Fewer than 10 days ago, Missouri was the No. 10 team in the national AP Poll, and had vaulted to a No. 2 or No. 3 NCAA Tournament seed in two prominent Bracketology projections.
And now? Three consecutive losses, a pattern of disturbing second-half crashes, and a NCAA Tournament resume that’s quickly fraying at the edges. After climbing into second place in the SEC, the Tigers have slid into the seventh slot.
This is what an implosion looks like: going on the road to face an unimposing Georgia team sputtering at 98th in the NET ratings … taking command to open a 13-point lead in the second half .. having a severe basketball panic attack when Georgia began to rally … flopping around desperately while getting outscored 41-20 by the Bulldogs over the final 13+ minutes.
The 80-70 loss was Missouri’s worst of the season, and there is no justification, let alone an excuse, for this gruesome night in Georgia.
I don’t think anyone out there will exonerate Missouri’s freakout by pointing to the absence of big man Jeremiah Tilmon for a second consecutive game. Tilmon — when he’s at his best — is a player of considerable impact. But let’s not act like he’s Bill Russell, OK?
This 0-3 cataclysm dropped Mizzou to 13-6 overall, 6-6 in the SEC, 43rd in the NET rating and 51st at KenPom.
At this particular moment Mizzou isn’t in real danger of being excluded from the NCAA Tournament bracket. But Missouri is, however, a danger to itself. A sinking, distressed team will eventually hit bottom unless it finds a way up to replenish oxygen.
Here’s what bugs me about what we’re witnessing about Mizzou: their experience doesn’t translate into mature, savvy play. Not on a consistent basis, anyway.
I’ve frequently touted Mizzou’s experience rating — No. 8 nationally by Ken Pom — as a positive source of stability. And sure, we’ve seen the Tigers rescue themselves to win a few thrillers along the way.
But this vaunted experience is unreliable. That reality was unmistakable in the fiasco at Georgia:
- Outscored 47-33 in the second half.
- Committed 11 turnovers in the second half after having only two turnovers in the first half.
- Mizzou’s most experienced players didn’t come through in the second half. In 70 combined minutes Xavier Pinson, Mark Smith, Mitchell Smith, Dru Smith, Javon Pickett and Drew Buggs scored 22 points, missed 12 of 20 shots, turned the ball over 10 times and were charged with 13 fouls. The fouling foolishness gave Georgia a chance to make 16 of 21 free throws in the second half.
- Pinson was especially awful. The lowlights included 1-for-7 shooting from three range. There were four turnovers, three in the second half. He got to the free-throw line twice; this is a dude who should be driving the ball, drawing contact and fouls, and feasting on free throws. (He’s making 82 percent from the line). And based on the metrics, Pinson was Mizzou’s worst player defensively at Georgia. Does he enjoy playing basketball? We’ve seen this too many times this season: the talented Pinson disengaged. It’s frustrating.
- In the ugly loss at Mississippi that started this 0-3 skid, Mizzou got outscored 38-22 in the second half. At an earlier loss at Mississippi State, Mizzou was trounced 51-24 in the second half. They were outscored by nine points in the second half and OT in Saturday’s loss to Arkansas. Mizzou’s wins over Alabama and Kentucky were achieved despite the Tigers getting outscored by an average of 10.5 points in the second half of those games. The Tigers barely survived a heavy Alabama counterattack (a 21-2 run) to hold on.
I think I’m going to stop talking about Missouri’s advantage in experience. Like, for the rest of the season. This team continues to come up short in a key area: on-the-court leadership.
I have other things to complain about:
1–Georgia is one of the smallest teams in the nation, ranking No. 315 in average height. So why did Mizzou hoist 26 three-point shot attempts at GA? (Making only six of the 26, for 23%.) As part of his fantastic game overall, Kobe Brown went 8 for 11 on two-point shots — but the rest of the team had only 12 two-point baskets combined. Missouri made 10 of 13 layups in this game. That’s good. But there should have been MORE.
The approach was all wrong. Mizzou is a Top 50 team nationally in two-point shooting percentage this season. And the Tigers are No. 1 in two-point percentage in SEC play. Georgia, meanwhile, ranks 283rd nationally (and 12th in the SEC) in defending two-point attempts. Instead of attacking the rim on slashes, the Tigers dented the rim with a flurry of undisciplined 3s.
2. Missouri’s defense is, at this point, riding on reputation instead of actual performance. Opponents have scored 80 or more points against the Tigers in five of the last seven games. Mizzou, 3-4 in this stretch, allowed an average of 83.5 points in the four defeats. This is a terrible look for a team coached by the tenacious, defense-first coach Cuonzo Martin.
3–In the last two games the 6-8 Parker Braun has played 47 minutes as part of the effort to fill the Tilmon void. According to the KenPom Offensive Rating — 100 is average — Braun had a 129 ORtg vs. Arkansas and a 188 ORtg at Georgia. And Mizzou outscored the other side in both games when Braun was on the court. We can holler about the small sample size and all of that … but this kid should have been playing more.
Missouri has to push through this muddle. KenPom projects the Tigers with likely wins against their next three opponents: at South Carolina, Mississippi (H) and Texas A&M (H) The final regular-season game, at Florida, is a probable MU loss via KenPom.
There’s still time for Mizzou to get flowing again. But I can’t help but feel that maybe we’ve seen the Tigers’ best. Maybe this 3-4 stretch is more indicative of what they are. But I don’t want to believe that. Not after the wins over Illinois, Tennessee and Alabama — plus two other Quad 1 triumphs.
We’ll find out soon enough. This is a perplexing team. Perplexing in defeat … perplexing in victory.
Thanks for reading …
Check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.