Cuonzo Martin’s teams are always predicated on defense. Playing tough and intense defense is his identity, and that translates to the way his teams are run on the court.
That’s why it’s puzzling to see Missouri’s recent struggles in areas in key areas on the defensive side of the ball: defending without fouling and contesting 3-pointers.
The Tigers have had an issue with fouling all season long. In nine of the team’s 17 games this season, Missouri fouled at least 20 times, which led to opponents making 185 out of 231 free throws in those games. The foul woes consistently hamper the team’s ability to string together extended runs and has even made most of their wins tough.
“We always say it (defending without fouling) all the time, it’s just doing it,” Martin said. “There’s a fine line to be an aggressive team, but doing it without fouling and giving yourself a chance to win the game.”
Against Alabama, the Tigers set a Southeastern Conference record by making 31 consecutive free throws without a miss. It was an incredible display of efficiency from the line, but Missouri still ended up losing by 14.
One of the main factors in that loss? The Crimson Tide Shot 30 free throws of their own and knocked down 25 of them.
Missouri’s players couldn’t figure out how to stop themselves from fouling, and even on a historic night from the charity stripe, defending without fouling led to the team’s downfall.
Beyond that, though, the Tigers haven’t done a great job of covering opposing shooters. In five conference matchups, only Kentucky made less than a third of its triples.
Alabama in particular is a team that seems to live and die behind the arc, and it showed as the Tide launched 39 shots from deep. Though they only made 13, plenty of those misses still came with little pressure from Missouri.
“In the first half against Alabama, we didn’t do a good job of contesting, because we do a lot of helping and recovering defensively, show help, probably helped a little too much in the first half,” Martin said. “... Watching film that first half, I thought they made four tough ones, but other ones we didn’t do a great job of closing out.”
After a rough week on the road in which both issues were on display, the Tigers finally get to come back to Mizzou Arena when they take on Texas A&M on Tuesday. For Missouri to end its conference skid, though, it’ll need to fix those defensive problems quickly.
“We’ve said it before as a staff; everything heightens when you get in conference play. Your margin for error is gone now, that no longer exists,” Martin said.
Free throws are good, but not enough
Martin didn’t find out about that the team set a conference record shooting free throws until after the game was over. Though he was pleased with the team’s efficiency at the line and thinks the team has done a better job of driving to the lane, he said there’s still much room for improvement.
Missouri had a number of quality looks in the paint during the loss but couldn’t capitalize. In total, the Tigers were just 11-for-27 on dunk and layup attempts.
“There was probably 15 to 18 baskets we felt like, at the rim, we didn’t get. So that’s an area we have to continue to grow,” Martin said. “We’ve tried to make a conscious effort for a while of really getting to the free throw line, and that game it really presented itself and we took advantage of it. Now we’ve got to be able to capitalize at the rim.”
Hitting on even a few of those missed point-blank shots would’ve kept Missouri in the game, but the Tigers still have to improve on their ability to finish in traffic. With no Jeremiah Tilmon available to man the paint for presumably the next couple of weeks, finishing in the lane will only help open up the other areas of Missouri’s offense.
“The biggest thing with all of that, just the consistency to do a lot of things, as you continue to improve your ability to get to the rim (and) make free throws, you still have to continue to defend and do those things,” Martin said. “So I think we have to be able to put it all together.”