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Missouri grabbed a big win and, maybe, an identity against St. John’s

Five thoughts in the wake of the Tigers advancing to the finals of the Advocare Invitational

NCAA Basketball: Wagner at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In a word, Missouri’s 90-82 victory against St. John’s on Saturday was bonkers.

Although, other observes described it more colorfully.

The box score and plethora of data from Statbroadcast came be summed up just that simple.

Sometimes, a close game is just that—a nip-tuck battle. Not this one, though. Sure, basketball is a game of runs, but Mizzou-St. John’s featured wide swings in momentum. Mizzou used a 23-8 stretch to open a 37-21 lead—its largest of the day—with six minutes left in the first half. A seemingly discombobulated St. John’s settled down and threw haymakers in a 25-7 flurry spanning both halves. Finally, with 11 minutes to go, and kicked off by a Jontay Porter corner 3, Mizzou retook the lead with its own 15-4 spurt.

Put simply, it was everything Sam and I told you it might be earlier in the week during Dive Cuts: A reeling group of Tigers needing its guards to step up and slug it out with Marcus LoVett and Shamorie Ponds.

You definitely should have settled in for hoops and breakfast. Now, five key takeaways.

Today, the 3-pointer giveth its bounty

We keep tossing out the word volatility when talking about Mizzou’s outside shooting for a reason. Against Utah and Emporia State, Cuonzo Martin’s crew abused rims with thumping mortar rounds, shooting just 14.9 percent from the 3-point line. On Thursday, it ticked up to a respectable 41.7 percent. Today, it saved Mizzou’s rear.

The Tigers shot 51.9 percent from deep, offsetting woeful paint production as its frontline battled foul trouble and saw St. John’s succeed at times with dribble penetration. MU hit 14 times from long range, three of which fueled the Tigers furious rally over two minutes to take the lead midway through the second half. And MU needed every single of them, considering the Red Storm knocked in 11 of their own from long range.

At some point, Mizzou needs consistent production from behind the 3-point arc. Today, it blotted our poor ballhandling and—until Cuonzo switched defenses—an abysmal job defensively. Bill C will have Study Hall tomorrow, but across the board, the metrics tell us this was a worse defensive outing than an 18-point road loss to Utah.

Look, I’m not raining on anyone’s parade. This was a quality win. But Mizzou recruited a guy like Kassius Robertson to avoid wild fluctuations like we saw today.

Welcome back, Kassius and Jordan

That being said, Mizzou’s veterans on the wings did what we said they needed to do going into this game. Robertson and Jordan Barnett combined for 36 points--25 of them coming after halftime--on 10 of 18 shooting, counteracting a monster (but inefficient) 31 points from Ponds.

The analysis is easy: When these guys produce, Mizzou is a different caliber of machine—one that can do its threshing efficiently. in the first half, especially as it built its lead, we saw Barnett use his athleticism in a diverse way. He scored on a putback in transition, used a baseline screen to free himself for a fallback jumper, read a leveraged defender for a backdoor cut and foul, and knock in a 3-pointer from the right wing. As Mizzou made its final push to the lead, he was a spot-up option in the deep right corner on a shovel pass from Robertson.

As for Robertson, just look at the stat line. He drilled 4 of 6 3-point attempts in the second half, including two during its penultimate run. His 3-ball at the top of the key put Mizzou in front 59-58 with 10:13 left to play. What we need to see, however, is a string of games where Robertson punishes defenses who rotate late or lose him in cross matches defensively.

The zone showed up at the right time

In the preseason, Martin tossed out the idea that he might deviate from Purdue-planted, Gene Keady-tended roots as a man-to-man coach. Yes, Mizzou might play zone. Until Friday, that was just a fun hypothetical. But along with outside shooting, it may have put Mizzou over the top.

Martin didn’t really change personnel to do it, either. The same guard trio of Jordan Geist, Robertson and Barnett stayed on the floor. And Martin platooned his big men on regular intervals. But it did enough to confound Ponds, who had 23 points when MU rolled it out with 11 minutes left. The wing would score just two points in the next 10 minutes, and the Red Storm missed 11 of 16 shots. You should ignore the final minute, too, when Ponds scored six points as Mizzou went into the hoops version of the Prevent Defense.

Even better, the zone let Missouri keep length on the floor at the rim and protect Jeremiah Tilmon, who was playing with three fouls. During its 15-4 run, the only points Mizzou allowed were off a designed inbounds play and a savvy overload play that let Ponds find Justin Simon on a backdoor lob for a dunk.

It also forced St. John’s, which runs a dribble-drive motion system and some Horns sets, to slow down and hold the ball. Mullins roster tilts heavily toward the wing. There’s no big man you can put in the middle or the short corner. But don’t take my word for it.

Instead, the Red Storm had to screen the zone as best they could and attack smaller gaps. It was a savvy move that experienced bench coaches would make, and Martin played his card at the right moment.

Maybe Terrence does have a role

Blake Harris only played eight minutes, and the bulk of those came at the start of the game and out of the locker room for the start of the second half.

Hey, what gives? I thought Cuonzo was with us on this move.

Except for Terrence Phillips, who’d pulled a disappearing act since a dreadful outing at Utah, re-emerged to give Mizzou a boost. Who was the point guard on the floor when MU surged to a 16-point lead? You guessed it. It was TP. And who, you might ask, was the point guard when Mizzou started its comeback. It was Phillips. Again.

It’s tempting to say Jontay Porter played a big role, and there’s no doubt his contributions mattered. But Phillips’ 12 minutes coincided with Mizzou’s most fluid and dynamic stretches of offense. He did what many of us hoped he do in this new system. He set the table, got Mizzou in the right play and made the smart pass, like the pass to Porter in the corner for is 3-ball that launched the run or to Robertson to pull Mizzou within 58-56 at the 11:12 mark in the second half.

Phillips only scored two points, but he grabbed three rebounds, dished out five assists and paced Mizzou with a plus-14 rating. So it’s no surprise Martin stuck with him.

If Phillips can find a way to produce these kinds of outings, Mizzou suddenly has the composite of skills you’d expect in good point-guard play. The question as always, though, is whether Phillips can put consecutive games together like this one.

State of mind: resolution

Let’s just let Cuonzo Martin confirm what some of us have been thinking and saying.

This program is no longer in a holding pattern. It’s no longer waiting for MPJ to walk through the door. And, as I’ve said, that brings clarity. Mizzou’s roster has been winnowed to 10 scholarships dudes now that Porter is sidelined and Mitchell Smith and C.J. Roberts have been handed redshirts.

If you look at rotations for the first two games, it’s also clear Cuonzo has found a substitution pattern and depth chart that works:

  • Point guard: Harris, Geist, Phillips
  • Wing: Robertson, VanLeer, Geist
  • Wing: Barnett, Robertson
  • Combo Forward: Puryear, Porter
  • Post: Tilmon, Nikko

This team now has roles for its members to adopt, and with that comes the ability to build trust and chemistry. Even if they don’t walk away with a title this weekend, Mizzou may have found something more important: an identity.