Let’s all stare at and address the elephant in the room.
It goes without saying: Losing to an Ole Miss team mired in a seven-game skid, led by an interim coach and perched at No. 122 in the Ratings Percentage Index is…not ideal.
Well, MU didn’t heed that advice. Instead, poor ball-handling, defensive breakdowns, ill-timed misses at the free-throw line and woeful shooting in overtime dragged the Tigers into the undertow for a 90-87 loss. And with the defeat, Mizzou whiffed on the easiest pitch in an already-soft closing quartet of games.
So, all we can do is coolly and calmly sift through the wreckage.
First, on the matter of the Tigers’ dance invitation. Tempting as it might be to say they tumbled out of the bracket, those assessments may be premature. They started the day solidly on the No. 7 line, per Bracket Matrix. Our own Bill C. noted that MU sits 19 spots from the end of the bubble. Mizzou’s metrics also overlay fairly evenly with those of SEC rivals Alabama and Florida, according to Bart Torvik’s teamsheet rankings, which mimics what the NCAA selection committee will see in several weeks.
Dropping a couple seed lines wouldn’t be a shock, though. How many? I don’t know. Inconsistency and instability have defined college basketball this season. If I’m certain of one thing, it’s other teams with their postseason fate in limbo will earn demerits. And the conference tournaments for the Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 could be rollicking free-for-alls.
Maybe Mizzou flames out. Or maybe it closes with wins over Vanderbilt and Arkansas, finishes 10-8 in the SEC and earns a solid No. 8 seed in the field of 68.
Now, about MU’s place in the rat’s nest we call the SEC standings. Is Missouri crippled in the race for a double-bye and extra rest during the SEC tournament? I’ll spare you to tour of every scenario, but almost all of them have Cuonzo Martin’s bunch heading to Rupp Arena as the No. 5 seed. At least in the near-term, the Tigers’ quality work against teams in the upper half of the league table helped them stay in the thick of the chase.
To recap: Mizzou gagged on a winnable home game and may not see its position in the standings or NCAA tournament hunt change all that much.
All along, Sam Snelling and I have maintained that going .500 in the SEC probably gets you in the field. Over the last week, we’d talked about how a road loss to Vanderbilt, which has won five consecutive at Memorial Coliseum, was well within the realm of possibility. But we assumed that MU’s potential losses would be in Lexington and Nashville.
At home to a reeling Ole Miss? Not at all.
The objective down the stretch remains clear: go 2-1, and winning a game in St. Louis for some added insurance might not be a bad idea, either.
With that, let’s steel ourselves and look at the box.
Mizzou had been curbing its turnovers. Not on Tuesday.
After the Tigers escaped Oxford with a victory, I made an obvious point: value the ball and win. That night seemed to mark a turning point, too. Take a look at the Tigers’ turnover percentages:
- at Ole Miss: 16.7 percent
- vs. Mississippi State: 16.0 percent
- vs. Texas A&M: 13.2 percent
- at LSU: 19.0 percent
- Overall: 16.2 percent
For two weeks, Mizzou’s ball-handling had been in the same territory as Gonzaga and Kansas, a boon for an offense that’s among top 50 for adjusted efficiency. And when Mizzou coughs the ball up, its solid transition defense could limit the damage.
All that went out the window on Tuesday with 21 turnovers, which Ole Miss cashed in for 19 points. But it wasn’t the Tigers’ guards fumbling away possessions. Instead, Mizzou’s big men combined for 12 turnovers, with their giveaways in the first helping the Rebels lead bulge to 13 points with 5:45 remaining until halftime.
A lone minute summed the woes.
- Forward Jontay Porter missed a 3-pointer from the top of the arc and corralled his own miss only to see a put-back floater hit off the back rim.
- The next trip down, Porter’s poor entry pass kickstarted a fast-break that ended with a Breein Tyree layup.
- To cap it off, Terrence Davis jumped a lazy pass and breezed down the floor for a 34-21 lead and left Martin no other alternative but to call a timeout to stem the tide.
But he wasn’t the only big culpable.
The minute before Porter helped ignite an Ole Miss spurt, Reed Nikko lost the ball in the paint, a swipe that Markel Crawford turned into a layup. It came just one possession after Jordan Barnett knocked in a corner 3-pointer to draw Mizzou within 26-20 and seemed intent on pulling in front.
After the break, MU’s guards got into the act with seven turnovers of their own, paced by Jordan Geists’ five giveaways. While Ole Miss didn’t cash in on all of them, those lost possessions stymied momentum and put more strain on an offense that was averaging 1.26 points per possession and shooting 58 percent from the floor, including 8-for-12 from the 3-point arc.
Think of it this way: Each turnover robbed Missouri of 2.04 points — their average for a shot in the second half.
Ole Miss’ guards are among the SEC’s worst at containing spot-up shooters, and the Tigers were able to punish them when interim coach Tony Madlock called a 2-3 zone. In Oxford two weeks ago, too, Mizzou solved that puzzle and the one for Andy Kennedy’s 1-3-1 option. As important as generating quality looks, MU dictated tempo and game flow.
That didn’t happen last night.
Ole Miss guards Breein Tyree and Terrence Davis are apex predators in the open court, and they feasted last night, who scored a quarter of their 44 combined points on fast breaks. Mix in 38 percent shooting from the 3-point line — an uptick over the Rebels’ season average — and Ole Miss’ attack burned hotter than usual. Mizzou, though, was happy to splash some gasoline on it.
Missed free throws hurt, too.
A familiar script unfolds late in SEC games for Mizzou: the offense whirs down, foes apply heavy on-ball pressure and the Tigers use free throws as a life preserver. During its five SEC games decided by five points or less, the Tigers shot 80 percent from the line, squeaking out wins over Tennessee, Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
Over the past two outings, though, that supply has dried up. No, Mizzou didn’t go 7-for-17 last night as it did against LSU, but its 20-of-31 showing featured misses at the wrong time in the waning minutes of the second half and overtime.
- 5:29 second half: Jeremiah Tilmon splits a pair, leaving game knotted at 67 instead of putting MU in front by one.
- 4:15: Porter misses the back end of a pair, leaving Mizzou leading 74-71
- 0:12: Leading 83-82, Jordan Geist bricks the first of two free throws, meaning MU only leads 84-82 as Ole gears up for a final possession.
With five seconds left, Tyree drove the lane from the right wing for a floater that forced overtime, where the Tigers’ issues at the line persisted right when the patented late-game drought arrived.
- 4:29 left in OT: Jordan Barnett makes one of two at the line, Mizzou leads 85-84.
- 2:27: Down one, Tilmon misses a pair of go-ahead free throws.
- 0:46: Still trailing 88-87, Porter can’t convert a pair at the line.
All total, Missouri went just 10-for-18 from the free-throw line in the final 10 minutes of action. Obviously, if they’d connected at the 75-percent clip they’re shooting for the year, it’s likely this one doesn’t go into overtime, or Missouri ekes it out despite going 0-for-7 from the floor in the extra period.
While Mizzou shot the ball relatively well beyond the arc and controlled the backboards, ball-handling sapped possessions and free-throw shooting buckled just enough that it couldn’t get the Tigers clear of a bad home upset.