What happens when you win the rebounding battle by 11 and get 21 and 19 points from your top two scorers at home? You lose by 18.
Dissecting games like this is never fun, but the possibility of this outcome was made entirely possible because these two teams are virtually polar opposites on the court.
Auburn flaunts an undersized but supremely athletic team, one that will press you, overplay passing lanes, and loves to get into the mid-70s in terms of tempo.
Missouri has a big, physical lineup that isn’t overly athletic, but it’s tall, long and can shoot well. But it also struggles with ball handling and prefers to play in the mid 60’s for tempo.
Only one was capable of executing its game plan. It wasn’t Missouri.
The Tigers had a size advantage inside and superior shooting on the outside, and none of it mattered because the Auburn Tigers were set to take advantage of Mizzou’s fatal flaw. Ball-handling has and continues to be Missouri’s biggest problem, and a 27 percent turnover rate means you giving away a quarter of the game.
Here’s the box:
When you’ve got limited options...
Mizzou is a one-tier team — not a tier-one team, but a team with only one tier. There’s not a ton of ways they’re going to beat you. It’s Jeremiah Tilmon down low, Jontay Porter facilitating, and Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson hitting jump shots. Anything else they get is usually a bonus.
If, as so often happens, Tilmon gets into foul trouble, Mizzou needs one of the bonus options to become necessary.
This is a team that runs out nine scholarship players right now. And for all the criticism they receive, Cullen VanLeer and Reed Nikko are two of them. I’m not going to spend time hating on those two in particular, but they are limited athletically, and in a game with ultra athleticism like against Auburn, that’s going to stand out. And not in a good way.
In the first half, VanLeer had four turnovers in five minutes, Nikko played 14 minutes and has his shot blocked multiple times. This is what happens when Option B, Kevin Puryear, joins option A, Jeremiah Tilmon, on the bench.
Mizzou doesn’t have the depth to play with elite SEC teams when its best options are foul trouble. And they’re in foul trouble a lot. They already lack perimeter depth, and facing foul trouble on the interior means alternatives get short in a hurry. That Mizzou was down five points at halftime was something of a minor miracle considering all of the above.
The Tilmon Situation
When you commit nearly eight fouls per 40 minutes, you’ve clearly got a problem. Tilmon has fouled out in four of the seven SEC games, and in only one of those games did he play more than 11 minutes.
In his last four games, Tilmon has had 18 fouls. Against Tennessee and Texas A&M, he was still able to play more than 20 minutes, but just seven minutes against Auburn negated much of what was likely a big part of the game plan. At this point, you have to start thinking of alternatives.
The obvious alternative is to sit him to start the game.
It’s not ideal, putting one of your three or four best players on the bench to start the game, but crazier things have happened.
Often for Mizzou, the early game plan is to attack the rim with Tilmon to force the defense to collapse as early as possible, giving Cuonzo Martin and his staff a portion of the opposing game plan. Sitting Tilmon to start the game would clearly change a lot, but it might be necessary to get him back to where he was toward the end of non-conference play, when fouls were less of an issue. If Jeremiah is going to continue to commit fouls at this rate, it’s going to severely impact Missouri’s ability to make the NCAA tournament.
It’s not the end of the world
This was the worst of possible matchups for Missouri. There was hope the Tigers could ride some solid early ball-handling and make enough jump shots to keep Auburn at bay. But the hope faded in the second half when the defense faltered and Auburn didn’t.
Bruce Pearl’s squad has some dudes who play with a swagger, and when they get going they’re really tough. There’s a reason they’re ranked, and there’s a reason they're the favorite right now to win the league.
As for Mizzou, there are some more tough teams left on the schedule, and it would certainly seem like 9-9 in league play is more likely than 11-7 or anything better. But nobody immediately ahead of them is as bad of a matchup as Auburn.
Saturday’s game at Mississippi State is still a projected win, per KenPom. That’s important to remember. Like a lot of these SEC games, it’s a tossup. The Bulldogs are young and still struggling to close out games. They’re prone to extended periods of offensive ineptitude and are certainly beatable, even at home. This same Mizzou squad went to South Carolina and won, and the Gamecocks are 4-4 in league play and just went to Gainesville and beat the Gators.
Then Missouri gets Alabama, which just went on the road and dropped a game by double digits to Ole Miss, barely a top-80 team. The Collin Sexton matchup will be tough, but the Tide are also prone to long periods of porous offense and inefficient defense.
What I’m saying is, this has been a bad two-game stretch. It’s also not the end of the world.
Mizzou is a year removed from winning two SEC games. In a lot of ways, this is a program in transition, and the Tigers still have a bunch of basketball ahead of them and a really good chance at playing in the NCAA tournament. They just can’t let the last couple games snowball on them.