Missouri men’s basketball is used to playing the underdog role, but this season is different. From being picked in the preseason to finish 10th in the Southeastern Conference to currently being ranked No. 10 in the nation, the Tigers (13-3, 6-3 SEC) have done a complete role reversal.
“We felt like we had something to prove,” Jeremiah Tilmon said. “We feel like we still do.”
Now, as the highest-ranked SEC team for the first time this season, Missouri is likely to get every conference opponent’s best shot. First up is Ole Miss as the Tigers battle the Rebels at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Oxford, Mississippi.
Ole Miss (10-8, 5-6 SEC) has also succeeded in the underdog role once this season. The Rebels defeated then-No. 11 Tennessee 52-50 on Feb. 2. Ole Miss held the Vols to 5 of 20 shooting in the second half. The Rebels followed that win with another one Saturday, defeating Auburn 86-84 in OT. A common theme in both of those games? Mississippi guard Devontae Shuler.
Shuler, a senior, was named SEC co-Player of the Week along with Missouri’s Dru Smith. Shuler averaged 20.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, two assists and two steals in the wins over Tennessee and Auburn. He scored a season-high 26 points against Auburn, 23 of them coming in the second half and overtime, including the game-winning shot.
Shuler leads the Rebels in scoring with 15.5 points per game. He isn’t the only scoring threat for Ole Miss, but if he gets going it’s likely a bad sign for Missouri.
“Obviously, we got to key in on (Shuler) and make sure we don’t let him kill us,” Kobe Brown said. “The other guys on this team can play as well. I feel like they can hurt you just as bad.”
After Shuler, Ole Miss’ scoring gets bleak. Guard Jarkel Joiner has struggled in his first season with the Rebels after transferring from Cal State Bakersfield. Joiner’s main issue has been his 3-point shooting struggles. A 33.2% 3-point shooter in his two seasons with the Roadrunners, Joiner is shooting 21.6% from beyond the arc in 18 games this season.
Joiner is not the only Rebel who struggles from 3. Ole Miss ranks last in 3-point shooting in the SEC (27.9%). That puts the Rebels 336th out of 347 Division I teams, the lowest ranking of any Power 5 school.
The Rebels make up for their lackluster perimeter shooting with efficient scoring around the rim. In league play, Ole Miss is shooting 49.1% on 2-pointers, sixth-best in the conference. A big part of that is forward Romello White.
White only averages 6.4 shots per game, but he’s efficient. At 6-foot-8, he is an old-fashioned, back-to-the-basket big who hardly strays away from the paint. This style of play contributes to his 67% shooting, which leads the SEC.
Mississippi coach Kermit Davis called White’s number more often than usual against Auburn on Saturday. White took 18 shots, just the second time this season he’s reached double-digit field-goal attempts. He made 14 of them on his way to a career-high 30 points.
“I thought he was aggressive, but I also thought (Ole Miss) looked for him more,” Missouri assistant coach Cornell Mann said. “I thought the Auburn game was a little more wide open. He had opportunities to catch and not (have) much traffic around him, so he was free to attack the rim.”
Missouri looks to build on a three-game winning streak. During this stretch, the Tigers have had a balanced attack offensively, with Smith, Tilmon and Xavier Pinson each averaging 16 or more points.
Missouri comes off a 68-65 win over then-No. 10 Alabama that almost saw the Tigers squander a 22-point lead. Despite the near-meltdown, Missouri showed some progress. In two of the Tigers’ three losses this season they had given away a second-half lead.
“We haven’t played our best through 40 minutes,” Mann said. “That’s still encouraging for us.”
The Tigers’ recipe for success against the Rebels will be limiting turnovers. Ole Miss ranks third in the SEC in steals per game (8.4). Shuler and guard Luis Rodriguez are tied for fifth in the SEC in steals per game with 1.7.
The Rebels have forced 15 or more turnovers in 15 of their 18 games this season, keeping active hands and closing off passing lanes. That was evident Saturday when Auburn’s talented freshman guard, Sharife Cooper, turned the ball over a season-high six times.
Missouri will also need to be efficient on offense. The Rebels are 8-0 when limiting opponents to under 40% shooting from the field. This will be even more crucial with forward Javon Pickett’s status unknown as he deals with an ankle injury. Pickett is shooting 51% from the field, the third-best mark on the team.
“They’ll mix up things,” Mann said. “They’ll play a 1-3-1 zone. They’ll play a 2-3 zone. They’ll trap on the sides at times. They try and keep you off balance and mix things up, and if you’re not sound and solid then obviously you can turn that ball over some.”
While Ole Miss presents problems, the Tigers can also use this game as motivation. Missouri’s last two losses came in midweek road games where it struggled in the second half.
“Ole Miss is a real crafty team,” Tilmon said. “They play very hard. I feel like this will be a good challenge for us.”