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NOTEBOOK: Missouri looks to avoid repeat against Mississippi State

The Tigers prepare for a rematch with the Bulldogs, and their depth is improved by the health of two of their most important pieces.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

To say Missouri’s last matchup against Mississippi State didn’t go well would be quite the understatement. The Bulldogs quickly raced out to a double-digit lead and led by 20 at halftime.

“You can look at the film, that game,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said, “is hard to watch.”

Martin went on to call the effort one of the worst of the season.

“We just didn’t show up,” he said. Mississippi State’s Reggie Perry had a field day against Missouri’s lackluster effort, shooting 9-13 from the field on his way to a 23 point afternoon.

Martin said the key to winning on Saturday starts with a better defensive effort, by not allowing Perry to get so many good looks at the basket. “He played with comfort,” Martin said. “You can’t allow a guy that physically talented to play with comfort. You can’t allow him to just catch and shoot.”

Martin and the players that spoke said Missouri is a much improved team since January. The Tigers have rebounded from a 2-7 start to league play to win four of their last six games, playing with much more energy in the process. Efforts like the ones against Auburn and Arkansas make it hard to stomach the game in Starkville back in January.

Javon Pickett said the key to not repeating the disaster in Starkville was to come out with energy, something the team failed to do the first time out against the Bulldogs.

“This game, we just gotta go out there and continue playing how we’ve been playing these last couple games,” Pickett said. “We’re learning from the film from our previous game with them, learning from our mistakes not to them tomorrow.”

Saturday home games have produced some great crowds for the team at Mizzou Arena, so energy should not be a problem for Missouri. The Tigers will look to continue their recent run of good form against the Bulldogs at 2:30 p.m.

Tilmon, Smith reacclimating to rotation

Prior to Wednesday’s win over Vanderbilt, Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith had played a grand total of 11 combined minutes in the month of February.

For two of the players presumed to be the among three best on the roster prior to the season, that should’ve been a major hit to a Missouri team that was struggling in SEC play. Tilmon hadn’t played since the SEC opener at Kentucky, and prior to the stunning 20-point comeback win against Georgia on Jan. 28 — in which Smith suffered a back injury that sidelined him for the next seven games — the Tigers sat at 1-5 against conference opponents.

Instead, Missouri put together its best stretch of the season. The Tigers did drop the next two games as they adjusted to life without two starters, but they went 3-2 after that with wins over Arkansas and Auburn and almost upset LSU on the road.

On Wednesday, Smith and Tilmon finally hit the floor together for the first time in just under two months. Smith shot 2-for-4 with five points in 14 minutes, and Tilmon scored two and pulled down two boards in nine minutes.

At this point in the season, many teams are dealing with a loss of depth as injuries take their toll. Missouri, though, is getting the benefit of the return of two key players in this last stretch of the season.

“I think that’s a good thing for us,” Dru Smith said. “It just gives us some more depth and it’s just good to have those guys back.”

However, it’s not all that easy to inject two major players back into the rotation. Not when increased roles for players like Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson and Reed Nikko have the Tigers playing their best ball of the season.

And it’s not like Tilmon and Mark Smith were really involved in much of the practices while they were injured, either. Martin said “when they were out, they were out,” so they weren’t doing many drills with teammates.

The team understands chemistry might be an issue after almost a month without Tilmon and Smith, but that’s just something Missouri will have to work through as it tries to avoid a play-in SEC Tournament game.

“The beauty about both of those guys, sometimes you can have guys that sit out and then ‘I want to get shots, I want to get my points’ — those guys (Tilmon and Smith) just want to play to win,” Martin said. “They’re not consumed with ‘I didn’t get this shot, I didn’t get the ball,’ so that’s the difference about those two guys. They’d rather win than anything.”

Players roles won’t change even with stars’ returns

With Tilmon and Mark Smith back in the fold, the general thought was that the roles for players who stepped up in their absence would revert back to normal.

Pinson has averaged over 18 points a game since moving to the starting lineup, but the thought was that his numbers might be dialed back as Smith gets worked back into the guard rotation. Pinson had started just one game prior Smith’s injury, and his explosion had only come once his usage took off.

In Martin’s mind, though, adding another player into the rotation won’t take away from what Pinson does. Whether Smith was playing or not, Pinson was bound to break out.

“I think it was more X than whether Mark was in or out, I think it was more X,” Martin said. “X is at his best when he’s attacking, being aggressive, making plays. You heard me probably say it 15 times, X is not necessarily an East-West guy where he’s just going side to side. X needs to be moving, playing and attacking the rim, being aggressive.”

The same could be said about Nikko.

He was a role player his entire Missouri career, but he was thrust into the starting lineup in Tilmon’s long absence. Since the Kentucky game — the last time Tilmon played prior to Wednesday outside of 11 minutes against Texas A&M on Feb. 4 — Nikko’s points per game average have risen from 1.9 to 5. He’s reached double figures in points four times, more than in his first three seasons combined. And when he’s not battling foul trouble, he remains the key cog for the Tigers defensively.

Just like in Pinson’s situation, Tilmon’s return doesn’t mean things have to change for Nikko.

“I’m just really appreciative for the opportunities I’ve been given,” Nikko said. “It sucks that it came at the expense of Jeremiah being hurt for a while, and I could not be happier that he’s back now. I’m just gonna try to keep playing good basketball until this is over.”

Even with Tilmon and Smith back in the fold, Martin kept Pinson and Nikko in the starting five. And as Missouri continues to relearn how to play with the returners, it looks like things will stay that way.