Mark Smith raced down the court in transition and laid the ball in, extending Missouri’s lead to 14-3 just five minutes into the game.
Against mid-major Morehead State, it seemed likely Missouri men’s basketball would cruise to an easy home win ahead of next week’s Hall of Fame Classic matchup against Butler in Kansas City. While the Tigers ultimately did win, pulling out a 70-52 home victory, less than seven minutes after they stretched the lead to 11, the Tigers trailed 20-19.
The Tigers’ Achilles’ heel so far this season, shooting, reared its ugly head.
“I thought we settled and I thought maybe had a mentality, not to say the game was easy but just kind of have some fun a little bit,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “They got our attention and made it a ball game.”
Mark Smith made Missouri’s first two 3-point attempts, but after that, Missouri did not make a 3 for the rest of the half. The drought stretched over 20 minutes, comprising 13 consecutive missed 3s until, you guessed it, Mark Smith banged home his third triple of the night two minutes into the second half. Missouri finished the game shooting a dismal 4-22 (18.2%) from deep, and 40.4% from the floor.
Five games into the season, Missouri’s shooting splits are brutal: The Tigers are shooting 26.6% from deep, down from 36.3% last season, and just 43% from the field.
“I think in the first half, I think some, not all, were good looks from 3,” Martin said. “For the most part in the first half I thought they were easy 3s, meaning you settle for that shot as opposed to working (for a better shot).”
With Morehead State going under ball screens, Missouri had a lot of space to shoot 3s off the dribble. While Martin encourages shooting open 3s, he wants to make sure his players are focusing on shooting with their feet set and not settling early in the shot clock.
For example, Martin said all six of sophomore Torrence Watson’s 3-point attempts were open, they just didn’t fall. Watson, typically regarded as a sharpshooter, has struggled from long range this season, making just 20.8% of his 24 attempts. For reference, Watson drained 36% of his 3s last season, buoyed by a great late-season stretch.
Watson isn’t the only player struggling from behind the arc. Xavier Pinson shot 40% from 3 last season and is shooting 8% through five games. Dru Smith drained 40% of his 3s two years ago, and is making 30% thus far this season.
With the NCAA moving back the college 3-point line to international distance before the season, many have wondered if that would affect 3-point percentages around the country.
“I think that has something to do with it without question,” Martin said.
The numbers seem to agree. Last season NCAA players combined to shoot 34.54% from 3. This season the percentage is down to 33.15%.
Martin however, thinks the expanded line should help his team’s spacing, ideally leading to more open shots.
“The extended line should have you shooting opening 3s, “Martin said. “Especially when you have a guy like Jeremiah (Tilmon, Jr.). You shouldn’t really be shooting tough 3 unless it’s late in the game, late clock. But you shouldn’t be shooting tough 3-point shots in my opinion.”
Missouri’s offensive system is predicated on shooters spacing the floor while Jeremiah Tilmon, Jr. draws double teams down low. If Missouri continues struggling from long range, these types of scoring droughts are likely to continue.
And while Missouri was able to pull away against the Eagles, those shooting slumps will be harder to overcome when the talent gap isn’t so large.
The Tigers were able to dominate a much smaller Morehead State team on the glass, something multiple players said was a key point of emphasis after being outrebounded against Wofford on Monday. Missouri outrebounded the Eagles 45-28 and dominated the offensive glass 15-6. The Tigers took advantage, scoring 17 second-chance points compared to just four for Morehead State.
Missouri’s rebounding advantage came from its backcourt, with Dru Smith grabbing a team-leading 9 rebounds while Mark Smith added 8 of his own.
“I think we get a lot of the rebounds because I think some of our bigs do a great job of boxing out,” Dru Smith said. “I think we probably need to be a lot better at it, I know I do especially. When (the big men) get in I think they do a great job of boxing out and everything and the ball just kind of ends up coming to us. But I mean, definitely we were focusing on it.”
The rebounding advantage, combined with the Tigers’ eighth-ranked defense, made Wednesday night’s shooting woes easy to overcome. But come Butler on Monday, Missouri needs to make shots.
It is a make or miss league after all.