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Missouri needs to regain its edge in the final five non-conference games

Missouri was riding high going into Kansas City, but got blown out of the building early by two good teams. The last five games could do a lot to regain some momentum.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

You’d never know it by the firestorm of football news and rumors over the past few days — but there’s actually a basketball season going on!

To be fair, it’s been a full week since Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers last took the floor, which feels like an eternity in college basketball. As mentioned, the upheaval of football season has contributed to the lack of dialogue as well.

There’s also the fact that the Tigers, riding high into the Hall of Fame Classic, got barnstormed in both of their two best chances at a statement-making win.

It’s not as if Missouri was completely outclassed — far from it. The Tigers lost each game by 11 points and started off each game in lightning quick 15-3 deficits. If you chop off the first few minutes of each game — an argument tactic I usually hate, but let’s roll with it for the time being — Missouri actually outplayed both Butler and Oklahoma for the majority of each game.

Instead, the frustrating part was how easy it seemed to be to come out and kick the Tigers’ teeth in so early. In fact, that’s been a theme of the season thus far. If you look back to the Tigers third loss — a road OT heartbreaker to Xavier — the Tigers also stoked the Musketeers to an early lead before climbing their way back into the game with suffocating defense. It wasn’t as if Xavier came out swinging — Missouri just looked like a boxer who didn’t hear the bell and wore one or two uppercuts to the chin right from the jump.

This isn’t the type of basketball Missouri is supposed to play, especially not under a coach like Cuonzo Martin. If we’ve learned anything in the two years of Martin’s regime, it’s that the Tigers will always find a way to fight until the end, even if they’re outgunned. You may hit Mizzou, but you won’t walk away without a bloody nose or black eye.

That’s why the three losses of the 2019 season have been especially frustrating. The Tigers play elite defense and have the offensive pieces to be well above average. Most of the time, the defense is at least good enough to keep things close. But in three of seven games now, Missouri has come out looking unprepared and unwitting as to why. In all three instances, it led to Missouri desperately scrambling to get the game back in hand and failing to close things out by the end.

Luckily, there’s a bit of a runway. Missouri may have missed three opportunities to grab a marquee non-conference win, but there are still two remaining: this weekend’s road date with Temple and Braggin’ Rights in late December. Amongst those two outings are sprinkled home dates with the likes of Charleston Southern (I think they’re the Pirates? [checks] Buccaneers, close enough), Southern Illinois and Chicago State, literally the second-worst program in Division I according to KenPom.

That’s quite the manageable schedule if you’re looking for a way back to the bubble by the end of the non-con. Temple is no pushover, but the Owls aren’t the most intimidating road team Missouri will face this year. And while Illinois and Missouri are neck-in-neck in the KP rankings, the Illini have had their struggles this year — just last night they dropped a home game to Miami (FL), a team that will most likely not be dancing this year.

Just as the Tigers need to secure wins, though, they also need to regain their edge. No doubt there are a number of players smarting from last week’s embarrassing trip to KC: Jeremiah Tilmon looked lost until the second half against OU; Mark Smith played well against the Sooners, but was a non-entity against Butler; Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson combined for 16 points in two games, all of them coming against the Sooners.

Both Butler and Oklahoma shot better than 54 percent from the floor, season highs against the otherwise sterling Missouri defense. In their game-opening runs, the Bulldogs and Sooners looked like they’d never missed a shot, pulling and spotting up from every corner of the court to drain shot after shot after shot after shot. At no point did they look remotely bothered by Missouri’s supposedly physical, demanding defense — that is, until the Tigers finally engaged.

With just five games left in the non-conference schedule, Missouri needs to tighten up and regain the grit they’ve often played with under Cuonzo Martin. Temple and Illinois will be tough, but they’re not the toughest challengers the Tigers have seen this year. Even better, the Tigers will have the opportunity to shake off some rust and work out the kinks against blood donors like CSU and SIU.

No more getting punched in the mouth. Starting tonight, the Tigers need to show that they’re the ones who dictate the terms of the game. Do that, and they’ll be right back on track by the time they head to Rupp Arena to start the new decade.