Nearly any way you break it down, Missouri men’s basketball hasn’t been a good 3-point shooting team this season. In fact, the Tigers have been one of the worst in the nation.
Entering this weekend’s games, the Tigers were last in the Southeastern Conference in 3-point percentage (27.9%), ranking 327th nationally. Among Power Five schools, only Miami (Fla.) shot a worse percentage from behind the arc (26.9%).
The poor shooting has gotten progressively worse as the season has gone on. After making 25 3-pointers in its first three games, Missouri made only 37 in its next eight, shooting 25.3%.
The Tigers were more than due for a strong 3-point shooting performance, and they got it when they needed it most.
In its 73-64 road win against No. 6 Tennessee on Saturday, No. 19 Missouri went 8 of 19 from three, the most made 3-pointers for the Tigers since Nov. 2, when the team hit nine in its 83-75 win over Oregon. The Tigers shot a season-high 42.1% from three.
“It’s good to see the three-ball go down because I knew the guys put so much time into it,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “If we’re able to knock the three-ball down and take care of the basketball, that takes us to another level as a team.”
Guard Xavier Pinson was sensational, scoring a season-high 27 points. While Pinson was great at finishing around the rim, he was even better from outside the paint. Along with a few mid-range jumpers, Pinson hit all three of his 3-point attempts, something he’s struggled with this season.
Prior to his 3-point barrage against the Vols, Pinson had been 25.5% from three. He had not been shy hoisting up 3-pointers either, taking 47 of them, second to Mark Smith’s 57.
Despite the recent struggles, Pinson continues to work and trust that the 3-pointers will start to fall sooner rather than later.
“It’s all a mental and confidence thing,” Pinson said. “My confidence is sky-high, regardless if I’m shooting it good or bad.”
If Pinson can keep opposing defenses honest with his perimeter shooting, it will open lanes for his driving ability. Teams won’t just be able to go underneath screens, daring Pinson to shoot. It’s already hard enough for guards to keep up with the lightning-fast Pinson, and if he can keep this up, they will likely find even more challenges.
“When the shot is falling, guys got to guard a little tighter,” Pinson said. “A player of my speed, if someone’s guarding you that tight, it’s kind of, I wouldn’t say easier, but you have a wide-open lane. You got to take advantage of those things.”
Pinson wasn’t alone from behind the arc, with Dru Smith matching his three 3-pointers.
Smith’s been a bright spot on a Missouri squad that has struggled from deep. Smith’s 38% from 3 leads the Tigers. In his last four games prior to Saturday’s matchup, Smith shot 53.8% from deep on an average 3.3 attempts.
Martin has noticed the hot stretch from Smith, urging him to be more assertive on the offensive end.
“The biggest thing offensively is he’s just shot great,” Martin said. “For whatever reason, I don’t know why he wasn’t ready to shoot the ball this past game. He was looking to pass the ball. I was like ‘we need you to score the ball.’ That’s the only adjustment.”
Smith made his first 3-point attempt just four minutes into the game. The senior guard took a game-high nine 3-pointers, the most he’s taken all season.
“The coaches are just wanting me to be a little more aggressive taking those shots when they’re open,” Smith said. “It’s just a little bit of both playing in the flow of the game but making sure I’m being aggressive and making plays for myself and other guys.”
While the Volunteers didn’t hoist many threes, Tennessee had its own success from behind the arc. The Vols made nine of their 22 3-point attempts, their most since Dec. 18, when they hit 10 against Tennessee Tech.
Despite the Vols’ similar success from deep, the Tigers hit theirs when they needed them most. Midway through the second half, with Tennessee hanging around by single digits, Kobe Brown and Javon Pickett each hit a three, pushing Missouri’s lead to double digits. The Tigers maintained a double-digit lead until the final minute.
Missouri is far from an elite 3-point shooting team, but Saturday’s game marks progress. Missouri didn’t have to rely on sharpshooter Mark Smith, who went 0-for-4 from three. The Tigers hit enough threes to keep their opponent honest, something Missouri has desperately needed.
“(If) we take care of the basketball, we make consistent threes and we defend how we normally defend, I like our chances against anybody,” Martin said.