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Let’s hope Mizzou doesn’t go 4 years between road wins again

Three thoughts from Mizzou’s victory over UCF, its first win inside an opponent’s building in more than 1,400 days.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at West Virginia Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It was a 75-71 victory over Arkansas on Jan. 28, 2014. That was three Mizzou head coaches and 36 road games ago. Just for nostalgia's sake, let’s reminisce about the box score from that night.

On Thursday, Mizzou walked off the floor of CFE Arena with a 62-59 win over UCF. It was a plodding way to end a streak that will live in infamy. Outside of Jeremiah Tilmon, the Tigers again struggled to score inside the 3-point line, but jump-shooting and sound play at point guard were enough to put down the Knights, who entered the game sitting at No. 19 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Style points don’t matter, though. Nor does the fact that B.J. Taylor, the Knight’s starting point guard and best perimeter threat was sitting with a fracture in his foot. Moving forward, the NCAA tournament selection committee has said it will place added value on road victories, meaning this win—assuming Taylor is back and UCF finds stability—could loom large in a couple of months.

Entering the day, here’s how RPI Forecast pegged the Tigers’ resume to date.

Note: RPI Forecast doesn't count MU’s win over Emporia State.

Obviously, the situation is fluid. Non-conference play is only at the halfway mark, and we’ll have to see if UCF and St. John’s wind up panning out as top-50 RPI wins. That being said, Mizzou may have helped itself, and, more importantly, given another psychological boost to a young roster that’s gone 3-1 in road and neutral-floor games over the past week.

1. Terrence Phillips atoned

On Sunday, Mizzou suffered an all-systems failure down the stretch. But Phillips’ two backcourt turnovers, especially one where he let a pair of Mountaineers hem him in against the sideline, stood out. Until that point, Mizzou had seemingly withstood another push from the Mountaineers. After Phillips’ 30-second meltdown, the core went with it.

Five days later, Cuonzo Martin gave the junior a chance as Mizzou’s search for a steadying influence at point guard continues. To his credit, Phillips put together a solid effort. Against UCF, it was his poise and floor game that stood out. He wasn’t loose with the ball. There weren’t silly hand-check fouls, and he did what many of us thought he was capable of in this offense: run good sets, probe a defense and make sound decisions.

For example, in the second half, Jeremiah Tilmon set an on-ball screen at the top of the key and rolled down the left side of the lane. Instead of steaming toward the rim, Phillips attacked the hip of his defender, forcing Tilmon’s man to hedge and cover. Yet Phillips was patient and changed speeds. Forcing Tacko Fall to commit, he laid the ball off to Tilmon for an easy bucket.

Meanwhile, his only two buckets of the night came when Mizzou needed them in the final two minutes to fend off another late flurry.

Regardless of whether he starts, having an experienced and sound ballhandler in Phillips is a necessity. Mizzou committed just seven turnovers with a 10.7 turnover percentage on Thursday night. In a game where possessions were few and Mizzou’s advantage on the backboard was mitigated, valuing the ball was critical. Phillips led a point guard group that doled out seven assists against two turnovers.

We’ve made the case for why Blake Harris should start. Jordan Geist has had a couple nice outings off the bench. The platoon system works for now, but maybe Phillips is winning the trust Martin clearly values at the position.

2. Jeremiah Tilmon is shedding his rep

In 37 seconds of game time, the freshman from East St. Louis made us cringe and then delivered relief.

With 47 seconds left, he took Cuonzo Martin’s directive to check in a little too literally, coming on to the floor during action and bypassing the cumbersome scorer’s table, earning a Class B technical and giving UCF a free throw. Jump ahead to the roughly 10-second mark, and Tilmon gave us proof he’s improving. He allowed UCF guard Dayon Griffin to drive the ball, but sealed off easy access to the rim. Letting Griffin inch ahead, Tilmon was positioned behind him for a clean block, preserving a 61-57 lead.

Yes, Tilmon still picked up three fouls. Yes, he sat for a stretch early in the second half. Yes, one of those fouls was a silly hooking call on the offensive end. But let’s pull back and look at what Jeremiah’s done in aggregate over the past four games. Over that stretch, he’s averaged 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds, while shooting 61.5 percent from the floor—or 19.7 points and 9.4 rebounds per 40 minutes.

Above all, the foul rate has come down. Since facing Long Beach State a week ago, Tilmon’s averaged 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes. No, it’s not great. But compare it the 11.3 FC/40 he posted during MU’s first four games.

Against UCF, Tilmon led Missouri in PPM (0.609) and usage rate (35.75 percent) in a game where the Tigers leaned on three players. If Tilmon can give this team some facsimile of the 23 minutes he put up in Orlando, it’s a clear boon offensively. It’s also bolstered by the fact he was tasked with trying to slow a bigger player in Fall. By staying on the floor and using his athleticism intelligently, Tilmon can make an already stingy defense that much tougher.

3. Kassius and Jordan are going bonkers

Last Thursday, I wrote the following about Kassius Robertson:

It’s not a matter of quantity, but quality. Start with Kassius Robertson. His time at point guard, always a stopgap move, is done. He’s back working off the ball on pindowns and spacing the floor as a spot-up option. “The more we can get him off the ball, I think it will help him,” Martin said this week. The question is whether it ends a slump that’s stretched into three games, a span where the graduate transfer has clanked 16 of 19 3-pointers. If Robertson’s not a plug-and-play option for erratic jump-shooting, Mizzou may have improved its roster but face the same constraints it did with Kim Anderson on the sideline.

Oh, and this little chunk about Jordan Barnett, too.

Jordan Barnett has also backslid over the past three games. He’s averaged just 4.6 points and posted a 32.2 true shooting percentage. After Mizzou thumped Wagner, Barnett’s role seemed outlined: an athletic wing who attacked seams and whose jumper could keep defenders honest. That hasn’t really happened. And with Porter shelved, it’s imperative Barnett get on track. He’s Mizzou’s best option for instant offense.

I highly doubt they read my ramblings, but they’ve certainly made me shut my trap with their work over the past three outings. I’ll just let their stat lines do the talking:

  • Robertson: 16.3 points, 2.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 55% FG shooting, and 63% 3-point shooting
  • Barnett: 19.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 49% FG shooting, and 38% 3-point shooting

After we began wondering whether Robertson had landed in a prolonged funk, the graduate transfer has averaged almost 1.7 points per shot — he scored 19 against UCF on just 11 attempts from the floor. Put simply, Robertson’s been anything but a volume shooter. He’s also managed to be a distributor while playing off the ball.

His shooting has been timely, too. A pair of 3-pointers midway through the second half keyed Mizzou’s decisive run against St. John’s. He also knocked in two of them on Thursday to spark a 15-3 burst to close the half on Thursday.

As for Barnett, Sam and I have gushed about how he’s finally using his athleticism in a host of ways as a scorer. But when you dig into the numbers, what stands out is the senior’s rebounding, especially on the offensive glass. Take a gander at the ORG/40 averages over the past three games for Mizzou’s big men and Barnett:

  • Barnett: 4.1 ORB/40
  • Tilmon: 5.3 ORB/40
  • Porter: 2.4 ORB/40
  • Puryear: 4.0 ORB/40

When Michael Porter Jr. was lost for the year, Mizzou not only lost scoring punch, but it also lost the potential for perimeter rebounding. Barnett has filled it in, tracking down a ton of misses outside his immediate areas. He’s not only filling up the scoring column, but he’s also generating extra possessions that can offset his team’s penchant for turning the ball over.

When you couple extra possessions with good ball movement and shooting, it’s how you wind up rated 43rd in adjusted offensive efficiency. It’s how you’re a top-10 team in assist rate. Or No. 29 in offensive rebound percentage. No, Mizzou isn’t pushing the tempo. (In fact, they’re 314th in adjusted tempo, on pace to be Cuonzo’s slowest team.) Yet Mizzou is getting efficient production from its veterans—the kind of output that has helped keep it on course despite a jarring beginning.