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Study Hall: Mississippi State 74, Mizzou 62

Jordan Barnett needs to force the issue, and Mizzou wasted a good game from Cullen VanLeer.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

In 2006, Mike Anderson inherited a team that had gone 12-16, ranking just 151st (retroactively) in KenPom’s ratings. He did what he could in terms of upgrading the roster — he brought in JUCOs Stefhon Hannah and Darryl Butterfield, held onto the commitments of Keon Lawrence and quickly-forgotten JUCO forward Vaidatos Volkus, and inked freshman pit bull J.T. Tiller — but there’s only so much you can do in one offseason.

To say the least, the initial product was encouraging. Mizzou began the 2006-07 campaign 9-0, beating a decent Davidson and absolutely smoking Arkansas during a December snow storm. The Tigers had a clear identity, and even after losing badly to Purdue and falling just short against Illinois, they finished non-conference play with wins over Southern U. and Mississippi State.

They lost six of eight to begin conference play, however, and after 21 games, they found themselves just 13-8 overall. They won five of nine from there and finished an encouraging, far-better-than-the-year-before 18-12 overall and 63rd overall. But the early highlights raised the bar just high enough to where merely winning 18 games felt disappointing. It was the old mid-2000s Gary Pinkel trick, definitively exceeding expectations in the most disappointing possible way.

I’ve found myself thinking about that season quite a bit. Both Anderson and Cuonzo Martin found quick ways to upgrade the roster, and an early-season chemistry experiment reaped dividends. But ongoing attrition took its toll, opponents adjusted, Mizzou didn’t have the pieces for a decent Plan B, and that was that. It certainly feels that’s what’s happening in 2017-18.

As Sam wrote on Sunday, Mizzou’s Achilles heel (ball-handling) has been obvious for a while and certainly isn’t going to get better after the transfer of two freshman guards and the suspension of Terrence Phillips. And because the ball-handling is so poor, that means that Mizzou is going to need its two primary scorers (Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett) to both be dialed in, and its freshman bigs (Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon) are going to have to hold their own (a dicey proposition), to win games in a physical conference.

On Saturday in Starkville, only one of Mizzou’s two scorers showed up, and while the Tigers most certainly held their own on the glass, the freshmen didn’t contribute nearly enough to the box score.

Team Stats

Mizzou turned the ball over on nearly 30 percent of its possessions, a number both a) ghastly and b) unsurprising. Mississippi State didn’t do itself many favors in the ball-handling department, but the Bulldogs’ 10 steals allowed them to easily win the ball control battle all the same.

That meant, of course, that Mizzou had to win the rebounding battle and hit a lot of 3s to make up the difference. Going 1-for-2 didn’t cut it.

To make matters even worse, MSU is a horrid 3-point shooting team (345th in D1) but managed to go 6-for-16 from long range. If both teams shot their season averages, Mizzou would have gotten about 25.5 points’ worth of 3-pointers, and MSU would have scored about 13.8. Instead, each team got 18 points, a reversal of 11.7 points. In a 12-point loss. To account for its issues, Mizzou needed some good fortune and got bad fortune instead.

Player Stats

Your Trifecta: Robertson-VanLeer-Geist.

I feel confident in saying the only way you’re winning a game with these three in your Trifecta is if they combine to go about 15-for-20 from 3-point range. In this game, they went merely 5-for-13.

(It really stinks to waste a good game from CVL, doesn’t it?)

  • Jordan Barnett’s last six games: 10.2 PPG (48% 2PT, 35% 3PT, 3-4 FT)
  • The 10 games before that: 19.7 PPG (56% 2PT, 51% 3PT, 36-39 FT)

Barnett’s pace was far too torrid for him to continue it throughout an entire season; some regression to the mean was guaranteed. But it has struck at a particularly inconvenient time. More importantly, it appears his aggressiveness has suffered along with his shooting percentage. During his 10-game hot streak, he was getting to the line 3.9 times per game. Since: 0.7.

Barnett’s not the type to force bad shots, and that’s an inherently good thing. But thanks to the lack of options elsewhere, it means opponents are rendering him invisible instead. And at a time when he’s needed to get more aggressive and force the issue a bit, he’s done the opposite.

It’s hard for me to be too critical here because I like his instincts. But he needs to be a No. 1 scorer right now, and he’s a more natural No. 2. And he’s scored more than 12 points in a game just once in the last three and a half weeks.

As for that whole “freshman bigs are going to have to hold their own” thing, it goes without saying that “1.1 combined Adj. GS points in 46 minutes” doesn’t qualify, even if the rebounding totals were decent.

Tilmon, Porter, and Reed Nikko were all pretty high-usage on Saturday; Mizzou really, really needs to run its offense through its bigs at the moment. But that’s just not happening. Even with two turnovers and two fouls in eight minutes, Nikko was the most productive, per minute, of the three. Yikes.

That Mizzou’s 13-8 right now only feels disappointing because of what we thought might be possible a few weeks ago. From a macro view, this season has already been a rousing success, and the thought of Tilmon and Porter maturing into a dominant duo in 2018-19 is exciting. But the present tense is still awfully frustrating at the moment, and if the Tigers want to still have a chance at the NCAA Tournament, they need a rally to begin very, very soon. Feels like a lot to ask for at the moment.