After a lengthy break that saw the calendar flip to 2019, Missouri men’s basketball (9-3) now gears up for its biggest challenge yet: a matchup with No. 3 Tennessee (12-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Mizzou Arena.
The Tigers already embarked on a surprisingly strong run through its nonconference schedule, but here is where the team’s true test lies. Missouri’s 10-8 SEC run last season led to a berth in the NCAA Tournament, and now Cuonzo Martin will attempt to pull off the same feat. But it won’t be easy.
Unlike Missouri, the Volunteers have already played an SEC game. On Saturday, Rick Barnes’ squad ripped through Georgia 96-50 in Knoxville, Tennessee, en route to its first conference win. The Tigers will have the benefit of home-field advantage Tuesday, but they’ll have to play at their very best if they want to start the SEC portion with a win.
The Missourian broke down three ways the Tigers can knock off the Volunteers.
Shoot lights out from the arc
It only makes sense that if Missouri is to pull of this upset, it needs to roll with its biggest strength: shooting the ball from the perimeter. The Tigers lead the SEC in 3-point percentage with 39.3, and if they fall cold from deep Tuesday, they could fall behind quickly.
The importance of the deep shooting was displayed recently, when Missouri beat Morehead State by just 14 points while shooting just 28.5 percent from 3 in the second half.
Finding open looks on the perimeter will be difficult, though. Tennessee has held its opponents to just 28.3 percent from the arc this season. In their blowout win over Georgia, the Vols allowed the Bulldogs to make just one 3 on 20 attempts — good for a five percent clip.
Through screens and lots of movement, Missouri should be able to find some open attempts from the arc. But if it doesn’t, and if the first few shots don’t fall, the Tigers will need to adapt. Head coach Cuonzo Martin is keen on this.
“They did a tremendous job defending Georgia at the 3-point line,” Martin said Monday. “It has to be more than just 3s. You’ve got to be able to make plays around the rim. They’re physical, athletic and strong. It won’t be easy but you have to be able to make plays at the rim.”
Indeed, especially if the treys aren’t falling, Missouri will need to...
Get Tilmon involved early
Tennessee will be as balanced and as rounded of a team that Missouri will see this season, but one of the things that stands out about the Volunteers is their size. Barnes starts four players who stand at least 6-foot-6-inches tall. Center Kyle Alexander is 6-foot-11, and while 6-foot-10 Jeremiah Tilmon has a height advantage over Grant Williams (6-foot-7) and Admiral Schofield (6-foot-6), both of those players weigh more than 235 pounds.
With the physicality Tennessee possesses, Tilmon could struggle, but feeding him the ball early and often will be key for Missouri. The team had been accomplishing that of late, as Tilmon had a streak of six straight games in double figures. But against Morehead State, Tilmon scored just four points and grabbed just two rebounds in 14 minutes.
If the Tigers get Tilmon working, he’ll undoubtedly see double teams from the Vols, which would then open up opportunities for other players. It’ll come down to whether Tilmon can avoid committing turnovers and find those players. Speaking of giveaways…
Win the turnover margin
It’s no secret that Missouri has had some turnover problems. Although they’ve been better of late, the Tigers average 13.7 turnovers a game. When they’ve won the turnover battle, however, they are 7-0.
Like just about every other category you can imagine, the Volunteers are the best in the SEC at limiting turnovers, committing just 11.5 per game. But they can be had.
In Tennessee’s one loss this season — an 87-81 overtime defeat to No. 7 Kansas — it coughed up 14 turnovers. The Vols have committed at least 14 turnovers in three games this year, and with some intense, on-ball defense featuring Jordan Geist and Javon Pickett, Missouri could make it four games.
Perhaps the only weakness of Grant Williams — the defending SEC Player of the Year who averages an SEC-best 19.9 points per game — is that he commits just over two turnovers per game. Keeping him in check and doubling him when the moment calls for it will be crucial.
“I think the thing with Grant (Williams) is the improvement with his game and playing on the perimeter,” Martin said. “His touch around the rim and elevation on his shot just make him a tough matchup. Obviously, (Admiral) Schofield’s playing at a high level again. I’d put (Jordan) Bone in that category as well.”
Projected starters — Missouri
G Jordan Geist — Sr., 6-foot-2, 13.9 points per game
G Mark Smith — So., 6-4, 12.0 ppg
G Javon Pickett — Fr., 6-4, 7.1 ppg
F Kevin Puryear — Sr., 6-7, 9.3 ppg
F Jeremiah Tilmon — So., 6-10, 10.8 ppg
Projected starters — No. 3 Tennessee
G Jordan Bone — Jr., 6-3, 14.0 ppg
G Admiral Schofield — Sr., 6-6, 18.2 ppg
G Yves Pons — So., 6-6, 4.1 ppg
F Grant Williams — Jr., 6-7, 19.9 ppg
F Kyle Alexander — Sr., 6-11, 10.4 ppg
When: 6 p.m., Tuesday
Where: Mizzou Arena, Columbia
Listen: 96.7 FM, 1580 AM