Happy Holidays, Mizzou fans. It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend, and if you’re not incredibly satisfied with the nutty weekend in college football — on and off the field, am I right, Rocky Top? — you were probably too wrapped up in the AdvoCare Invitational, in which our Missouri Tigers ended up finishing second to the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Personally, It was incredibly fun to be absorbed in college basketball for a weekend, especially when my alma mater was all caught up in the middle of it. And by the end of the weekend, I left feeling satisfied, if not a little bitter from how things ended up. More on that later.
There are a lot of things to consider after this weekend. It was the first look we got at the team without the spectre of Michael Porter Jr.’s cursed back hanging over everything. We’re continuing to see the tightening of Cuonzo Martin’s rotation. And Jeremiah Tilmon is starting to cut down on his fouls!
Here are my five biggest takeaways from Mizzou’s 2-1 weekend trip in Orlando.
1. Jontay Porter is The Truth
Here’s Jontay’s average line from Orlando: 13.3 ppg; 6.3 rpg; 3.7 bpg; 2 apg; 59% FG and 100% FT. All in just over 24 minutes a game. And with two games coming against two of the best teams Mizzou will face before conference play.
Yeah. Even without getting into advanced stats, that’s gonna do the trick.
Look, I think we can all take a step back and admit we weren’t expecting this from Jontay. After all, he was supposed to be the guy who was reclassifying and filling a supplementary while his brother took the spotlight.
But since the start of the year — and especially since the news of his brother’s surgery — Jontay has been the Tigers’ best all-around player, and frankly, it’s not that close. Mizzou fans love to point out how well he does the little things, as well they should. But as Jontay continues to improve, he’s going to fill up the score sheet too. At this point, I’m wondering if we’ll get more than two years out of him.
2. Mizzou’s shooters will turn a lot of games
By the numbers, Mizzou is shooting just 37% percent from 3-point range. They shot 44% this weekend. Any team playing the Tigers has to worry about at least six guys who can knock down a 3-ball.
You’ll notice I went with the more generic phrase of “turn a lot of games,” though. That’s because Mizzou has shown when it’s not hitting 3’s, things get pretty gnarly. Mizzou shot a ghastly 19% against Utah and got housed; they shot 10% against D-II Emporia State and almost lost.
Right now, Mizzou is getting a touch more than 34% of its points from the long ball. That seems odd considering they’ll have a height advantage on most of their opponents this year. But outside of a vacuum it makes a little more sense: Jontay and KP play more stretch forward games, and the rest of the shooters are guards.
Mizzou’s shooting is probably what won the game against St. John’s and nearly won the game against West Virginia. And given how well this team has shown it can move the ball, a lot of their shots are coming from great looks. For example: Kevin Puryear is shooting about 47%, which is insane by itself, but not when you watch and see the shots he takes. They’re all either uncontested or barely contested. So this team is not just full of good shooters, it seems to be full of smart shooters as well.
Still, though, this team has shown a tendency to live-and-die by the 3 this year. It’s not necessarily a bad strategy. If Mizzou turns out to be an elite shooting team, as it showed in Orlando, they’ll be able to knock off a few giants throughout the year, and they’ll be a threat come March.
Just be ready for those games when the 3 isn’t falling and things get ugly in a hurry.
3. Cuonzo still needs a point guard
Last week, I made my stump speech for Blake Harris to take the reins as starting point guard. And for a day, I was vindicated and looked like a marginally smart guy. Harris played 21 minutes, had nine assists to one turnover, and looked like a revelation at the point.
The other guys got involved too. Terrence Phillips, who people insisted had disappeared, wiggled his way back into the rotation, albeit in a reserve role. And Jordan Geist — the dude who is bound to make me eat more crow than is possibly good for my diet this year — played starter’s minutes in all three games and turned in two and a half pretty good outings.
But, yeah. About that other half game. Geist was abysmal in the second half of the West Virginia loss, especially after he committed two straight turnovers and took an infuriating technical that almost willed West Virginia back into the game. He ended the game with four turnovers but never looked comfortable with the ball when Press Virginia came to play.
Phillips wasn’t any better, committing a few key turnovers. And Harris, my champion of choice? Buried on the bench after he looked overwhelmed against both the Mountaineers and the Johnnies. I still believe Mizzou’s best team is with him on the floor, but clearly he’s not ready to play at last night’s level yet.
He’d better get there soon. Phillips continues to underwhelm, aside from the occasional few minutes where he comes in and acts as a spark plug. And for all the improvement Geist has made as an on-court leader and shooter, he’s going to have more moments like last night if he continues to be overexposed against good teams.
Final thought here:
This sounds a lot like: “we need a guy like Courtney Ramey” https://t.co/xyKphiaMTL— Sam Snelling (@SamTSnelling) November 27, 2017
4. There will be plenty of opportunities to beat good teams
If this team has NCAA tournament aspirations, they won’t get by on grit alone. Come March, no one is going to feel sorry for them if Michael Porter, Jr. never played more than 2 minutes. On the contrary, I’d say Mizzou will no longer have the benefit of the committee picking them to see a future lottery pick. If they want it, they’ll have to earn it. And one of the best ways to do that is beat good teams.
By KenPom, Mizzou — 58th as of today — played two top-50 (and one top-15) teams in Orlando. They beat one and nearly beat the other. That’s a good start, and it keeps their RPI up. A loss to West Virginia, however brutal it may have felt, is still better than a loss to most other teams.
So assuming St. John’s can stay in that top-50 range, Mizzou has one good win tucked away. Iowa State may end up being a top-75 win, but they’re not as good as their No. 59 rank would suggest right now.
As early season tournaments wrapped up around the Western Hemisphere this weekend, let’s take a look at some of the teams on Mizzou’s schedule moving forward: South Carolina (39), Florida (10), Arkansas (30), Tennessee (34), Texas A&M (5), Alabama (27) and Kentucky (9). And by the end of the season, Georgia (68) and Vanderbilt (62) might be pretty respectable as well.
After last night’s loss, I and others were bemoaning the loss of an opportunity to bank a great win for the tournament resume. And, yeah, it was a big missed opportunity. But there will be plenty of opportunities to get more signature wins in conference. Maybe this isn’t a takeaway from Orlando as much as it was the weekend in general.
5. Some thoughts on high expectations
After the game Sunday, I got in a little healthy debate with Oscar and Matt Michaels over at KTGR on Twitter about the reaction to the West Virginia loss. The wide reaction was, “Well, it stunk not to win, but it’s pretty incredible how well this team played against a top-15 team with probably the best defense it’ll see in non-conference.” And that’s a fair, reasonable perspective to have. Here’s a little closer to where I ended up, though.
It's weird that Mizzou fans are allowed to have high expectations for a team for the first time in 5 years... but then get crushed online for being pissed about their team blowing a 16-point lead in 8 minutes.— little jolly josh (@joshmajika) November 27, 2017
I’ll admit, that sentiment came from a bit of a skewed perspective. I saw a few Mizzou media folk dogging on upset fans, and automatically struck out on avenger mode. So no, I don’t think fans were getting “crushed.”
I did notice, however, there seemed to be a rush to not be all that upset with the loss; to immediately put it in perspective and move on. And my response to that was, frankly, hell no! I was pissed after that game, and so were many others. Top-15 team or not, Mizzou blew a 16-point lead with less than eight minutes to go. To dominate that far into a game and not end up winning is incredibly frustrating, recent history or not.
In my debate, there was talk of context, how Sunday night was truly remarkable considering the teams Mizzou has fielded the past few years. And yes, that’s true. This loss should not define the way this team is viewed up to this point in the season. If anything, it should show how far along this team already is just seven games into the campaign.
But I also want to feel like it’s OK to have high expectations for this team and program again. Cuonzo has talked about how he’s not in this gig for the slow turnaround; he wants to win and win now. And, wouldn’t you know it, he’s delivered some early returns. This team isn’t just winning; it’s dominating bad teams and beating some pretty good ones. And when they had a top-15 win in hand and lost it, the last thing I wanted to hear was, “Aww, but they’re so much better now!”
Look, I understand. Sunday’s loss was not the end of the season. I’m
not even barely upset about it anymore. In fact, I’m extremely heartened that this team looked so good against West Virginia for more than 75% of a championship game. The future is bright with this team, and it’s looking like we might get to see it sooner rather than later.
But let’s also not settle into a place where we’re accepting “better” as “good enough.” After Sunday, I can guarantee you Cuonzo wasn’t coddling the team with how great they were for 32 minutes. If I’ve learned anything about him since he got here, it’s that he was on them for not finishing the job. Because he knows they can.