While the majority of Missouri students headed home to begin their Thanksgiving breaks Friday, the men’s basketball team spent most of the day preparing for their upcoming appearance in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City.
The Tigers (4-1) will take on Butler (4-0) at 6 p.m. Monday at the Sprint Center, before turning around to play either Oklahoma (5-0) or Stanford (6-0) in either the consolation or championship game of the tournament.
Having just played two games in three days against Wofford and Morehead State, head coach Cuonzo Martin gave his players the day off Thursday to rest. So Friday was the first day the team really got a chance to scout the Bulldogs ahead of their Monday night matchup.
Butler is ranked No. 22 on KenPom and received Top 25 votes in both of the most recent AP and USA Today Coaches polls. The program is also always a popular pick to make the NCAA Tournament in March, and many of the Missouri’s players are familiar with their long run of success in the postseason — including the back-to-back national championship appearances at the beginning of the decade.
“I always think of that tournament run, they were in the championship game,” forward Parker Braun said. “So yeah, they’ve been in the business, they’ve been doing the right things for a long time. They’ll be good competition.”
The Bulldogs will be the Tigers’ toughest test so far this season outside of last week’s game against Xavier, so their performance Monday should be a good indicator of where the team is at.
But Martin doesn’t necessarily want to use it as a “measuring stick” of the team’s abilities.
Instead, Martin says it all comes down to just winning the game and going from there.
“I don’t sit there as a measuring stick because ultimately you want to win,” Martin said. “I’d like to be measured if you win, yes, but that’s it. I’ve never looked at it any other way outside of preparing to win a basketball game, and whatever presents itself after that, you have to be ready.”
What will present itself after that, win or lose, is a game against either the Sooners or the Cardinal on Tuesday.
Oklahoma is another undefeated team on the cusp of cracking the Top 25, and they sit right above Missouri at No. 32 by KenPom. Stanford is also undefeated on the year but is only ranked 72nd by KenPom, though a matchup with a solid Power Five team will be beneficial as the team inches closer to SEC play.
Though they may be able to take a short look at each team, the Tigers can’t truly scout either of them because of the quick turnaround between games. Being able to go back out the next day and compete against a team it hasn’t had much of an opportunity to prepare for, forward Jeremiah Tilmon said, will be a true test of where the team is at.
“We need to know how to do that, of course,” Tilmon said. “We need to know our principles. If somebody throws something at us and we don’t know what it is, we need to know how to still be able to guard.”
Hometown feeling for Braun
Missouri forward Parker Braun attended Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kansas, just 20 miles away from the Sprint Center. Braun will certainly feel close to home when Missouri takes the court on Monday night.
“I’ll have a lot of family there and a lot of friends there,” Braun said. “It was always a dream of mine. Playing there will be a lot of fun.”
There will be one familiar face that Braun will not see in the stands. His brother Christian, a freshman guard for Kansas, will be with the Jayhawks in Hawaii for the Maui Invitational Tournament.
The Tigers have played in Kansas City just once in the past four seasons, and Braun’s family and friends will likely be surrounded by a healthy contingent of black and gold.
Braun said the team has made it a priority to win the tournament, and that it was one of the most talked about goals coming into the season.
“It’s one of the first ones on there,” he said. “Winning the SEC, being the best rebound team, being the best assist team, they’re all on there, and it starts here in Kansas City.”
Recent history in early season tournaments bodes well for Missouri
This is Cuonzo Martin’s third go-around in an early season tournament with Missouri, and so far, the results have been strong. Missouri reached the finals of the AdvoCare Invitational in 2017 and last year’s Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands. The Tigers lost those games to West Virginia and Kansas State, respectively.
Missouri fans surely don’t want to remember the blown lead to West Virginia two years ago, a game that seemed to be on lockdown until a late collapse. Cuonzo Martin mentioned the disappointment over losing that game during his press conference.
Despite the disappointing losses in the finals, Missouri played well in each tournament, recording wins over Long Beach State and a tough St. John’s team in 2017, followed last year with wins over Kennesaw State and Oregon State.
Martin touted the benefits of playing in these early season tournaments in terms of benefits to player development and experience.
“It’s always a tremendous opportunity to play in games like this because there are so many unknowns,” Martin said. “You have a better chance preparing for the first game, and then that next game is really based on what you’ve practiced. I always like the second games because of the unknown and preparing for them with such a quick turnaround.”
Tigers not worried about shooting woes
Though Missouri’s field goal percentage this season (43.4%) is higher than where the team ended last season (43.0%), its 3-point percentage has taken a hit, falling from 36.3% in 2018-19 to just 26.7% through five games this season.
One of the faces of that issue is guard Torrence Watson, who is shooting a measly 20.8% this season after posting 36.1% from deep his freshman year. His 0-for-6 performance from 3 against Morehead State on Wednesday is the low-point of his shooting struggles so far, though he isn’t alone in that department.
Only two of the eight players to attempt at least seven 3s this year are shooting above 30%, while the other six sit at or below 28.6%.
But since the season is still so young, Martin is expecting not just Watson but the entire team to find its stroke from behind the arc.
“I haven’t lost a lot of sleep because there’s so many other things, and what we always talk about as a staff (is), if they’re in the gym, that’s one thing,” Martin said. “And then if they’re shooting open shots and they’re not falling, that’s part of it. ... I wouldn’t say losing a lot of sleep over it, but you’d like for shots to go down.”