Entering Saturday’s tilt against West Virginia, likely the best team the Tigers have played this season, Missouri men’s basketball was not expected to win. The Tigers were a 12.5-point underdogs by tipoff for good reason.
But as it often is in sports, it’s not that the Tigers lost, it’s how they lost — practically nothing went right.
The story of the game was two West Virginia runs sparked by two prolonged stretches of dormant offensive production from the Tigers.
The first came to start the game as Missouri missed 14 of its first 16 field-goal attempts as the Mountaineers built a 20-6 lead.
When the Tigers battled back to only trail by one at the half, a chance at what would have been the best win of the Cuonzo-Martin era still seemed possible.
West Virginia immediately put an end to that fantasy.
After each team scored to start the second half, Missouri’s offense again disappeared, going six-and-a-half minutes without scoring as Bob Huggins’ team blitzed them with a 21-0 run that all but ended the game.
What had once looked like a promising performance quickly became an ugly, fourth straight loss that shined the spotlight even brighter on the team’s propensity for long stretches without scoring.
Missouri shot 28.3% from the field, topping the 30% the Tigers shot against Texas A&M, for the worst shooting performance of the season. Missouri’s starters combined for just 14 points and the team’s lack of a No. 1 creator was apparent, as it has been throughout this 1-6 stretch that has the Tigers below .500 for the first time all season.
The Tigers shot poorly, again, from 3-point distance but the real issue is Missouri’s inability to score on the inside. With Jeremiah Tilmon Jr. still out, West Virginia’s big men feasted against Missouri’s depleted frontcourt, a position that was already thin heading into the season.
The Mountaineers dominated the boards 50-30, including 21 offensive rebounds, the second-most allowed in the Martin era. The interior dominance led to 27 second-chance points for West Virginia, something the Tigers just couldn’t survive.
It’s not just simply losing on the glass; Missouri has been unable to score on the inside in recent games. In Tilmon’s absence, the Tigers have shot worse than 35% in every game besides an outlier performance against Florida.
Coming into the season, Missouri’s motion offense was supposed to be anchored by Tilmon attracting double teams in the post, allowing his teammates open outside shots or opportunities to attack closeouts. Without him, Missouri’s offense lacks identity and if it isn’t getting fouled, struggles to score inside the paint.
Martin has frequently harped on how missed layups have hurt the team and with a roster lacking high-level slashers, it is hard to see that changing.
The blame can’t be solely laid with Missouri’s frontcourt, however. The Tigers’ non-steal turnover percentage is 12.6%, the 335th worst in the country and worst in the SEC. Attempting to overcome poor shooting and a depleted frontcourt is hard enough. Turning the ball over as frequently as the Tigers do makes it near impossible to win games.
West Virginia is no slouch on defense or on the glass; it’s elite in both categories. But this isn’t the first time this has happened to Missouri. Abysmal shooting, frequent scoring droughts and losing the interior battle have been constant themes during the Tigers’ struggles in 2020.
Losing in Morgantown to the No. 6 team per KenPom is acceptable. The larger trend for Missouri is the problem. The Tigers needed to be accelerating, improving as SEC play began. But after a 1-5 start in conference, Missouri will likely need to go 9-3 the rest of the way to even play its way back onto the bubble. Even with an easier schedule ahead, the offensive struggles make it harder and harder to see the path.
Missouri hopes to snap its four-game skid at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday when it plays host to Georgia at Mizzou Arena.