“Those two guards are special,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said as he sat at the podium following his team’s 67-63 win over Missouri on Saturday.
The two guards he was referring to are Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith, two of the most important players in the Tigers’ recent stretch of success. Over the last nine games, the two have taken over as the main scorers for Missouri. Pinson and Smith have failed to reach double figures in points just five times combined in that stretch, and in three of those instances they still put up nine points.
“Just the way they play, they’re both electric,” Mitchell Smith said. “Dru can get buckets at will, like he’ll reel off maybe like five in a row, and X can do the same thing. So we kind of just watch how they’re playing and we adapt to them, and then guys have to make shots when they get the ball.”
The two guards put up these numbers night in and night out but go about doing so in different ways.
Smith is methodical in his approach. He’ll take the open jumper, he’ll throw up a tear drop floater in the paint, or he’ll pick from an array of old-school guard low-post moves to get around defenders. He’s not the most athletic player on the floor, but he knows how to use his body to make just enough of an opening to get a shot off.
Pinson, on the other hand, exudes athleticism. His dunks, and-one layups and fancy finishes in traffic have become a nightly occurrence, something people expect to see when they watch the Tigers play. He’s not an “east-to-west” player, as head coach Cuonzo Martin said at his weekly press conference Friday, because he’s at his best when he puts his head down and attacks the basket. Oh, and he can knock down a 3.
In fact, both Pinson and Smith hit a few shots from deep Saturday, with the former hitting 3 of 10 and the latter hitting 3 of 7. But yet, those were the only ones Missouri saw go through the basket all night. The Tigers took 29 of their 60 shots from beyond the arc, but only Smith and Pinson knocked down any.
It’s great when the two stars are shining bright, but it’s still tough to win when they’re not getting much support. Mitchell Smith did chip in 10 points, but of the 11 Missouri players to see the court, only six scored and Javon Pickett, Kobe Brown and Torrence Watson — three of the main rotation players — combined for one point total. Mississippi State rolled with an eight-man rotation and had every player score, with five getting at least seven points.
“Javon got his back banged up late in the first half. Kobe, I think he’s a better scorer than that. Torrence, you’ve got to get production there, and whatever that is you have to get production because we can’t have the level of success with X and Dru playing 35, 40 minutes,” Martin said. “That’s exhausting.”
Pinson and Smith know how important they are to their team’s success, which is why their production has skyrocketed. Pinson grabbed two rebounds and dished out two assists to add to his 20 points — though he shot just 33% from the field overall, one of his more inefficient performances. Dru had nine boards overall and seven on the offensive glass, with four coming on one possession alone.
It’s been out of necessity, sure, but Missouri has been fortunate to have both playing at such a high level when injuries to Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon could’ve sunk the team.
Howland, just from watching film of Missouri from the last few weeks, said he could see how much the Tigers’ success correlates with Pinson and Smith’s play.
“Pinson is a sophomore, I mean he’s incredible. He’s so hard to guard,” Howland said.
“Dru Smith, I thought he was incredible tonight,” Howland later added. “(...) I’ve got all this film watching him, in my head over and over and over again, about how he gets to the lane and is able to get you off balance when he doesn’t have a clean look. I mean he’s just so smart and so fundamentally sound.”
“God is he good.”
“I mean yeah it’s nice to hear, and I appreciate that a lot, just coming from the head coach and everything,” Smith said when told about Howland’s comments. “But we just know that we still have to keep working as a team.”