It’s been a rough 10 days for the Missouri men’s basketball program. The Tigers have lost their last three games by a combined 41 points, have fallen to 10th place in the SEC, and recently lost their lone true point guard to a suspension.
NCAA Tournament chances for the Tigers (13-8, 3-5) have grown much slimmer since a surprisingly good start to the season, but Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin isn’t going to let his team give up just yet.
“We have the team to win these games, whether its home or road, and there’s no question in my mind,” Martin said during media availability Tuesday. To do so, however, the East St. Louis native stressed that his team must get much better in two areas: defense and ball-control.
During its losing streak, Mizzou has committed 15.7 turnovers per game while allowing its opponents to score 75 points a night on 46 percent shooting from the field.
“You turn the ball over 15-plus times, you put too much stress on your defense,” Martin said. “I don’t think the last three games we defended from start to finish at the level I think we’re capable of. But when you look at it, and you’re giving up home runs with transition baskets via turnovers, that takes a lot of air out of you. We don’t have that kind of margin of error to make those breakdowns.”
Missouri will have the chance to make those improvements when it takes on Alabama in a road game at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Crimson Tide have been red-hot.
Alabama has won five of its last six games, including statement victories over two top-12 opponents Auburn and Oklahoma. Over that stretch, the Crimson Tide have scored 73 points per game while turning their opponents over 13.3 times per game.
That doesn’t bode well for Mizzou, and to make it even worse, Alabama has a great player in Collin Sexton who just happens to play the position where the Tigers have their biggest hole.
“Just even watching him at the high school level, he’s a guy that’s blown up quickly,” Martin said, adding a sound effect to accentuate Sexton’s meteoric rise. Missouri freshman Jontay Porter matched up against Sexton in AAU ball a couple years back, and described him as “the most aggressive guard I’ve played against so far in my life.”
Jordan Geist is set to have his hands full, but both Martin and Geist’s teammates have a lot of confidence in the junior guard. “He’s become a much much more confident player as his minutes have went up,” Kassius Robertson said.
Robertson went on to allude to Missouri’s crushing lost to West Virginia in which Geist virtually imploded at the end of the game. “He was just as hurt, probably a little more hurt than everybody else after that West Virginia loss,” he said. “Ever since then, he’s gotten better.”
The Canadian guard also mentioned Geist’s defensive potential, which is where Martin wants to see the most improvement.
“I think what we need from him more is his ability to defend at a high level,” Martin said before complimenting his offense. “He’s a competitive guy, I think that’s what separates him. Now he just has to bring that to the table on the defensive side as well, consistently.”
Update on Terrence Phillips’ suspension
Geist’s continued improvement has become all the more important after the indefinite suspension of Missouri guard Terrence Phillips on Friday. Martin revealed that he found out about the suspension just 20 minutes prior to leaving for Mississippi, and said he’s been in contact with Phillips.
“I’ve talked to him to see how he’s doing. That is somebody’s son, and it’s my job to make sure you’re okay and go from there,” Martin said. “You’re always surprised, because again that’s somebody’s child on both sides, whatever the case may be.”
Along with the suspension, it was announced Monday that the University of Missouri - Columbia’s Title IX office has opened an investigation. Phillips remains on scholarship while he’s suspended, but he won’t practice, travel or play with the team.
Freshman bigs are gonna be freshman bigs
SEC play has come with its highs and lows for Porter, who’s scored just 11 total points over the past three games.
He pointed out dealing with the increased physicality as the biggest adjustment he’s had to make so far. “I’m not as dominant physically as I was (in high school),” Porter said. “That was one of my greatest attributes in high school, just being bigger than everyone. I’ve had to get used to that.”
For Jeremiah Tilmon, the issues has been limiting his own physicality. He’s averaging four fouls per game in SEC play and has fouled out four times in eight games. Martin, however, doesn’t want his big man getting too timid.
“He’s 19-years-old, you’d like for him to be on the floor 25-30 minutes, but he’s better at playing hard as opposed to being cautious,” Martin said. “If he’s cautious, he might as well sit with me. We need him to play hard. If he fouls out playing hard, play hard.”
With depth at guard all but evaporated, Missouri will need its two freshman bigs to pick it up down the stretch.
Michael Porter Jr. Sighting
On Sunday, pictures and videos emerged of Michael Porter Jr. playing basketball with his brother Jontay Porter at the MizzouRec Complex.
Getting some shots up with Jontay. Looks good to me. pic.twitter.com/IMcAzSCsML— Eli Lederman (@EliLederman12) January 28, 2018
“Not bad,” Martin said when asked how Porter Jr. was progressing. “He’s traveling with the team. He’s not practicing though. He’s doing a little weight lifting here and there, but nothing on the floor.”
Jontay Porter said that he didn’t know whether his brother would be coming back this year or not, but had an encouraging nugget of information for the Mizzou faithful.
“He’s shooting and he doesn’t really miss,” Porter said. “He’s definitely getting more strong, more able to move, and that’s all you can really ask for in his recovery.”