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NOTEBOOK: Missouri tries to find its footing in Tilmon’s absence

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With their starting big sidelined with a foot injury, the Tigers will look to adjust their scheme as they get further into SEC play.

Missouri v Kentucky Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

With center Jeremiah Tilmon out indefinitely, Missouri has had to rethink its offensive philosophy.

Keyword: rethink. Despite Tilmon’s absence, Dru Smith said the team has not made major changes, but there have been some tweaks, one of them being an increased focus on pushing the ball.

“It’s very important, and it’s something that we’ve been working, trying to get out and score in transition,” Smith said.

Missouri’s offense has certainly seen its fair share of struggles, but the team has often been solid in transition.

Missouri also wants to focus on getting the ball into the paint. “Just try to get paint touches, not necessarily just getting to the rim,” Smith said. “Also, trying to keep the floor spaced so that we have those lanes to drive, to keep the ball moving, and keep everything moving in our motion.”

Getting good touches in the paint will be a major must for Missouri’s forwards, who quickly turn into the biggest x-factor with Tilmon being sidelined. If Kobe Brown, Tray Jackson and Mitchell Smith can turn in consistent performances, Tilmon’s absence can be minimized. Jackson showed flashes of his potential with a strong take to the rim and a pretty step-back jumper last week against Tennessee.

Nikko’s new role

Reed Nikko has been a role player throughout his Missouri career. He knows that.

For the last 2.5 seasons, his time to shine came when Jeremiah Tilmon needed a breather or was in foul trouble. Tilmon was the star, and Nikko was the understudy of sorts.

But with the news of Tilmon’s left foot stress fracture coming prior to the Tigers’ loss to Tennessee on Tuesday, Nikko’s role has immediately expanded.

“For me, throughout my career, a lot of situations it’s been Jeremiah gets in foul trouble and I need to step up and play big minutes and then some nights it’s play none,” Nikko said. “For me it’s just the same mentality as that. It’s just next man up. I’m just trying to be ready.”

Nikko’s 2.2 points per game average is down from the 3.0 he had last season, but scoring is not where his game shines brightest. Nikko is a grinder, and his game is more focused on stopping opponents from scoring than putting points on the board himself. Take his performance against Illinois on Dec. 21 for example.

Tilmon played just 17 minutes due to foul trouble. With Illini freshman big Kofi Cockburn still in the game, Tilmon’s absence could have spelled doom for Missouri. Instead, Nikko — along with fellow big Mitchell Smith — was remarkable defensively and helped keep Cockburn to 13 points and just two rebounds as the Tigers took the 63-56 win.

But that’s always been Nikko’s M.O.. His stats are almost never going to jump out at you, because what he excels at is not stats that can be counted. His paint presence and defense around the rim is his bread and butter, and with his a new role opening up, Nikko will have a larger opportunity to showcase it moving forward.

“Obviously it’s very nice to be able to start. I’ve always been here, I’m going to do my job regardless of what that is. I’ve been a guy that’s been a rotational player pretty much my whole career here,” Nikko said. “It sucks that this is the way it happens. Jeremiah is one of my best friends, I’d never wish for him to not be able to play, so I’m just going to hold it down until he gets back.”

Sense of urgency

With Missouri facing Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida to open the season, an optimistic prediction may have involved Missouri taking two of three, with a likely loss to Kentucky. A more grounded prediction might have predicted dropping two out of three.

With two losses already, Missouri is staring 0-3 right in the face— the obvious worst case scenario. During the media session, Martin and his players were calm when asked about the rough start to SEC play, and made it clear that there is certainly a sense of urgency against the Gators Saturday.

“We want to bounce back, and this is a good team to bounce back against,” Mitchell Smith said. “We know we need to get this win.”

The Tigers have certainly not played without energy or intensity. After winning four straight games to close non-conference play, they hung with Kentucky and Tennessee before finally faltering down the stretch.

The schedule softens for Missouri during the middle part of conference play, but starting 0-3 is still problematic in every way possible.

“There was a sense of urgency as soon as SEC play started,” Dru Smith said. “Every game that comes and goes, you can’t get it back. We know that we’ve got to get that first one and just try to get that first win and get the ball rolling.”