In the minutes after Mizzou locked up a win over Alabama, my Twitter notifications — the least reliable gauge of public opinion — filled up with different strains of the same question: Does this put Mizzou back in the bracket?
And I certainly understand why people want a fleshed out scenario that results from what is clearly a boost to MU’s March bonafides. At this point, though, forecasting the impact is akin to choosing your own adventure. What I did feel certain about was that a sweep this week was the shore of a Rubicon. Bluntly, Mizzou just needed a positive outcome, any sign they could arrest their recent slide.
They got it Wednesday night in Tuscaloosa.
And they did it in a way fitting their coach’s style: defense, rebounding, winning 50-50 plays and getting contributions big and small up and down their lineup.
Kassius Robertson turned in his third consecutive 20-point game, while Mizzou’s freshmen bigs left a mark in each half. On defense, MU turned a Bama team that discovered a semblance of offensive balance into one entirely reliant on Collin Sexton’s powers. They won the rebounding battle (plus-10) and outscored Bama’s bench by 10 points.
Sure, ball-handling remains an issue and the frontcourt racked up a heft foul count, but those issues are baked into almost every game Mizzou will play the rest of the way. But they showed last night there’s a path forward. Per KenPom’s updated win expectancies, MU is favored in seven of nine games — five of which seem gettable for this roster.
Meanwhile, Martin’s history at Cal and Tennessee indicates he’s a capable steward in February. He owns a 32-13 record for the month his six seasons at the high-major level and saw his 2014 squad at Tennessee and 2016 group at Cal push their way into the 68-team field. If Martin navigates Mizzou to a .500 finish in the SEC with a depleted roster — one featuring five members who’ve never played on a team that’s won more than 10 games in a year — it may be Martin’s most impressive feat.
Point being: history and playing style suggest Mizzou will give itself a puncher’s chance over its final nine games. And that may be enough to put them on the right side of the bubble.
That said, let’s turn to the box.
Hey, jump-shooting looks a little better
Often, I lament watching Kassius Robertson dribble off a high ball-screen and launch a 3-pointer, which seems silly — the graduate transfer is shooting 41 percent and tallying 1.03 points per possession in those sequences. It’s the not same as when he’s spotting up off the ball (1.38 PPP), but it’s still a clear net positive.
Maybe Wednesday night finally spurs me to ditch my worries.
Against the Crimson Tide, Robertson punished defenders for ducking under screeners or trailing too far behind on handoff plays, knocking in four of eight shots from behind the arc on his way a 22-point outing to pace Mizzou. Even better, he dished out four assists, all coming off high ball-screens where was able to find a roll man slicing down the lane.
On this week’s episode of Dive Cuts, Sam and I touched on how Robertson has come to own a bigger role than that of a spot-up shooter and floor spacer. Over the past six games, he’s averaged 17.5 points, cracking the 20-point mark four times in that span, while grabbing 4.8 rebounds, doling out 2.5 assists and shooting 43.1 percent from 3-point range.
As for the rest of his teammates? Well, it’s been a rougher go, as the zone chart below makes abundantly clear.
To save you time, Kash’s teammates entered the night shooting just 24.6 percent (19-for-77) from long range over the past five games. Last night, they combined to shoot just 33 percent against the Tide. Not great, but it was enough as a collective to get Missouri to 39.1 percent — the closest they’ve come to cracking the 40-percent barrier since a road loss at Arkansas.
All season, though, we’ve talked incessantly about how the Tigers’ dependence on jump-shooting exposes Cuonzo Martin’s squad to volatile swings. (According to their updated KenPom profile, 44.9 percent of Mizzou’s shots are beyond the arc, ranking 38th nationally). Clearly, MU’s portfolio was taking a beating in a bear market. Given the futility that’s become common over the past three weeks, the Tigers can take what transpired versus the Tide as a positive sign.
Mizzou’s freshmen showed up
Coming off Saturday’s loss, Sam touched on the up-and-down existence for Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon in SEC play.
If you’re Tilmon, a player still tapping into a raw skill set, there’s a difference in the expectations when you’re the second or third option and not the fifth. Mizzou’s poor recent outside shooting has meant he’s going to face double teams. And while Jontay has shown he’s pretty good against them, Tilmon has been prone to turnovers.
Working on the block against Alabama’s Donta Hall, one of the SEC’s better post-up defenders, Tilmon spent six minutes flashing the same tantalizing blend of quickness, footwork, and touch around the rim.
- 12:46: Tilmon sprints to initiate a high pick-and-roll with Robertson, who spins out and dives down the lane to take a feed for a two-handed dunk.
- 10:18: Tilmon posts on the left block, catching a bounce entry pass and spinning baseline. The Tide send a late double-team, but the East St. Louis product doesn’t panic, maneuvering with a half-pivot to step through the trap — all while keeping his left shoulder to the defender to shield the ball for a right-handed baby hook.
- 9:20: Off a second possession generated by a Kevin Puryear rebound, Tilmon steps into a gap created when an Alabama defender inches too far up the line to head off a drive by Geist. The point guard finds the big man for an easy assist and dunk.
- 7:04: Tilmon gets a favorable switch on to Alabama guard John Petty, gets him on his hip and sticks a paw up in the air for an easy lob entry. Tilmon converts the bucket and draws a foul.
- 6:04: Just click the play button below, folks.
All that was missing from a stretch where Tilmon racked up 10 of his 12 points was a rim run. And each of his touches mattered. While Robertson knocked in a ridiculous 3-pointer off one foot, the Tigers’ freshman big largely carried his team during a 13-6 run that staked it a 60-52 lead.
For his part, Porter was equally vital in the first half, tallying 10 of his 13 points over an eight-minute span to carry the Tigers’ offense. And like Tilmon, Porter did the bulk of his work inside the 3-point arc, catching on the block or knocking in two face-up jumpers from the elbow.
How big of a departure was this outing? Over the past five games, the pair averaged just 10.4 points and nine rebounds, shooting just 33 percent from the floor and averaging 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes.
For Missouri to earn an at-large bid, it needs production comparable to what Tilmon and Porter gave them last night. Frankly, there aren’t many places Mizzou can turn, either. Kevin Puryear is shooting just 32 percent in SEC play, while Jordan Geist’s 3-point stroke has regressed to what we saw a season ago.
Inconsistency is a fact of life for freshmen, but if Martin and Co. get one month of stability out of its front line, it alleviates a ton of pressure on an already warped roster.
Bonus Thought: Shout out to the bench mob
- Kevin Puryear’s shooting touch, especially at the rim, has gone missing, but the junior made a mark Wednesday on the offensive glass. Two of the second chances he created resulted in five points — a Jordan Barnett 3-pointer and a reset that resulted in a Tilmon dunk — for Mizzou.
- Cullen VanLeer’s stat line (three points on 1-for-4 shooting, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists) won’t make your eyes pop out of your skull, but the junior has been able to give Mizzou enough minutes where he moves the ball and — if you can keep him out of pick-and-rolls — can be covered up somewhat on the defensive end. Plus-minus isn’t gospel, but the wing broke even at plus-0 last night.
- After a pair of rough outings, Geist gave Missouri a grab bag of contributions. He grabbed nine rebounds, including four during a six-minute stretch in the second half when glass cleaners Barnett and Tilmon were mired in foul trouble. He also dished out four assists and didn’t commit any of Mizzou’s 19 turnovers.