It looks like the Tigers might have found their backup center.
Redshirt junior Mitchell Smith set his career high in points against Northern Kentucky, scoring 10 points, including two 3s, on 4-of-6 shooting and grabbing a team-high seven rebounds. He even received a small ovation from the Missouri faithful when he was subbed out with 10:39 left in the 71-56 home win — not typical for a backup.
“Not really surprised because (Smith) is probably our best guy at flashing against the zone because he makes good decisions,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I think the last time you guys would have seen him against the zone was in the conference tournament against Georgia. He made two shots flashing. I think he has a lot of comfort in making decisions there.”
Northern Kentucky came out in a 2-3 zone that limited opportunities for Jeremiah Tilmon early on. The Norse sent double teams his way practically every time he caught the ball in the first half.
A 2-3 zone is a good matchup for Smith, who plays well against that style of defense because of his ability to shoot the 3 — the 6-foot-10 forward knocked them down at a 41.7% clip last season.
“Mitch can definitely shoot the ball, like way better than he has shown,” teammate Kobe Brown said. “When that comes out and he is scorching, it’s gonna be scary.”
“We see that from Mitch a lot actually in practice, being able to knock down shots,” Mark Smith said. “I think that is going to be a normal thing you guys see from Mitch this year … I was happy just to see him make shots because he puts in a lot of time.”
The backup center position was cause of concern during the preseason. Jeremiah Tilmon has lived up to raised expectations so far this year, averaging 14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds on 80% shooting through two games.
But as any Tiger fan knows, Tilmon has struggled with fouls throughout his career — he only played 30 minutes seven times last season — and Missouri has struggled heavily in minutes without him.
With Tilmon often finding it difficult to stay on the floor, his backup has lots of opportunities to get minutes.
Through two regular season games, Smith has played 29 minutes compared to only four for senior Reed Nikko, who most often backed up Jeremiah Tilmon last season. Nikko did not enter the game against Northern Kentucky. Smith (11.7 minutes per game) played slightly more than Nikko (11.2 mpg) last year, but has really gained Martin’s trust at the five early on this season.
“He can play the 4, but we’ll have an advantage when he shoots the 3 ball at the 5 position,” Martin said earlier this year.
Last season Smith was often slotted into the four spot as the Tigers were particularly weak there after Jontay Porter’s ACL tear. This season however, with the arrival of Kobe Brown and to a lesser extent Tray Jackson, Smith will have to find more minutes at the center spot.
Because of his slight frame, the key for Smith will be his performance at the defensive end. Last season on trips down the floor where his man shot the ball, Smith allowed 1.014 points possession, which was worst on the team.
Martin has mentioned that Smith has added weight in the offseason to combat that challenge, but with a lack of height a commonality between Missouri’s first two opponents, it’s been hard to judge how effective that transformation has been.
Nikko is a typical backup center who has likely reached his ceiling. As long as Smith can be passable on the defensive end, his ability to stretch the floor makes him an intriguing option for Martin.
“I showed (my shot) a little bit at the end of the year last year,” Mitchell Smith said. “I really just wanted to get a lot better in that so I can stretch the floor when coach puts me at the five, so fives have to come out and guard me this year.”