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In a deep SEC, Missouri will take road wins anyway it can

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With ball control and a reliable bench, the Tigers survived a rugged night in Oxford.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

On Selection Sunday, I doubt people will point to Missouri’s 75-69 victory over Ole Miss a turning point.

It is what is: a slog of a road win against a team with just enough talent and moxie to ruin your night. There’s still plenty debris to sort out from the six teams piled up within 1.5 games of third place in the SEC standings, and a road win over the No. 88 team in KenPom won’t do much to bolster the Tigers’ tournament bona fides.

The Tigers started and ended the day as a team scrapping for fifth place in the conference — thanks, tiebreakers! — and to tighten their hold on a projected No. 10 seed in March.

That’ll have to do.

You can critique the offensive execution in the second half against the array of defenses Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy chucked at Mizzou. The stat sheet tells me Jordan Barnett played 28 minutes, but I’m skeptical. I don’t know how Jeremiah Tilmon played 18 minutes and didn’t corral a rebound. And the slow start to each half injected more drama than was probably necessary.

But, man, life is tough in the SEC this year. Home teams have won 68 percent of their games, and the league ranks 11th nationally for close finishes with 19 percent of games decided by two possessions or less. You take road wins where you can get them and worry about aesthetics and optics later on.

Mizzou avoided a loss in a trap game, stayed on track to vie for third place by week’s end, and won back-to-back conference road games for the first time since 2012.

I’ll gladly take that.

To the box!

Value the ball, win games

In previewing Tuesday’s game, I pointed out it was imperative for Mizzou to value the basketball.

Ole Miss is a team whose personnel is built to play fast, even if the Rebels’ ability to pick the tempo up is suspect. They’re adjusted tempo isn’t among the top-100 nationally. Andy Kennedy’s group only averages around 14 transition possessions per game, plopping them squarely in the middle of the D1 pack. And unlike, say, Alabama, the Rebs aren’t a team looking to score early in the shot clock.

So it may just be easier to say the Rebels aren’t very good at blitzing the pace. But when you’re generating less than a point per trip in the half-court, you’ll take any chance to run, because Markell Crawford and Terence Davis are more efficient in the open floor.

That made Missouri’s goal pretty easy: Hold. On. To. The. Ball.

By and large, they achieved it with a 16.6 turnover percentage — one of the Tigers’ better marks on the season. And the way this game flowed underscored just how vital ball control was on Tuesday. Look at the game’s opening five minutes and the first minutes after halftime. The Tigers sported a 41 percent turnover rate, gave up 1.41 points per possession and were outscored 24-6. It’s also not a coincidence that Davis and Crawford made their biggest marks during these spans.

What about the other 30 minutes, though?

Mizzou’s offense only yacked the ball up four times and, even with second-execution issues, averaged 1.35 points per possession. As for Ole Miss, their efficiency plummetted to 0.90 PPP when they had to come downcourt and face an MU defense that dug its heels in.

A turnover’s opportunity cost is clear: you don’t get to give the ball to Kassisus Robertson, who scored 27 points and went 5 of 9 from the 3-point arc. Or feed Jontay Porter in the mid-post to let him face up, drive or kick. For a Missouri team reliant on 3-point shooting, its malpractice to throw away chances to face the nation’s 279th best at defending spot-up shooters. While the 1-3-1 zone Ole Miss used for periods in the second-half slowed Mizzou a bit, the Tigers still averaged 1.000 PPP each time up the floor.

And you could see the impact on the other end of the floor. After Missouri choked off fuel for Ole Miss’ transition offense, the Rebels were left pounding the ball inside Bruce Stevens, who used a crafty face-up on the block to score 11 of 13 points after halftime. That was part of Kennedy’s stated game plan. But I don’t think he wanted to see Breein Tyree and leading scorer Deandre Burnett tally up just nine combined points on 5-for-18 shooting.

Not only did Mizzou curb Burnett’s scoring ability, but they also checked his knack for creating offense off of high pick-and-rolls. After tallying two assists in the first minute, Burnett had just three in his final 31 minutes on the floor.

That’s the cumulative power of valuing the ball for Mizzou. Controlling the tempo stymied athletic wings, made Burnett operate in a clogged lane and forced the Rebels to rely on a big man who is effectively their fourth option. I doubt that’s what Kennedy wanted to happen.

Hail the bench mob! Again!

Prepare yourself. I’m going to show you a shot that lays out the job done by Cullen VanLeer and Jordan Geist over the last four games.

It’s ... not bad.

Coming into the evening, the juniors were allowing a 37-percent eFG% and 0.80 points per shot over the past four games. While we’ll have to wait and see what the final Synergy numbers look like for the Ole Miss game, what I saw of the pair live andin color looked sound. (Granted, I’m not as talented as Sam in terms of parsing defensive rotations in real time.) And that’s a boon given the current state of the roster.

It encapsulates what the Tigers complementary pieces have been able to supply in the past week: rebounding, ball movement, sound positional defense and, when needed on Tuesday, scoring punch. It’s not revolutionary, but I look at Geist, VanLeer and Nikko as a combined line item. Here’s what the provided: 14 points on 4 of 8 shooting, five rebounds and seven assists. That’ll play.

Quietly, Geist racked up 10 points, doled out six assists, and pulled down three rebounds. He scored half of his points in a 29-second microburst — a transition 3-pointer followed by a hit-ahead from Robertson for a fast-break layup — to pull Mizzou even at 17-17. And he fed Robertson the ball twice for critical 3-pointers in the second half. Toss in sound defense, and Mizzou is maxing out what it can get from the Fort Wayne native.

Meanwhile, the move to return Porter to the bench again reaped dividends. After a haggard first five minutes, the freshmen made a swift impact by racking up nine points in seven minutes and helping push MU in front. Once again, his full repertoire was on display: a pick-and-pop 3-pointer, a trailing put-back of a missed layup, a pair of free throws and a floater after cutting into a void after Robertson drove the left side of the lane.

Even if the roles reversed, and Kevin Puryear was checking in off the bench, the bench numbers would have still been strong with 12 points and six rebounds.

Those contributions are why you can overlook an absent game from Jordan Barnett (zero points, five rebounds). Geist and Puryear effectively replaced his scoring and rebounding, while Porter served as the Tigers’ second scoring option. All the while, Geist, and VanLeer aren’t defensive liabilities when they’re on the floor. The opposite, actually.