward Tolu Smith (35) during a game Jan. 5 at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss.

3. Who steps up for secondary scoring?

Missouri is reliant on its starting five for a majority of its offensive production.

To be successful in March, the Tigers will need more than that. 

More offense is needed from critical reinforcements such as Mitchell Smith, Javon Pickett and Drew Buggs — bench players regularly in the rotation.

Take the game against Mississippi State, for example: Missouri jumped out to a huge early lead when Pickett came off the bench to score seven first-half points. Missouri only got 11 total bench points in the game, however, with the other four coming from Smith. Torrence Watson, Parker Braun and Jordan Wilmore also could take on larger roles.

While Missouri has shown its defensive potential in recent weeks, the offense is behind. Could Smith's 3-point shooting eventually help the team? Could Pickett's tenacity turn into more buckets? Both would be welcomed by Missouri.

4. Are turnovers and foul trouble problems of the past?

The biggest stigmas of Missouri's season have been foul trouble and turnovers.

Missouri committed 21 turnovers each against Tennessee and Arkansas. One game was a double-digit win over the Razorbacks, the other a blowout loss to the Volunteers.

Both areas were better against Mississippi State despite everything else that transpired. Missouri committed only eight turnovers and was called for 19 fouls, down from the average of 26.5 in its first two conference games.

Out of the break, can the Tigers continue to move past those two red flags?

Missouri forward Jeremiah Tilmon (23) grabs a rebound against Tennessee forward John Fulkerson (10) during a game Dec. 30 at Mizzou Arena.

5. What's the next step for Jeremiah Tilmon and Xavier Pinson?

Tilmon and Pinson are the two most NBA-ready players in Columbia. Both tested the draft waters last summer, with Tilmon getting pro feedback each of the past two years. 

Pinson (14.8 points per game overall, 3.8 assists, 3.7 rebounds) is a speedy point guard and a pest on the defensive end. Tilmon (11 points, 7.6 rebounds) is an elite rebounder and low-post scorer who's showing his true potential as of late.

When both are in good form and on the floor together, it's a pick-your-poison decision for opponents. Is there another level both can take their games to as they help carry the Tigers into the rest of the 2020-21 season?