Since Jan. 23, Missouri’s dominant storyline had been the absence of Mark Smith. The guard — who had been reeling from an ankle injury suffered at Arkansas — is the team’s most lethal shooting threat, knocking down 47.5 percent from 3-point land.
In Smith’s absence, Missouri never quite solidified its second guard spot. Freshmen Torrence Watson and Xavier Pinson alternated in the starting role, but neither has shown the consistency needed for a vote of confidence. Pinson’s questionable decision-making and Watson’s shooting struggles have limited the Tigers’ ability to improve an already hampered offense.
So Smith’s return to the court at The Pavilion at Ole Miss on Saturday must’ve received a collective rejoicing from Missouri fans. Coupled with the team’s narrow escape against Arkansas, the Tigers’ Southeastern Conference struggles might be trending in the opposite direction.
Barring an unlikely SEC Tournament run, Missouri will not make the NCAA Tournament, but stringing together a few more impressive wins could put it in perfect contention for the NIT. And some postseason play is better than no postseason play — especially for a young crew like the Tigers.
Those NIT aspirations are still kicking, though Missouri now has little room for error after its 75-65 loss to Ole Miss. The Tigers (12-12, 3-9 SEC) are back to .500, and outside of dates with No. 5 Kentucky on Tuesday and Mississippi State on Feb. 26, Missouri is running out of potential quality wins.
Here are three takeaways from the Tigers’ loss.
Mark Smith’s frustrating return
As mentioned earlier, this was Smith’s first game back in almost a month. To expect him back at 100 percent health, or conditioning for that matter, is unrealistic. Pinson started in his place for a reason. Smith’s 14 minutes are predictable for someone returning from an injury. And with Missouri’s dwindling postseason odds, there’s no reason to risk further injury. Smith still has two years to impact the program; there’s no need for them to be spent in the recovery room.
But in his 14 minutes played, Smith didn’t find a comfortable rhythm. He shot 1 for 4 from the field, including 1 for 3 from deep. The Tigers’ second-leading scorer never seemed completely in sync within Missouri’s offense. The sophomore averages just 1.4 turnovers per game but coughed up the ball three times, his fourth instance this season. He wasn’t the only Tiger who suffered from that ailment — more on that shortly.
He picked up three quick fouls in the first half but avoided drawing another in his four second-half minutes.
It was one of Smith’s lesser showings this season, but with added practice and game time, he’ll likely bounce back and return to form. A strong stretch to finish the year could be a positive omen for Smith and the rest of the 2019-2020 squad.
A familiar criticism — turnovers
Much of the criticism slung Missouri’s way this season results from the team’s tendency to turn the ball over. The Tigers' season-high 25 turnovers at Iowa State on Nov. 9 was egregious but forgivable. The team was still gelling, facing a strong opponent on the road and figuring out the right rotations on a Jontay Porter-less roster.
Over three months later, a replication of that outing is surprising and disappointing.
Were it not for the Tigers’ second-half run, the final score might not look as competitive. Surrendering 32 points off turnovers almost makes a 10-point loss look like a victory. Almost.
The turnovers resulted from multiple mistakes. Miscommunication in offensive sets led to errant passes out of bounds. Too much dribbling led to pickpocketing and an Ole Miss fast break. When the Rebels turned up the pressure, turnovers seemed to follow. The Tigers have struggled with pressure all season. Saturday continued the trend.
There wasn’t just one offender, either. Nine different players got in on the turnover action. Pinson did the most damage, losing the ball five times, followed by Jordan Geist and K.J. Santos with four, Kevin Puryear’s and Mark Smith’s three, Javon Pickett and Jeremiah Tilmon with two and Mitchell Smith and Torrence Watson rounding it out with one each.
Missouri is capable of a low-turnover win. The group lost the ball just nine times in its win against Vanderbilt and only 11 against Arkansas last Tuesday. It’s possible, and it’s happened. It simply needs to be more consistent.
Tilmon’s fouls return
After a string of solid, low-foul performances, Tilmon returned to a permanent stay on the bench before the final buzzer sounded Saturday. It was the eighth disqualification of the season for the 6-foot-10 forward and his first since Jan. 23.
Fouls have plagued Tilmon’s Missouri career, and it’s been discussed ad nauseam. So, at the risk of feeding a fed horse, we’ll continue.
Tilmon’s 21-point performance against Arkansas provided a look at what a fully realized version of Tilmon could be night in and night out. Following it up with a 15-minute, four-point performance that resurrected familiar issues is dispiriting.
Even with his struggles, the East St. Louis, Illinois, product did make a positive impact on the game. He continuously clogged the paint, making it difficult for the Rebels to find open shots. Tilmon also held Ole Miss’ skilled big man, Dominik Olejniczak, in check. Olejniczak mustered six points and one rebound while facing Tilmon’s defense. In the midst of Missouri’s rally, Tilmon positioned himself perfectly, drawing a charge and fouling out Olejniczak.
This game was a setback for Tilmon, but examining the season as a whole, his improvement in each area of the game is noticeable. The guy who went toe-to-toe with Daniel Gafford is the one to expect moving forward.
Supervising editor is Eric Lee.