The Missouri Tigers are off to a promising start so far this season. We expected them to beat Maryland-Eastern Short pretty easily, and while they struggled a bit at first, they put them away in the second half. The Wofford game was more of a pleasant surprise, as they handled a well coached, disciplined team from the get go, and held on despite Fletcher Magee and Eric Garcia making, what seemed like, a LOT of threes in the second half. They've gotten big performances from a lot of different players, but the biggest surprise is the play of Kevin Puryear.
OTHER XAVIER STUFF
Puryear is averaging 29 minutes and 16.5 points per game so far this season, and he's doing so very efficiently as he's only taken 21 shots. It's obviously still very early, but the only other double figure averages are Namon Wright at 12.5 ppg, and Terrence Phillips at 10 ppg. For a team that struggled to score a year ago, it's been pleasant to watch them attack the rim and get open looks on a more regular basis. And that has translated as the Tigers are shooting over 50% from the floor on the season. They're also getting to the Free Throw line with frequency, as they're averaging over 31 attempts per game. And with better shooters stepping to the line, they've converted 72.6% of their chances so far.
So reason to feel pretty good about the start of the season. With all that said. There's a VERY big test coming tonight as they move to take on Xavier. Last year Xavier was an NCAA tournament team, and they came to Columbia and beat the Tigers rather handily. The Tigers might have revenge on their minds, but that's a larger task as Coach Chris Mack has the Musketeers rolling, and they might even be better this year than they were last year.
Let's take a look at the Musketeers by asking a few friends who know them a little better:
Q&A With BIG EAST COAST BIAS
I traded questions and answers with the guys at Big East Coach Bias, the SBN site that covers the Big East, and a couple Missouri students answered my questions. Go figure. Both Robert O'Neill and Chris Novak attend Mizzou, but cover the Big East, and were gracious enough to take some time out to answer our questions about the Xavier Musketeers.
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RockMNation: Last season the Musketeers used a balanced offensive attack to get pretty deep into the NCAA tournament, how does Coach Chris Mack plan on replacing the production of Dee Davis and Matt Stainbrook?
Chris Novak:The idea is that Xavier will look to replace Dee Davis with Edmond Sumner. Sumner, along with Larry Austin Jr. and Myles Davis were thought to be the contenders for the point guard position in the lineup this summer. Edmond got the start against Miami (OH) and performed extremely well and one should suspect that he'll get the nod again in X's matchup with the Tigers. Stainbrook's production will likely come down low with the emerging Jalen Reynolds as well as fellow 6-foot-10 forward James Farr. Additionally, sophomore Trevon Bluiett will continue to be called upon. Having talked to Chris Mack at Big East Media Day, he told me that expectations are high for Bluiett and that everyone expects him to have a good sophomore year.
RMN: Overall Xavier has been a highly productive offensive team under Chris Mack, what does Mack and Xavier do to keep their offense operating so efficiently?
Robert O'Neill: I think the big thing is recruiting. Mack goes out and looks, mostly around Ohio or Indiana, for guys that fit his offensive system. It's not that he looks for "pure scorers", but he looks for guys that can score the ball efficiently and effectively, if that makes sense. Mack doesn't go out and load up the team with four or five star recruits, instead he gets some of the more overlooked recruits, and takes their team at Xavier to build them into the type of player that fits his system
RMN: Trevon Bluiett was a bit of a surprise playmaker as a freshmen, is he the main cog for Xavier this season or will there be another surprise player step up?
Novak: I'd say yes. Bluiett did fly under the radar while the likes of Isaiah Whitehead and the quartet of freshmen at Georgetown garnered a lot of preseason hype. All the Indianapolis native did was average 11 points and 4.2 rebounds per game on a field goal percentage of 42.2 percent. This year he'll be called upon as X's main scoring threat along with Jalen Reynolds. If there's anybody that should "surprise," or at least that isn't on a lot of radars nationally it's probably JP Macura. Macura allotted 19 points in the opener versus the RedHawks and was great in limited minutes last year.
RMN: Mizzou is trying to recover from an awful season last year, they're very young and playing their first true road game of the season? How do you see Xavier attacking them to take advantage of these things?
O'Neill: Well, for starters, Xavier fans will be loud. The Musketeers are consistently in the top 50 in the nation in attendance, and, as such, they have only lost six home nonconference games under Chris Mack.
So, that's intimidating for any team off the bat. Then you move on to the fact that Xavier returns a lot of their team (except Dee Davis and Matt Stainbrook), against a Mizzou team who lost a couple big pieces from last year.
I think the biggest way Xavier is going to attack Mizzou will be to send Jalen Reynolds right at Kevin Puryear early and often. Reynolds is coming off a 16 point, 15 rebound performance against Miami (OH).
If Mizzou is able to Reynolds down, look for the Musketeers to try and work the ball outside to Edmond Sumner, JP Macura, or Trevon Bluiett.
RMN: How do you see this game playing out? And what sort of prediction do you have for a final score
Novak: While I think Mizzou has taken a step forward from last year, it's very hard to go into the Cintas Center and win for a road team. I'll take Xavier by 15. 78-63
Thanks again to Chris and Robert for taking the time to catch us up on all things Xavier. To see what I told them about Mizzou, follow THIS LINK over the BECB and take a look.
So when it comes to this game and what Mizzou needs to do to win, well, they need to play their best game to date. Here are my three keys to the game:
1) What to do with Jalen Reynolds
Mizzou won't face too many teams this season with a big man as talented as Reynolds. Last season he was a bit overshadowed by the experienced play of Matt Stainbrook, but he still managed to average nearly 10 points and 6 rebounds in just 20 minutes a game. Now he's another year stronger, and another year better and in his first game action out he absolutely destroyed Miami of Ohio with 16 points and 15 rebounds, including 7 offensive boards. Mizzou is going to figure out how to prevent him from that level of domination if they expect to compete in this game.
2) Defensive Rebounding
Almost an extension of the previous key, but still it's own thing. Mizzou HAS to be competitive on the boards. Again, it's early, but Xavier got offensive rebounds on HALF of their missed shots in the last game. Meanwhile, Mizzou's defense has given up 25% of it's potential defensive rebounds to the offense. That's also not very good. The Tigers leading rebounder is currently a sophomore wing (Namon Wright). Not exactly where you want to be, but that might be where the Tigers have to live if Kim Anderson is going to stick with playing a smaller lineup.
3) The 3-point line
Mizzou has been shooting the ball well from three so far this year, but not as well as they'll have to shoot if they want to pull off the upset. 41-42% is a very good percentage, but Xavier is at home and they're going to shoot well. The 3-point line is the great equalizer in college basketball, and Mizzou needs to take advantage of the open looks they get. Against MESU, they were too quick to launch threes, whereas against Wofford they were incredibly patient in getting looks. They'll need a lot more of the latter if they want to pull off the upset.
I like the balance on the roster at this point, but I wonder if this is the game where the inexperience shows up. The Cintas Center is likely to be rocking, and Xavier is the kind of team offensively that they can be tough to slow down if things get rocking. It'll be important for the Tigers to stay calm, and just focus on taking their shots when they get them. Because if there is one thing about the Musketeers, they aren't the best defensive team, and will give you chances. After all, they gave up 71 points to Miami (OH), and Miami only lost by 9. So there opportunity is there to score and stay close. Then all you need is a few breaks down the stretch.
If Mizzou can knock down their open shots, rebound well, and contain Jalen Reynolds, I like their chances to be in the game with Xavier. Let's get one thing straight. The Musketeers aren't Duke, they're not Kentucky, and they're not North Carolina. What the Musketeers are is a good college basketball team with talent, but flaws. This isn't an unwinnable game, this is a winnable game. The odds aren't great, but it's a winnable game. Xavier is a top 40 team, they're predicted on KenPom to win 89% of the time. So, it's a long shot.
Even if everything goes Mizzou's way, it's still possible they lose the game. For me, I think this is more of a moment when we realize that this team has a ways to go. I think you'll see enough good things happen that you'll feel ok, but ultimately I think you'll see Mizzou lose this game. My final score prediction is something around 78-68. I think that could balloon to about 14-16 points, or shrink to about 5-6, but I don't think this game plays any closer.