Things were looking up for a team that many thought an NIT bid would be considered success in year two with Cuonzo Martin at the helm. Jeremiah Tilmon was coming off a double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds) in a spirited bout against a team in Illinois that he once signed with, reaffirmed his commitment, only to set sails for Columbia, MO in May of 2017. Jordan Geist had become as reliable as you could ask for, running the offense and providing a spark defensively (his game tying, off-balance three pointer against UCF propelled Mizzou to victory in overtime). Mark Smith, who was granted a waiver prior to the season, was providing the outside scoring presence that was vacated by Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett graduating - and doing so by converting a whopping 47% of his three point attempts. And the team was seeing the emergence of Freshmen Xavier Pinson's court vision, Javon Pickett's shot-making and wing defense, and Torrence Watson's catch-and-shoot ability. All this without their most complete and effective player, Jontay Porter, who tore his ACL and MCL in October, days before the team's opener.
Things were looking up for the 9-3 Tigers, who many had picked to finish near the bottom of the competitive SEC Conference. They saw their stock rise, reaching 72 in the new NCAA Net Rankings. Andy Katz, formerly of ESPN and now a correspondent for the NCAA, even listed the Tigers as high as 35 in his "Power 36 Rankings." On January 8th, Katz even released his Field of 68 Projections and had Mizzou squaring off against Cincinnati in a Play-In Game for the 10 Seed (some other university to the west of Columbia would have been the second round two seed match-up). If you are a Mizzou fan, you would have taken that in a heartbeat amid another season-ending injury of a heralded five-star recruit. Things were going better than expected. Then, SEC play came calling...
Mizzou hosted then #3 Tennessee to open conference play. Unlike their football team, the Tennessee Volunteers Basketball Team is a serious challenger not only to win the SEC, but widely considered a favorite to cut down the nets in Minneapolis later this Spring. With returning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, and electric offensive players in Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone, the conference opener for the Tigers was a tall order - literally and figuratively. After a near perfect opening ten minutes of play, the Tigers saw their nine point lead evaporate quickly as the Volunteers went on a 24-4 run to close the half. Mizzou could never regain the early momentum, and the Tigers fell 87-63. No harm, no foul as they say. Mizzou was quite the underdog heading into the game, and a veteran Volunteer squad was as steady as a Rick Barnes comb-over, easy dispelling a young Tiger squad. Take your lumps against a really, really good team.
On to South Carolina, where the most compelling pregame graphic on the television was the disappearance of Frank Martin's eyebrows - did he lose a bet? That, and the game was delayed 24 hours due to a snowstorm that blanketed Mid Missouri. As a fan, you chalk up Tennessee as a loss. Mizzou would have to be near perfect in every aspect to win that game, even at Mizzou Arena. However, the game at USCe is one that you circle as a win. Despite their hot start to conference play with victories over Mississippi State and Florida, they are a team that was exposed in the non-conference. They dipped as low as 214 in the aforementioned NCAA Net Rankings. To win on the road in college basketball is a difficult task, but on paper the Tigers matched up with South Carolina well. Chris Silva is a veteran big man, but many experts would argue Jeremiah Tilmon is far more skilled offensively. They have some talented pieces, but overall this is a game the Tigers had to win to keep NCAA hopes alive. Turnovers and fouls handicapped Cuonzo Martin and company once again, with Jeremiah Tilmon playing only 13 minutes and tallying just 4 points and zero rebounds. The Gamecocks turned those turnovers into conversions, notching 33 points off the Tigers 20 turnovers. Mizzou closed the gap in the second half, but timely answers from SC evaporated any hope the Tigers had.
So, here we are, 0-2 in SEC play. What does that mean exactly? Well, it means we are digressing back to reality a bit. For me, the formula for Mizzou to win conference games boils down to three keys: 1) Jeremiah Tilmon has to stay out of foul trouble. Fans can groan and moan all they want about questionable calls, but it's been 45+ games now. The refs and the NCAA are not going to change the way the game is called. Tilmon and the staff need to adapt at a much, much quicker pace to how the game is called. Mizzou's plus/minus numbers are staggering in Tilmon's absence. You want your big man to be aggressive, but he also needs to realize how valuable he is on both ends of the floor. 2) This is elementary, but you have to take pride in taking care of the basketball. Turnovers happen, it is part of this game that we love. However, the more you minimize turnovers, the more possessions you have, and more possessions should equate to more shots, more shots equals more baskets...you get the picture. 3) You need an alpha. Who is the alpha on this team? On October 20th, we would have answered unanimously: Jontay Porter. Well, he is not suiting up for the Tigers (perhaps ever again). Who is going to step up and make a tough shot, get to the line, or create on offense when Mizzou suffers an inevitable scoring drought? College Basketball is a game of runs. Dissecting box scores will prove that. The Tigers need to find the "spark" that can stall opposing runs, like the previously mentioned Tennessee game. Can that be Mark Smith? Jordan Geist? Jeremiah Tilmon? Every tournament team has an alpha. That's not to say he is a selfish ball player, but someone who can step up when you are on your heels and deliver a counter punch.
What is the reality for this year's Missouri team? Probably what we anticipated it to be. A team that will win 7-8 conference games, flirt with the bubble, but be a solid NIT Team. It should be noted, Cuonzo Martin has overcome a lot more than losing streaks or freshmen growing pains in his life. I would not count out the Tigers yet, but this is the first year of his true rebuild. Last year created an excitement and injected life into the program, and woke up many dormant fans from the hideous Kim Anderson era. I would urge all True Sons and Daughters out there to support the program, but be patient with the results. This team will compete night in and night out, that trickles down from Martin. However, reality is a great concept if you embrace it.