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Mizzou held on in a game it probably should have lost to Stephen F. Austin

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Three thoughts on the Tigers, who fended off an upset bid by a pesky mid-major.

NCAA Basketball: Stephen F. Austin at Missouri
Mizzou has every reason to feel relieved after escaping a near-upset at the hands of Stephen F. Austin.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of a season, a team is confronted with winning a game where it’s far from the best version of itself.

Such a moment arose Tuesday as Mizzou swerved in the nick of time to avoid a near-upset, walking away with an 82-81 victory against Stephen F. Austin. In March, we may look back at this win as an inflection point, but in the short-term, it’s best to acknowledge a simpler reality: for long stretches, Stephen F. Austin was the better team.

But don’t take it from me.

Several trend lines also helped serve as a rope Missouri used to pull itself out of peril.

Once again, Jordan Barnett put up a monster night. The senior piled up 22 points on 6 of 12 shooting, bringing his scoring average up to 18.7 points over the last seven outings. And while I’d like to see him attack off the bounce a touch more, his 48-percent clip from the 3-point line during this stretch makes it hard to knock shot selection. And his work rate on the backboards hasn’t dipped.

After two sedate nights against Miami (Ohio) and North Florida, Kassius Robertson poured in 23 of his own, including five points in the final two minutes and helped carry Missouri through choppy waters. Meanwhile, Jeremiah Tilmon not only chipped in 10 points, four rebounds and two blocks but also managed to stay on the floor in the waning minutes with four fouls in the ledger.

Offensively, this game was a tale of two halves for Mizzou, with a scalding opening 20 minutes masking Missouri’s poor ballhandling and shoddy work on the defensive end.

When Missouri entered the tunnel at halftime, the Tigers toted with them an eight-point lead that felt like two and likely should have been safely in double digits. Nearly one in three possessions were handouts to the Jacks. They were losing on the offensive glass. And coach Kyle Keller’s crew was finding high-percentage looks. Anyone looking at the stat sheet knew this one would inevitably tighten.

And four minutes into the second half, the inevitable regression to the mean started. Stephen F. Austin went on a drawn out 12-2 run, and Mizzou spent the final 10 minutes scratching to hold serve in a one-possession game. This was a hard-fought win—one that helps blot out the memory of a meltdown against West Virginia—but one that also underscores issues we can assume are baked in as the season marches on.

We’re tired of saying it: Value. The. Ball.

Twelve games into a season, a team’s identity is largely cemented. Now, fluctuations occur from game to game, but they largely stay in the same bandwidth. And so we need to be honest with ourselves about MU: turnovers are a fact of life.

The question moving forward is just how fatal Mizzou’s sloppy ball-handling will prove once the Tigers descend into the pit of SEC play.

Against Stephen F. Austin, the Tigers turned the ball over 21 times—or 28.8 percent of their offensive possessions. It’s not necessarily surprising, either. The Lumberjacks lead the nation with a 29.2 turnover percentage, per KenPom. They’re second in steals, swiping 12.9 per game. And their poaching generates 20 percent of their initial shots. Knowing all that, however, watching Missouri still got snared in in traps, picked up its dribble and got flustered by hard hedging.

NCAA Basketball: Stephen F. Austin at Missouri
The steady pressure applied by the Lumberjacks overwhelmed Kassius Robertson and other MU wings on Tuesday.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

What’s more alarming is the source of the giveaways aren’t bug-eyed freshmen. Here were your leaders in turnovers on Tuesday:

  • Jordan Geist: 6
  • Kassius Robertson: 4
  • Terrence Phillips: 3

The Tigers’ veteran wings yacked it up 13 times, which Stephen F. Austin gladly converted into 14 points. They also weren’t the outgrowth of slicing into gaps and trying to create offensively or missed connections on cuts. Lame as it sounds, you expect Geist, Robertson, and Phillips to play with some composure. Too often, they lapse into fundamental mistakes in tight quarters.

You can rest assured the book is out on Missouri, too, among SEC peers. Tennessee, Arkansas, Auburn and Florida all have the ability to turn teams over at a high rate. And Kentucky has tinkered with variations of a press in recent games. Almost every SEC contender can turn up the heat, and we’ve seen that Missouri wilt.

Now, if you’re an optimist, look to Brandon Kiley’s Twitter feed.

In those wins, Mizzou’s outside shooting offset lost possessions. St. John’s and Stephen F. Austin’s systems also produce a ton of fouls. What we haven’t seen yet is a night where MU shoots an average percentage from the 3-point line and turns the ball over at a high rate. Let’s say Mizzou shot 35 percent from deep against the Jacks. In that scenario, they lose by eight points. Against St. John’s, they would have fallen by five points. And instead of close defeat to West Virginia, the Mountaineers win by closer to 10 points.

Now, I don’t think turnovers drive this team into the SEC cellar. But could they cost this MU a couple of games? Absolutely. The goal over the past couple of weeks was to see MU’s turnover percentage slide under 20 percent. Instead, it’s still hovering at 21.6 percent—or 275th nationally.

The question moving forward is what’s driving their creation, and whether Mizzou’s offense continues to whirs efficiently to make up for squandered opportunities.

Porous in the Paint

Just looking out on the floor, a casual fan could spot Missouri’s advantage along the front line. It’s swingman—Jordan Barnett—stood shoulder to shoulder with Stephen F. Austin’s post player.

Mizzou’s relies on a simple recipe when it wins: make opponents take contested twos, clean up the backboards and bury them with 3-pointers on the other end. On Tuesday, only perimeter shooting—50 percent behind the arc—went Missouri’s way.

Cuonzo Martin should wretch when he looks at the shot chart. Stephen Austin outscored MU by 20 points inside. The Lumberjacks racked 38 points at the rim, and almost half of their 63 shots came at point-blank range. While Mizzou won the rebounding battle, the plus-2 margin is minuscule for a team that went into this game sitting 10th nationally in rebound margin.

And Stephen F. Austin wasn’t running elaborate sets offensively, pulling four men up to the foul line, running a side pick-and-roll with various actions—a back cut, pitchback or dump off to the short corner—deployed based on how Mizzou responded to the ball screen.

That’s not a knock on Stephen F. Austin. Sure, it didn’t always look fluid or pretty. But the Jacks, especially TJ Holyfield, were patient and worked offense to get matchups in spots they liked. When you add in the extra possessions created by turnovers, SFA had ample chances to hang around.

Missouri’s effort at the defensive end helped make it possible.

Kevin Puryear wasn’t great in help-side defense, often rotating late when Jeremiah Tilmon stepped up to stop a driver or cutter. At times, Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson quickly gave up their hip to a driver. And this from a team that’s usually on-point defensively.

Meanwhile, Mizzou tracked down just 60.6 percent of Stephen F. Austin’s misses. It’s the Tigers worst performance of the season, and it came against one of the smallest frontcourts it will face all year.

We’ve prattled on about Cuonzo’s evolution offensively and whether he’ll accept playing a faster clip. At his core, however, Martin is a Boiler—an identity built on steady man-to-man defense, toughness at the tin and outmuscling the opposition on the backboards. While Mizzou escaped with a win, the facets that define its personality under Martin’s direction were absent.

Looking at the glass half full, though, is easy. Missouri won a game where the opposition largely dictated the flow and style of play, clasping on to win a game where the margin wasn’t more than one possession over the final eight minutes. Missouri withstood a hell of punch delivered by a team that could, under the right circumstances, put a scare into a protected seed come March.

Give the keys to Blake Harris

There’s a rhythm to Blake Harris’ minutes. He starts each half, sees three minutes of action and then trots to the bench, usually with Geist subbing in. If Geist wobbles, Cuonzo Martin inserts Terrence Phillips. And often with 10 minutes left in the half, we see Harris again.

On Tuesday, he had Kyle Keller terrified in the game’s early minutes.

There was the blowby at the top of the key to set up a no-look dish to Jeremiah Tilmon for a dunk, accelerating on a secondary break for a layup, and near-miss on an attempted wrap-around dish to Tilmon. And in the second half, Harris looked at ease playing in a ramshackle game where both sides seemed to be in a perpetual scramble drill.

NCAA Basketball: Stephen F. Austin at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Against a team that feasts on young guards, Harris put together his best stat line of the season. In 13 minutes, he scored six points, dished out five assists, swiped three steals and committed just two turnovers. His 127 offensive rating is his second-best mark of the year, but its value trumps his best outing against Emporia State.

I don’t have every clip saved, but Harris’ turnovers tend to result from trying to create offensively. Take the early turnover with Tilmon: Harris put too much mustard on a pass to a guy less than two feet away. And you’ll usually see a couple of turnovers from that variety each night — misreading the direction a cutter is moving or a passing angle that’s just off as he tries to lead a teammate on the break.

Right now, Harris plays at one speed, and the only way to help him learn how to shift is to let car lurch and die a couple of times. It was almost jarring to see Geist check in and, on his first trip up the court, pick the ball up 35 feet from the rim in the face of token pressure. It’s clear why Martin likes the Indiana native.

Moxie should count for something, but how far can Mizzou go platooning three players at the lead guard spot. It would be nice to Harris consistently claim 25 minutes a night and have the opportunity to play through mistakes.

Last night, Martin showed a willingness to trust youth when he left Porter and Tilmon on the floor as time ticked down. Learning how to close games only comes with seat time. It would be nice if Harris could start getting some of his own for down the road.