Dru Smith leads Tigers past Illini (copy)

Dru Smith drives to the basket in the Braggin’ Rights game on Dec. 21, 2019 in St. Louis. Smith, who scored 22 points against Florida on Saturday, will lead the Tigers against Mississippi State in Starkville on Tuesday night.

Guarding the Southeastern Conference’s top big men has been an issue so far for Missouri men’s basketball.

And perhaps no big man in the league is as skilled as the one on the Tigers’ schedule on the road Tuesday: Mississippi State’s star forward, Reggie Perry.

A 6-foot-10 sophomore, Perry is averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds per game, one of only 27 players nationally — and the only one in the SEC — to be averaging at least double figures in each category. Perry swallows up second-chance opportunities as the SEC’s leader in defensive rebounds (97) and is efficient around the rim as he’s eighth in the league in field goal percentage (48.9%).

Considering Missouri’s recent history with similarly-skilled forwards, it isn’t a good sign. Add the fact that Missouri’s own name-brand big man, Jeremiah Tilmon Jr., has been out for the past two games due to a stress fracture, and the Tigers might have to scramble for a man to defend Perry.

Bulldogs head coach Ben Howland saw the film of Missouri’s impressive 91-75 win over Florida on Saturday, so he isn’t fooled into taking Missouri lightly. He stated that once the Tigers experienced a game without Tilmon (against Tennessee on Jan. 7), the adjustments they made for Florida were done to perfection.

“We’re preparing like there’s a chance (Tilmon) plays,” Howland said in the video. “But they played very well the second time (without him). First game, they were getting adjusted to it. They played their best game of the year (against Florida). They’re coming in here with an incredible amount of confidence.”

Nick Richards of Kentucky and Kerry Blackshear Jr. of Florida both torched the Tigers in separate matchups, each scoring over 20 points. Perry is of the same caliber as those two — maybe even better — and will command attention on defense.

The men that’ll be tasked to stop him (assuming Tilmon doesn’t play) will most likely be forwards Mitchell Smith and Reed Nikko, though Howland said he’s expecting Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin to put 6-7 forward Kobe Brown on Perry occasionally for a change of pace.

But as Mississippi State will aim to do its damage in the frontcourt, Missouri’s backcourt is quickly becoming its go-to piece on both ends of the floor.

Howland raved about Missouri’s guards and guard depth, especially in regards to the Tigers’ starting point guard, Dru Smith. He arguably had his finest game in a Missouri uniform against Florida, scoring 22 points with six assists and five steals.

“This kid, Dru Smith ... is a very good point guard,” Howland said. “(He’s) big, strong, physical. Great feel as their leading scorer, excellent player. They have depth. They come off with (Torrence) Watson off the bench, (Xavier) Pinson off the bench. They have a lot of players and they’re playing a lot of guys.”

A potential key to the game could be Missouri exploiting the fact that the Bulldogs are in a slight rut scoring the ball. MSU hasn’t broken 70 points in any of its three SEC losses against Auburn, Alabama and LSU, and now face a Tigers defense that allows only an SEC-best average of 58.9 points per game.

But preventing the Bulldogs from scoring in the half court is just one part of the challenge, because they crash the offensive glass hard. Mississippi State garners offensive rebounds on an incredible 40.9% of its possessions, which is second-best in the country according to KenPom.

In regards to getting back on the right track offensively, Howland said he’s been telling his team to focus on quality rather than quantity for shot selection. He has a point: The Bulldogs shot 68 times against Auburn and 69 times against Alabama, both of which were their highest totals in any game this season.

“We were playing too fast in our first two outings,” Howland said. “The Alabama game I take blame for because I confused our guys with how we were defending them terminology-wise. Be more patient in the half court, take good shots. The quality of your shots are more important than how many shots you take.”

Opening tip between the Tigers and Bulldogs is scheduled at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Starkville, Mississippi. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.

  • Briar is a fall 2019 sports reporter covering Columbia College athletics for the Columbia Missourian. He is studying print and digital news. Reach him at bdn627@gmail.com.

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