“If you’re tired, I’ll take you out,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “If you don’t have energy, I’ll find someone who does.”
Normally, the snippets ESPN shares from a team huddled around a coach are pretty bland. Instead of seeing a coach walk his group through a pivotal possession, we get generalities. And maybe that’s what we glimpsed Saturday. But it jived with what we saw from Texas A&M on the floor at Reed Arena.
Against Missouri, the Aggies, losers of five of six coming into the game, shook off their malaise on the defensive end squeezed enough offensive production from their formidable frontline in a 60-49 victory.
More importantly, the Aggies looked like they cared against the Tigers, and when Kennedy’s group is dialed in, they’re the best team in the SEC. Sure, injuries and suspensions masked it for the past month, but for the first time since rolling past Northern Kentucky, A&M lived up to its potential.
That’s bad news for the rest of the SEC—if the gains hold.
Mizzou just happened to be the opponent on the schedule that helped the Aggies get right. As I drafted the preview for this tilt, I kept coming back to the idea that jump-shots — Missouri making them and A&M missing them — would tip the balance. The Aggies’ backcourt had been off-kilter, its halfcourt defense lackadaisical at times.
Well, let’s turn to the box.
Only one of those things happened. And it didn’t break in MU’s favor against an opponent that may be getting back to its old self.
Mizzou defended well enough to win...for awhile
To steal a road win, the Tigers needed to make the Aggies’ one dimensional.
A passing glance at the box score hints they met that goal. Texas A&M forwards Tyler Davis, Robert Williams and Tonny Trocha Morelos amassed 38 points on 16-for-33 shooting, including 9-for-16 in the paint, and yanked down 20 rebounds.
But peep a look at the stats for its starting guards. Duane Wilson, Admon Gilder and D.J. Hogg only tallied 11 points on 5-for-20 shooting, bricking seven of eight 3-pointers they lofted up. When T.J. Starks, who entered the day averaging 3.9 points per game, leads the way in the backcourt, you should feel pretty confident about your chances.
But let’s look at how Mizzou finished the day.
- Possessions: 64
- Points per possession: 0.94
- Points per shot: 0.94
- 2FG: 46.8%
- 3FG: 17.6%
- FT: 63.6%
- TS: 43.6%
- EFG: 41.4%
- TO%: 6.3%
For roughly 25 minutes, Mizzou’s defense kept the Tigers in what amounted to a sit-and-kick race. Cuonzo Martin’s team was playing its preferred tempo. Inside, Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon played solid positional defense, making Davis and Williams take contested shots, while Kevin Puryear and other help defenders were sturdy when needed. On the wings, Admon Gilder hadn’t scored since 13:46 in the first half, when he knocked down a corner 3. Hogg? He only had a layup to his name.
And with 15:48 to play, it looked like Mizzou’s defense had held the fort long enough for the offensive to find its footing. Kevin Puryear slipped into a void on the left block for a layup, taking a feed on baseline drive by Jordan Geist to cap a 12-2 run and give the Tigers a 32-31 lead.
Unfortunately, the Aggies outscored Mizzou by a 29-17 margin the rest of the way, racking up 18 of those points in the lane and shooting 68 percent. In the end, Trocha-Morelos face-up game, including the deft use of the Dream Shake, and the ability of Starks to get to the rim, whether it was off a back cut or a blow-by of Jordan Geist (who struggles at times in pick-and-roll coverage), made the difference.
What’s frustrating is the Tigers executed large chunks of the game plan. They made Davis inefficient on post-ups. In fact, he didn’t tally his first points of the second half until 8:50 to go in the game. Williams had a nice 90-second burst late in the first half, but he didn’t pose the kind of threat he does as a cutter or on dump-offs. If you’re Missouri, you want to make reserves beat you. On Saturday, the Aggies made that an irksome reality.
When the time came for Missouri to pounce, the Tigers missed...a lot.
Two weeks of living dangerously? Or something permanent?
The omen looked promising enough.
Sprinting down the left wing, Jordan Barnett hauled in an outlet pass from Kassius Robertson, squared up, and penalized Hogg for a lazy closeout. Forty-two seconds in, MU’s offense gave off the early impression of ditching slow starts that have been nagged at Martin’s club its past three outings.
And then came the remaining 19 minutes.
When it’s clicking, Mizzou’s offense is a marvel of precision, but the past 10 days have seen it slow to get primed and warmed up, especially in the first half. Since taking the floor against Georgia, this is what it’s typically produced in the first 20 minutes:
- Points: 23.8
- PPP: 0.77
- PPS: 0.88
- 2FG: 40.0%
- 3FG: 20.9%
- FT: 76.2%
- TS: 40.5%
- EFG: 36.6%
- TO%: 17.8%
- BCI: 1.045
To its credit, Mizzou has found remedies in the second half: attack the paint. Usually, it involves finding Jeremiah Tilmon on the block. Or, if a team struggles to defend the action, putting four men flat on the baseline and setting a high ball-screen that allows for the roll man to dive cut and pop out. Either way, MU generates a shot at the rim or gets to the free-throw line.
On Saturday, they opted to feed Tilmon, who for five minutes managed to dislodge Davis, use his shoulder as a shield, and finish over the top with either hand. It also helped that a double-tech as the teams headed up the tunnel for half gave Mizzou free throws and saddled A&M with two immediate second-half fouls. The Tigers quickly took advantage.
This is how Missouri’s attempted rally unfolded:
The next step is usually Robertson getting on track from the outside and Mizzou building a lead (one that usually bleeds away down the stretch). That never happened.
Mizzou made just one 3-pointer the final 12 minutes. Jontay Porter never found a rhythm, either on pick-and-pops or at the rim. After his fast start, Tilmon saw the flow of the offense drift away, and succumbed, again, to foul trouble. Down the stretch, Kevin Puryear tried ably to be a factor offensively, but against Davis, every attempt he put up in the paint seemingly glanced off the front of the rim.
After Mizzou’s win over Tennessee, Sam Snelling wrote about how Missouri’s pace has revved lower than we initially thought and Martin predicted. By adopting the persona of past Martin teams, though, Missouri finds itself leaning defense, winning the backboards and getting enough late-game execution to get by.
Whether this is just a rocky patch or a way of life remains to be seen. But the slow starts, poor 3-point shooting—MU is hitting at just a 28.2 percent clip over this stretch—and navigating tight finishes with patchwork point guards aren’t ideal.
Then again, this is arguably the Tigers’ rockiest stretch of the SEC schedule, and losing on the road in league play is a fact of life. Still, it would ease some minds if Missouri started quickly and cleanly against Auburn on Wednesday.
Terrence, where art thou? Jordan needs your help
Blake Harris’ transfer gifted Terrence Phillips an opportunity—a prominent and stable role. Over the last two weeks, though, the junior, who saw just five minutes Saturday, hasn’t done much with it.
Ahead of this season, I was optimistic that Phillips would benefit most from a coaching change. Martin’s system, at least as he envisioned it in the fall, wouldn’t demand that Phillips own the burden of creating offensively. If he could make smart reads, execute soundly and consistently hit spot-up jumpers, there were minutes for the taking.
Instead, Phillips remains just as likely to turn the ball over as he is to distribute it properly, and his foul rate is trumped only Jeremiah Tilmon’s. Not only does it put more pressure on Jordan Geist, but Kassius Robertson has to slide over for stretches, robbing Missouri of his ability to space a defense, which has to account for him off the ball.
Since taking over the starting role, Geist’s body of work has been admirable. After Saturday, he sports a 26.0% assist rate (ninth best in SEC play) and a 16.0% turnover percentage. He exorcised late-game demons against Tennessee, converting a crucial one-and-one to help Mizzou hold on to a marquee win. And versus Texas A&M, his stat line — nine points, three rebounds and three assists — earned him the Tigers’ highest-offensive rating on the day.
That being said, Geist remains a stop-gap solution, and Missouri, which basically only goes six deep at this point, could use any contributions that Phillips can muster.